The TCL Blog

3 Creative Ways for Learning Students’ Names This Fall

“Sorry, I’m terrible with names,” is an apology you might often hear (or say).  Since I started teaching, I’ve gotten better with remembering names by simply being more mindful when introductions are made and repeating names aloud or inside my head a couple of times. I’m still far from perfect, though.

This fall many of you will be facing a whole new group of students. But before you dive into the curriculum, taking the time to learn students’ names and allowing them time to learn each other’s names is an important first step towards a successful school year.

            Research shows learning students’ names helps them feel connected to the classroom community. Students and teachers are able to communicate more effectively with and among each other, opening the door to a social and empathetic learning environment. Knowing students’ names also helps students become more accountable and can promote positive behaviors. As author and sociology professor, Karen Sternheimer, states, “…when we are known and not anonymous, we are more likely to behave in ways that reflect positively on our identities.”

            Below, I’ve outlined a few ideas for not only learning students’ names, but celebrating their identities, as well. Be creative, the possibilities are endless!

  1. Future Business Owners
    As my family and I were driving though a small Wisconsin town, my husband, Alex, pointed out a restaurant called, “Alex’s Pizza” and said, “I want that sign.” Obviously, the sign is special to my husband because 1. he loves pizza and 2. his name is on the sign.

Learn students’ names and get to know what they’re interested in by encouraging them to think about what type of business they’d like to own and operate someday. Allow students to get creative with a computer or with a set of colored pencils and paper to design a storefront or business featuring their names. You could take this activity a step further by having students design streets or entire communities named after themselves.

  1. Personalized License Plates

Invite students to personalize their own license plates using this template from Education World. Instruct students to feature their name, along with the state or country of their choice on their license plates. (Show students examples of license plates from around the country and around the world.) Encourage students to illustrate designs to represent their interests and identities. Take it a step further by having students include an illustration of their favorite mode of transportation (bike, Jeep, convertible, airplane, boat, etc.) for their license plates to be attached to. 

  1. Fresh Flowers

Rose, Iris, Lily, Jasmine…why can’t all our names be associated with beautiful flowers? Have your students imagine what kind of flowers their own names would represent. Encourage your students to think about the sizes, shapes, and colors of their flowers. What would their flowers smell like? Learn about places that are special to your students by asking them where their flowers would grow. Determine what is important to students by asking them what their flowers need to blossom (besides sunshine and water). Your classroom will look like a floral shop with all the lovely flowers on display!

How will you learn your students’ names and celebrate their identities this fall? Please share your ideas below.

Best wishes to you and your students for a successful start to the 2018/19 school year!

Resources:

https://www.kidsvillage.com/the-importance-of-learning-names/


3 Steps Educators Can Take Toward Suicide Prevention Among Youth

Suicide touches everyone, in one way or another. Perhaps you welcomed Anthony Bourdain into your living room by watching his popular CNN show, Parts Unknown. Maybe your favorite handbag was designed by Kate Spade. Maybe a close friend, family member, or student died from-or attempted-suicide.

            According to the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, tragically, suicide is the third leading cause of death among youth ages 15-24.  As educators, we encounter hundreds of students each day, students with complex needs beyond academics.

Given the current staggering statistics and the recent tragic events involving suicide, we’ve outlined three steps for you to take toward suicide prevention among your students.

  1. Know the warning signs of suicide, but don’t stop there.

The Suicide Prevention and Resource Center, has identified behaviors that may indicate an individual is at risk for suicide including:

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or obtaining a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated

Following the loss of her 16-year old student from suicide, high school teacher, Brittni Darras, explains how watching for signs of suicide alone is not enough. In this video, find out how she is fighting the battle against suicide in her classroom.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofjRnIpXBF0

  1. “Fuel Connection” with Empathy.

Perhaps you’ve already seen this Brene Brown video, but it’s worth watching again. The difference between empathy and sympathy is brilliantly explained in this short animation involving a fox, a bear, and a deer. (Yes, it’s as good as it sounds.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw

Sometimes we think we need to solve other people’s problems. Sometimes we avoid others because we don’t know what to say. However, as you heard in the video, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”

Make a point to connect with your students (beyond academics) and encourage them to connect with one another every day. Here is some inspiration from a kindergarten classroom:

https://youtu.be/hMn0MOmVw_Y

  1. Share Resources with Your Students.

We can’t assume our students know where to go when they (or their friends and loved ones) need help. Listed below are some valuable resources to pass along to your students:

In this final video, teenager, Sadie Penn bravely talks about her personal experience with attempting suicide and the importance of positive mental health and suicide awareness. Pay attention as she recalls what one teacher said to support her in a very powerful way.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRo5Db_7yVI&feature=youtu.be

Regardless of age, gender, race, religion, fame – suicide doesn’t discriminate, but it can be prevented. As noted by the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, “Everyone has a role to play.” As educators, we can take steps to meet the diverse and complex needs of our students and, ultimately, save lives.

Please share this post and keep the conversation going. What steps toward suicide prevention do you currently have in place in your classroom or in your school?


