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Can We Bring Mindfulness to Schools?

With eyes closed and deep breaths, students are learning a new method to reduce anxiety, conflict, and attention disorders. But don’t call it meditation. Rather, its term is mindfulness -meditation’s sidekick.

Studies show that children who practice mindfulness in the classroom were less aggressive, less oppositional toward teachers, and more attentive in class. Those who received the mindfulness training also reported feeling more positive emotion and optimism, and seemed more introspective than children who were on a waitlist for the training.

Many schools are starting to catch on to the benefits of stress-reduction training like mindfulness: Toluca Lake Elementary School in Los Angeles, Mindfulness Awareness Center at UCLA, and  The Center for Mindfulness in MA have been a visionary source for years.

Researchers are even trying to gauge if mindfulness can help children over their entire lifespan, and if it might help inoculate them against psychological problems later in life.

And while some schools have welcomed mindfulness into their curriculum, there’s a lot more ground to cover.

Enter U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan.  He has a dream for America which is to create a society that has healthcare for all, a sustainable eco-system, fosters creativity at the highest levels, and time to connect with family and friends.  He sees us slowing down and becoming kinder and more aware. To help us do this, he advocates training ourselves in mindfulness awareness- starting with our children. He, and others, are successfully introducing this practice in many schools (not to mention the military, healthcare, and even in Congress).

The following is an article by U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan:

Is mindfulness in education just a well-meaning, do-gooder, tree-hugger approach to teaching? U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan says no. It’s proven to give children tools to help them cultivate inner resilience, and the unions that can make teaching those tools in public schools a widespread reality.

Should every school district teach mindfulness—which uses simple, universal techniques to cultivate natural qualities of the heart, mind, and body—to every student in the country? It seems so simple and inexpensive, and its effectiveness is backed by scientific research. What would it look like if we created a curriculum around this research? In fact, several organizations around the country have developed curricula for teaching mindfulness and what is called Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Social and emotional learning focuses on developing emotional resilience skills that, when lacking, can cause poor education outcomes and disrupt the school environment. A student who is bullying, being bullied, or having regular tantrums is not going to get a good education.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) out of Chicago is one of the leading organizations promoting SEL and forms of education that promote resilience in children. The Hawn Foundation is another, and Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE) at the Garrison Institute in upstate New York, is yet another. These initiatives have produced very encouraging results with teachers and students. Their programs focus on developing self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

One of the topics the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn, and I have discussed in depth is parenting and education. Jon and his wife, Myla, wrote a book on mindful parenting called Everyday Blessings, since the education and upbringing of children are a significant interest for them. Jon told me that one of the leading figures in the area of mindfulness and schools is Linda Lantieri, who has been an educator in New York City for 40 years. She is one of the most influential people in CASEL. Jon also gave me the book Linda wrote together with Daniel Goleman, Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children. After reading just a few pages, as a member of a House subcommittee that deals with education, I knew I had to meet Linda.

Linda was asked by the September 11th Fund to help the schools at Ground Zero recover from the trauma of the event. She decided to integrate the teaching of mindfulness practices with SEL, which was already happening in many of the schools, and give these skills first to the teachers and parents, and then to the students. One can only imagine the trauma a child would have experienced being close to the twin towers on that fateful day. Linda understands that many children experience traumas in their daily lives that are almost as intense. They grow up in low-income, high-crime areas. They often live in households that have experienced job loss or in which one or both parents are abusive. Over time these stressors have a debilitating effect. These children see so much bad that their brains are in a constant state of anxiety. The stress for many children is constant, and it is often intensified through physical abuse. Based on her experience with the Ground Zero project, Linda decided to start the Inner Resilience Program.

According to Linda, the Inner Resilience Program is about cultivating the inner lives of students, teachers, and schools by integrating social and emotional learning with mindfulness practice. This is a program not only for the disadvantaged; it’s for all children—every child in America in the 21st century lives with lots of pressures. I had all the advantages in school and in life, and yet stress made it hard for me to read, too. No one ever presented an alternative. Linda and her colleagues are committed to giving our children tools that help them find inner resilience and thrive amidst these pressures.

