By Stu Semigran on February 26, 2019
Why take the time to pause and introduce mindfulness as a practice that enriches the lives of our students, parents, and program staff? How might mindfulness also benefit us as educators?
Soon after the presidential election in November 2016, many Latino and Muslim students and families in our partnering Los Angeles schools were experiencing a lot of anxiety and fear. In addition to obtaining information about community resources, the students, parents, and staff in our afterschool programs were also open to learning mindfulness techniques to help them deal with their mounting stress.
With parents, we began to facilitate reflective discussions about their levels of stress – physically, emotionally, and mentally. The parents began to become aware of and identify their personal “stress triggers” and “stress behavioral indicators.” One parent discussed how she was constantly listening to the news and how that led to her increased negative thought patterns and emotional anxiety. Parents brought greater self-awareness to how they had been fostering even more stress and how they might choose to move into better self-care. For some it was as simple as less TV and radio news time, exercising more, or spending more time with close friends and family. Many learned to use simple breathing techniques when they were experiencing increased levels of stress. The parents soon commented on how their heightened awareness and use of simple mindfulness practices was relieving them, and in turn their families.
One effective practice for staff is to begin work meetings with a mindfulness or centering process led by different staff members. What may seem strange to some at first, often becomes generally appreciated. Rather than diving right into an agenda, staff experience that they become more connected to themselves and to each other; and, as a result, are more present to engage in the meeting.
Some of the various styles of mindfulness staff have used include a brief meditation on breathing; awareness (mindful observation) of the present moment – one’s physical, emotional, and mental state; or a simple guided relaxation journey.
Other themes for closed-eye processes of mindfulness and centering include:
Visualizing or setting positive images and intentions for a meeting as it is about to begin… or setting intentions for the day, week, or month. This type of short, guided visualization allows staff to imagine ideal positive outcomes they personally wish to create or step into. For some, it may be to be more grateful or optimistic; for other staff, it may be to be more joyful, relaxed, clear, self-confident, or productive on the job.
As a way to connect and build a positive focus, staff often take a few minutes at the start of their meetings to share acknowledgments to one another, self-acknowledgment, or “good news” about a success that they have recently experienced at work.
Students also learn to participate and benefit from a variety of mindfulness techniques, including brief 3-5 minute positive guided visualizations around particular themes.
Themes may include:
Gratefulness – students close their eyes and review on an imaginary movie screen, images of who or what they are grateful for or appreciate… friends, family members, their health, people who support or inspire them, opportunities they have at school or elsewhere, etc.
Success – using the technique of “Mental Dress Rehearsal.”
When I taught an 8th-grade math class, Fridays were our weekly quiz day. Many of my students at Audubon MS in inner city LA would feel stress as soon they heard my Wednesday reminder to “please start to prepare for Friday’s quiz.” To offset their anxiety, we started practicing (on Wednesdays) a short positive “Mental Dress Rehearsal” similar to what high performing athletes and performers do as they prepare to perform or compete. The students would close their eyes, bring awareness to relaxing their breathing, and then move on to a simple internal check of how they were presently doing- physically, with feelings (emotionally), and with the flow of their thoughts (mentally). On an imaginary movie screen, each would be invited to imagine them sitting at their desk on Friday, as they were about to receive their quiz sheet. They would be asked to imagine on the screen their typical responses. Body tightening up. Stomach knotting up. Their breathing tensing up. Their negative mental chatter, “ I am about to fail,” etc.
Then in their imagination, they would then walk over to their imaginary screen and place a big “X” across that fixed mindset image. Instantly that image would be replaced by one of seeing themselves as relaxed, prepared, and enthused about taking the quiz. They would envision themselves confidently answering the questions. If stuck, they could see themselves moving on to another question with assurance rather than anxiety.
I suggested to my math students to practice these mental dress rehearsals at home along with their standard math assignments. They noticed that they were more relaxed come Friday and that their test scores generally improved. We would also, as a class, come up with cheers or slogans to replace their negative self-talk, such as ”math is boring and difficult,” with affirming self-talk, such as “Math is fun and easy. I am prepared and confident.”
The habit of using of creative visualizations and positive statements (affirmations) allowed them to create a growth mindset. It has been said that we all are going to fantasize, so why lose in our own fantasies?
In the winter of 2018, I was visiting Bell High School (LAUSD) as their Academic Decathlon Team was preparing to compete at the state competition in March 2018 in Sacramento. Bell High School’s team had finally made it to the top five in LAUSD and was strongly motivated. I shared with them a mental dress rehearsal technique to use in their preparations for the upcoming state finals as part of their practice routine. How pleased and proud we were to learn that the team placed 10th in the state!
These are a few of the many types of mindfulness, creative visualization, and positive focusing techniques that our students, teachers, and parents have grown to enjoy. From stress relief, to creatively using mental “dress rehearsals,” consider practicing yourself as you introduce these wonderful array of mindfulness skills. In doing so, we are taking care of ourselves so we can better take care of others.
On this chilly southern California morning, I had a delicious bowl of oatmeal with raisins and almonds for breakfast.