3 Teaching Practices of the 1930s Reimagined: Using Technology in the Classroom

My grandma, Florence, was born in 1914 – years before the spiral notebook was invented, decades before the ballpoint pen began exploding in our pockets, and nearly a century before the Apple iPad hit store shelves. Remarkably, today-at the age of 104 years old-Grandma Florence has been using her own iPad for emailing, Facetiming, and Googling for the past four years.

Grandma Florence was a teacher in a one-room school house in rural Wisconsin in the 1930s and 1940s. Equipped with not much more than pencils, paper notebooks, a few crayons, and a chalkboard, she was dedicated to providing each of her students-she fondly refers to them as “pupils”-with a proper education.

Because Grandma Florence has always been open-minded and eager to learn, I began to imagine how she would have used the technology tools available today to enhance her teaching practices of the past. Read on to learn about her experiences in the one-room school house and find out how I gave three of her teaching practices makeovers with the infusion of 21st century technology.

Please note: There are many valuable technology tools available for educators—so many, it can be overwhelming! I have provided some suggestions, based on my own knowledge and experiences, just to get interested readers started with infusing more technology into their own educational practices.

Teaching Practice #1 – Class Recitations/Lectures

Grandma Florence shares what a typical school day was like in the 1930s and 1940s:

When 9:00 comes around, I round the pupils to come in to their single or double desks which opened at the top for their books, tablets [not to be confused with iPads or other electronic tablets], and pencils. We usually took a few minutes for telling what is new in their lives or ponder a question.

Then the time would be here to begin the class recitations [lectures] in the front. Each grade would come and sit on some small chairs for instruction on a subject -reading, penmanship, or arithmetic. The class lasted from 15 minutes to a half hour, so I had to be well-prepared to be able to get in all eight grades.

The afternoon consisted of more class recitations in front with each grade, and art or music as a whole class. We were especially sure to have the lessons everyday because the superintendent of schools would come without notifying us.

*My Technology Makeover*

Rather than standing in front of her students to lecture for the majority of the day, I think Grandma Florence would embrace the flipped classroom model by utilizing screencasting. This model allows students to access lessons anytime and anywhere with personalized learning to meet the unique needs of all students. She would have more time to further instruction for students who are struggling with the content and more time to challenge those who have mastered the content.

She would share her sense of adventure by taking her students on virtual fieldtrips all around the world. Special guests would be welcomed to her classroom via Skype to share knowledge and experiences, and to build relationships. Guests might include parents, community leaders, and authors. Perhaps she would host a “virtual career day” with professionals around the community.

Grandma’s students would become proud authors with help from Book Creator and Storybird. Her students would enjoy preparing for tests using the game-based technology, Kahoot and she would collect valuable assessment data to steer her instruction using Exit Ticket.

Teaching Practice #2 - Students Teach Students
Grandma Florence had nearly 40 students in her one-room school house each year, spanning from first grade to eighth grade. She was responsible for teaching reading, penmanship (much emphasis was put on handwriting at that time), math, history, geography, and some art and music.

Because of the large number, the students in the upper grades would often help the students in the lower grades. Grandma Florence recalled, “Sometimes I would let them go in the hallway to work together because of the interruptions from the class being held in the front of the room. How anyone did learn anything in that small classroom, with the commotion at times, is quite unbelievable.”

*My Technology Makeover*

If Grandma Florence were still teaching today, I imagine she would partner with another teacher to continue to enable students to teach (and learn from) each other. For example, if she were an 8th grade science teacher, she might have her students create videos using iPads to explain basic physics concepts to students in 3rd grade. The videos would be uploaded and stored on TeacherTube or her own YouTube channel for easy viewing access.

Grandma Florence would also have her 8th grade students create a blog using edublogs to provide an online platform for the 3rd graders to ask the 8th graders questions and to have discussions. Her students would do research and collaborate with one another using Diigo to accurately provide information for the younger students.

To further support productive student collaboration and learning (and to save paper), most likely Grandma Florence would utilize a few of the many features of Google Classroom including assigning, grading, and organizing student work. She would also take advantage of CueThink, which increases problem-solving and math skills through peer learning.

Teaching Practice #3 – Communicating with Families
There was, indeed, electricity in the one-room school house (I asked), there was even a telephone-but only to be used for emergencies. So how did Grandma Florence communicate with families in the 1930s and 40s? Smoke signals? Carrier pigeons? Nope-just word of mouth, which was miraculously effective at that time.

For example, when it was time for the annual Christmas program put on by the students, all the family members would be in attendance without any sort of invitations or reminders in writing. The same is true for the annual end of the school year picnic. Grandma Florence recalls it being “a much more simple time when families weren’t so stressed and overbooked.”

*My Technology Makeover*

In today’s world, Grandma Florence would have a classroom Facebook page and a Twitter account to notify families of upcoming special events and important dates.

Also, installed on her smartphone would be a school-home communication app such as Bloomz or Remind to coordinate events such as parent-teacher conferences, and to share classroom updates and photos (without having to share her personal cell phone number).