I was so impressed with Linda Lantieri’s work that I invited her to testify before our House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. After learning more from her about what SEL combined with mindfulness practice can do for children, my committee directed almost $1 million in federal money to two school districts to implement mindfulness and SEL, and evaluate its effectiveness. Linda is currently working in the Youngstown and Warren city schools in Ohio, and I predict we will see a transformational shift in these schools. Why do I feel that way? Because I’ve been seeing firsthand what this program can do.

I attended the fourth day of a 5-day training that Linda was giving to the teachers in our Youngstown and Warren program. I’ll never forget walking into the hotel conference room that day. Linda asked me to stop by and say hello. I must admit I was a bit apprehensive. The SEL and mindfulness program for these schools had been completely my idea. I had talked the superintendents into doing it. Now I had to go and see if the teachers were actually responding to it. I was concerned some of the teachers would view this as a well-meaning, do-gooder, tree-hugger approach to teaching that would never work in the heart of inner city Youngstown. I also worried that the Warren teachers didn’t have time to incorporate this teaching in their already overburdened schedules.

As I noticed these thoughts, I started to do a little walking meditation. I focused on my breath and feet as they touched the ground. I focused on not bringing my insecurities to this moment and on just dealing with the situation as it presented itself. I was glad I did, because what I saw inspired me and opened my heart.

As I entered the conference room I could feel a palpable sense of calm. The teachers were on a break and it was quiet. There was not the kind of chatter one would normally hear at a conference coffee break. No one was looking at their watch or the clock. I saw Linda and asked her how it was going.

“Amazing,” she said. The training really resonated with the teachers. I asked a few of the other trainers, and they all said the same thing. Then Linda introduced me to share a few words, which I did briefly.

As I finished up, Linda asked me to stay for one of the exercises. She pulled out a large stuffed globe. Next she asked the teachers to raise their hands and share with the group of 60 teachers, and me, an awareness they discovered during the week of training.

Teacher after teacher stood up, held the globe, and poured their heart out. One said, “I’ve already started treating my own children differently.”

Another said, “I’ve been looking for something like this for 30 years.”

Yet another said she finally realized her problem was that she never took time to care for herself, so how could she possibly be there for her kids? She was excited to start school the next week. Another said she felt reborn as a teacher, returning to why she got into the profession in the first place.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had a huge lump in my throat thinking about how this training can transform our schools and community. Then one of the three male teachers held the globe. I braced for some criticism and my neck stiffened. Maybe this did not touch the men in the room the way it did the women. I was wrong. He talked about going to his son’s soccer game the night before, and he said that he was actually at the soccer game. His mind was not somewhere else. He was with his son. He said he looked at the beautiful sky and the clover grass and found a real sense of peace. It hit me how potent SEL and mindfulness are. They even resonate with ordinary American guys like me and the male teachers I met in Warren, Ohio.

We couldn’t get these kinds of results without lots of local support, and when it comes to public education, union support is vital. Two of the biggest advocates for our local SEL and mindfulness program are the head of the teacher’s union in Youngstown, Will Bagnola, and his wife, Lori. Youngstown has a long history of union membership. As the industrialization of this country grew in the steel belt, unions protected and empowered workers, and made the workplace safer and more humane. The unions were made up of hard-nosed, hardworking people who were willing to fight, and even die, for social justice, fair wages, and safe working conditions. Why is a 50-year-old lifelong union man like Will Bagnola so high on SEL and mindfulness? Because he carries within him the heart of the industrial union movement—a deep desire for better lives for everyone. Will agrees with me that SEL and mindfulness make the workplace a safer and more humane place. The face of the union movement is changing, and I believe Will is going to be lauded as one of the most progressive leaders because of his support and advocacy of SEL and mindfulness. And other unions will follow Youngstown’s lead. Eventually, unions will be negotiating for SEL and mindfulness teacher training throughout the country.

What are your thoughts about integrating mindfulness into schools?  Do you know of any cool existing mindful programs you can share with us?  Please do!

If you enjoyed this article, you will also like: “10 Ways Science Proves Mindfulness Changes Your Life

Congressman Ryan excerpted from A Mindful Nation by Tim Ryan. Copyright ©2012 by Hay House.

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7 Simple Strategies to Turn Family Holiday Stress Around from Dr. Charlotte Reznick, PhD

holiday stress

“The Holidays” is a perplexing statement in the US – on any given day, it can conjure up either warm feelings of family, gratitude, and tradition — or it can cause stress, headache and sleepless nights. And it’s no wonder – the average American spends 42 hours a year on holiday activities. That’s one standard work week spent shopping, wrapping, and returning presents, attending holiday parties, and traveling from place to place, and often these extra activities are squeezed into already busy schedules.

Before holiday stress and depression ruins your holiday, take a mindful minute to consider these great strategies and simple tips from Dr. Charlotte Reznick to keep the joy alive:

(1) Visualize a heart-filled holiday.

You can do this one at the dinner table. Have everyone in the family close their eyes, focus on their heart, and imagine what kind of holiday will bring joy into their hearts. Then share your ideas around the table. This helps kids feel listened to, cared for, and included.

(2) Give the gift of calmness.

Ancient wisdom and modern research point to the calming effects and health benefits of slow, deep breathing. Make a regular practice of taking 1 to 5 minutes each day of relaxing “balloon breathing.” Breathe in to a count of 3 about 2 inches below the navel, imagining there’s a balloon filling up with air, and out to that same slow count. It’ll center and rebalance every family member to face the joys and inevitable disappointments of the holiday season.

(3) Offer distress a voice.

If this is your child’s first holiday without a loved one – grandpa passed away, or big sister is in Afghanistan – younger family members may feel a deep sense of loss. Or maybe your child is feeling the stress of a recent divorce. Give her paper and markers, and ask her to draw whatever is making her sad or mad. Then ask her what the picture wants to say out loud. Often, putting a face on an emotion and letting it “speak” makes a child feel better – and gives a parent a way to understand what’s going on inside.

(4) Sweat is sweet.

Kids (and adults) can get all pent up during holiday time. Surprise little ones by clearing the furniture out of the center of the room, turning on some fun music, and dancing vigorously for 10 minutes. Or bundle up the family and take a wintry walk while playing “I Spy.” Exercise releases feel-good chemical and is one of the fastest ways to chase away holiday blahs and instill a sense of togetherness.

(5) Blow out negativity, light up hope.

Create a family ritual of hope. Have two candles for each family member: one lit, one not. Have each imagine what they’d like to let go of – what no longer serves them – and say, “I’m going to toss this out (anger, worry, meanness to my sister) when I blow this candle out.” Then light a new candle and share, “I hope to bring in (kindness, faith, cleaning my room) as I light anew.” Let go of the old and bring in the new. You can use one candle to symbolize all, or light up your whole home with several.

(6) Be grateful for who you live with.

Avoid some of the little and big jealousies that crop up from comparing who has a bigger present or counting how many gifts go to whom by starting early and giving gifts of appreciation – to each family member. Take the rest of December and every day have each person share something they appreciate about another (big brother allowing younger sister to hang out in his room). Make a running list and post on the fridge or in the family room to remind each other when stresses build that you really do care about and love each other.

(7) Spread the joy around.

The time-honored tradition of helping others can shift priorities. If kids or teens are moping around or showing signs of stress, take them to the local soup kitchen to serve meals. Visit a nursing home with hand-made cards or offer a free concert. Helping others gives kids a feeling of more control and a sense of being both useful and appreciated.

We hope that these strategies will help you and your family have a wonderful, stress-free holiday this Christmas.

Charlotte Reznick Ph.D., is a child educational psychologist, an Associate Clinical Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, and author of The Power of Your Child’s Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety into Joy and Success (Perigee/Penguin). As the creator of Imagery for Kids: Breakthrough for Learning, Creativity, and Empowerment, a positive coping skills program, Dr. Reznick has pioneered therapeutic interventions, combining visualization and meditation techniques to help children realize their full potential. In addition to her private practice, she creates therapeutic relaxation CDs for children, teens, and parents, and teaches workshops internationally on the healing power of children’s imagination.

 

 

 

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A Blessingway: Shower the Mother-To-Be with Actual Blessings

The world is buzzing with the excitement of Kate Middleton’s royal arrival.  Countless businesses await baby details as fashion lines, books, baby products and toys all plan to launch goods inspired by the royal romper.

Now, more than ever, pregnancy is viewed in a glamorous and glorified light (as it should be).  However, much of the baby mania revolves around fashion, the latest baby products and nursery design.  We gather for baby showers and open gift after gift, often letting the tradition blind us to the very reason we have gathered…to shower the mother and baby with enough love and support to carry them through their relationship together.

A Blessingway is a Navajo Ritual created to spiritually support and empower the new mother for her journey of birthing and motherhood. In recent times, this beautiful ritual has been adapted as an alternative to baby showers, where the focus tends to be more on the gifts and the baby, rather than on the mother and her experience.  Support doesn’t stop with the Blessingway — mothers frequently pray for the mom each day until the baby arrives… or even light a candle when they hear she’s in labor. This support can mean so much to a laboring woman.

Most of the time a Blessingway is specifically for women. You should consider your guest list carefully. Invite only those very close to the mother, or those older women that she looks up to. It may be best to work on the guest list with the mother.

Here are some ideas from Natural Birth and Baby Care on how to structure your own Blessingway ceremony:

  • Prayers, poems, and blessings: a traditional way to bless somebody is to say a prayer for them, to write and/or read a poem for them, or to say or find a special blessing for them. Something of this nature is ideal for a Blessingway. You can ask each participant to bring something they’ve found or written to bless the mother.  You can compile the prayers/poems/blessings into a small, beautiful journal or notebook for the mother. If some prayers are going to be created on the spot you could record with a small tape recorder and later transcribe them to be given to the mother.
  • Every guest is asked to bring a flower that reminds them of the Mother. These flowers are used to make a simple crown for the mamma which is then placed on her head at the beginning of the circle, while everyone is talking and getting acquainted. At a certain point everyone can say which flower they brought and why.
  • Guests are also asked to bring an offering from nature like a small crystal, a feather, or a rock. These are offered to the Mamma and placed in  a box or on a special altar plate that she can keep to remind her of everyone’s well wishes for her during the birth.
  • Beads: A favorite Blessingway tradition. It is so simple and anybody can do this, even if they cannot attend the Blessingway. Have each person invited bring or send a bead that they have picked for the mother. The bead should be something the guest has picked with the mother in mind.  At the Blessingway string all the beads onto a cord for the mother to wear during labor. Many mothers have said that these birth beads give them strength and focus during labor. It is a powerful and tangible way to show your love and the community support that surrounds the mother.
  • Belly Cast: A belly cast is a fun activity that can be done at the Blessingway. Many mothers enjoy having a belly cast done. It’s a slightly messy and light-hearted activity that will bring smiles to everyone. It also gives the mother a lovely keepsake of her body full of baby. Later the mom can decorate the belly cast however she likes, or she can leave it simple and untouched.
  • Belly Painting: Another fun activity is to paint the mother’s belly. You can use henna paints or any non-toxic (preferably natural) body paints. The mother may have a design she would like, something of special significance. You can talk it over with the mother beforehand and decide what she would like. Henna paint may work especially well because it could last until the birth, if the mother wants.
  • Lighting Candles: Lighting a candle at the Blessingway is a lovely way to bring a sacred feel to the atmosphere. Or you can ask each guest to bring a candle to light during their blessing for the mother. Afterwards each guest will take her candle home and light it when she hears the mother is in labor.
  • Washing Feet and Brushing Hair: Washing a mother’s feet in warm water gently scented by essential oils is a lovely way to show support for her. Many mothers also love to have their hair brushed. This feminine activity is very soothing and empowering to the mother.
  • Make “Help” Lists: Though not truly part of the ceremony, you should consider having each guest write down a meal that they are committed to bringing for the mother after her baby is born. Alternately each guest can bring a pre-made frozen meal, if the mother has space in her freezer. Each guest should also sign up for a period of housework in the days after the baby is born.  You will be amazed how much this simple gift of food and time will bless the mother and her child. It is a gift given with a servant’s heart, and it brings peace, love, and joy to the new family.
  • You or another guest take responsibility for organizing and overseeing the help. The mother shouldn’t have to do anything. At the Blessingway tell her of your plans and assure her you have it all taken care of.

Creating this sacred space of honor and blessings is something the child or mother will never outgrow. Create a meaningful passage for your next little soul.  Life is about supporting one another, and what better way to start than at the beginning.

If you enjoyed this article, you will also like: “3 Ways to Encourage Your Child to Live Their Life Purpose”. 

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Sandplay: The Therapy of the East & West

We are fortunate in today’s society that we are offered an excess of therapeutic avenues.  Whether you prefer a yoga retreat, counselor’s office or quiet temple time, there are more ways than ever to reconnect with your spiritual side.

One such therapy that has slipped under the mainstream radar is sandplay therapy.  While it may sound like child’s play, it is actually utilized for all ages.

Sandplay is a practice that does not fit the usual categories. It is a spiritual practice that integrates the seemingly opposite traditions of east-west, mind-body.  Dora Kalff, Jungian therapist, developed sandplay therapy in Switzerland in the 1950s and ’60s based on her studies at the C.G. Jung Institute, Zurich, in Tibetan Buddhism, and with Margaret Lowenfeld, in England.

During a sandplay session, miniature objects and symbols are used to create scenes in small sand trays. By using visual images for self-expression, unconscious feelings and attitudes emerge.

This stimulates the conscious mind to expand and become aware of what has been hidden in the unconscious. In this way, sandplay releases internal pain, heals past trauma, expands consciousness, and provides a platform for psychological transformation and spiritual awakening – all because you let self-expression take over in the sand tray.

Think about children in an actual sandbox.  They can spend hours there.  Do you ever ask yourself, “Why”?

Sand itself is therapeutic.  It is of the Earth and we are naturally drawn to seek connection with Mother Nature.  While it may seem a child is aimlessly drawing lines in the sand, they are most likely working through something, conscious of that or not.  Many doctor’s offices have zen garden sand trays that offer an outlet for anxious patients for this reason as well.

Sandplay therapist, Gita Morena, says, “There are those who find difficulty communicating effectively and sandplay is just enough blend of reality and imagination that it opens them up to a way of comfortably explaining what they are feeling.”

Individuals are allowed to create their sand scene any way they wish by simply doing whatever comes to him or her. Some begin with an idea, others have no idea what they might make and let intuition take over. Some people chat while creating their scene, others remain quiet and in thought. Once all the miniatures have been placed in the tray, positioned as desired and display the patient’s inner story, the interconnectedness of the tray’s contents is immediately felt and reflected upon.

Sandplay is a beautiful visual reminder that the answers we seek are already within us.  We just have to present ourselves with the opportunity to reflect on those questions.

If you enjoyed this article, you will also like to learn about another alternative therapeutic practice:  Sound Therapy. You can also learn more about sandplay therapy here

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The Young Deer Whisperer

This is the latest in viral inspiration (and adorableness) brought to you by a little girl named Maya and her friend, a cute and curious fawn.

Maya was playing in her family’s yard when suddenly a baby deer appeared. He immediately approached Maya with trust and affection.  She made the little fawn feel safe and eventually led him back to the woods where his mom was waiting… an incredibly touching moment where two innocents connect.

The Deer Whisperer:

If you enjoyed this video, you will also like: “10 Reasons Kids are the Best Teachers“. 

(If you did not enjoy this video, you need to check your pulse and this article).  

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