Once a school teacher and always a learner, my grandma is the most remarkable person I know. She was my inspiration for becoming a teacher and has instilled a deep appreciation for opportunities to learn and to grow. I hope you have been inspired with some ideas to expand and enhance your own teaching practices.

One final personal note: Although Grandma Florence agrees that the possibilities with technology are invaluable, one skill she would continue to teach today would be cursive writing. She has the most beautiful handwriting and will always appreciate handwritten letters.

Interested in learning more about how to implement technology into your classroom? Check out our new technology courses:


Four Methods for Rethinking Discipline

“That’s incorrect, Johnny. T-h-e-i-r is a possessive pronoun; T-h-e-r-e refers to a place; and T-h-e-y-’-r-e is a contraction. This is your final warning – if you get it wrong again, you’re going to the principal’s office.”

Okay…now that I have your attention – of course we wouldn’t punish a student for using the wrong homophone (or any academic struggle, for that matter). However, when students are disruptive and defiant in the the classroom, they are often punished.

Many of our students need explicit instruction on how to demonstrate positive behaviors, and when they struggle, they need further instruction and support, not punishment. We teach our students how to read, how to write, and how to solve math equations. Where does teaching students how to ask for help when they’re frustrated or practicing calming strategies with our students fit into the curriculum?

When you consider the definition of the word discipline, it basically means to teach. What are we teaching students by punishing them with a trip to the principal’s office or by suspending them when they break the rules? According to information provided by the U.S. Department of Education, not only are suspensions ineffective, they have negative consequences such as lower academic performance and higher rates of dropout. As noted on the U.S Department of Education’s website, it is time to rethink discipline by “Creating a supportive school climate,” which “requires close attention to the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of all students.”

            Reaching the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of all students is a tall order indeed! Provided below are four methods to consider (just the tip of the iceberg) when rethinking discipline.

Deconstruct Behaviors
Perhaps a student is being neglected at home and is seeking attention from peers and teachers through inappropriate, disruptive behaviors. Sometimes students demonstrate problem behaviors because they don’t have the skills necessary to appropriately communicate their wants, needs, and feelings. For example, if a student is struggling with understanding the content of an assignment he/she might become disruptive, defiant or withdrawn - rather than risk looking stupid by asking for help.

When we deconstruct the function (or the why) of one’s behavior, we are better equipped to manage the behavior in positive and empathetic ways.

Promote Calmness
An increased level of learning, better decision-making skills, increased cooperation and teamwork among peers - never underestimate the power of calm minds! Take a few moments to teach your students self-calming strategies and give them opportunities to practice those strategies regularly. You will empower your students to manage their strong emotions proactively while creating a peaceful learning environment. Below are links to my top go to strategies:

Teach Beyond the Curriculum
As mentioned above, due to a variety of factors, many students need explicit instruction on problem-solving skills and social skills. Below are a few suggestions to consider for infusing instruction of these empowering skills into your curriculum.

Call Upon the Village
Seek guidance/support from staff members who are specifically trained on working with students with challenging behaviors such as school psychologists, special education teachers, behavioral specialists, occupational therapists, guidance counselors, etc.). Also, other teachers who have worked with students in the past might be able to provide some valuable insights on how to best support those students who challenge us the most.

By rethinking discipline with effective teaching practices and support - rather than with punishment- we are empowering students with the social, emotional, and behavioral skills necessary to become respectful, responsible citizens. Interested in learning more about effective discipline practices?

Check out our new course – Positive Discipline: A Guide to Restorative Practices.


Resources:

https://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/index.html


Gold Medal Methods to Manage ADHD Symptoms

Hyper-active, never stops talking, has a ton of energy, inability to sit still, talks excessively, nudging other kids…these were words used to describe Michael Phelps’ behavior, an Olympic gold-medalist swimmer, during his preschool and elementary school years. Perhaps he was bored in school? Maybe he was just an immature boy?

At the age of nine, when his symptoms continued to impact his academic performance, Michael’s mom consulted a doctor who diagnosed him with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to the definition provided by the National Institute of Mental Health, ADHD is a brain disorder involving a constant pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.

Upon diagnosis of ADHD, Michael was prescribed stimulant medication, which successfully helped him slow down and focus on his academic tasks. However, around the age of 12, Michael began feeling stigmatized by having to visit the nurse’s office for his daily medication. After careful consideration, his doctor agreed to allow Michael to go off his medication with the understanding that he would need alternative ways to manage his ADHD symptoms.

Outlined below are four methods that were used to help Michael successfully manage his ADHD symptoms, along with related suggestions to accommodate students with ADHD in your classroom.

Physical Activity

Even at a young age, Michael excelled with sports including: baseball, lacrosse, soccer and, of course, swimming. “Being able to get in the water, I felt more relaxed,” Phelps says. “The more time I spent in the pool, the more relaxed I found myself. It was something that was exciting and challenging, so I decided to stick with it.”

In your classroom, promote physical activity by incorporating “movement breaks” throughout the day. This could be as simple as standing up to stretch, striking a fun yoga pose, or taking a quick lap around the school. Another idea is to throw a “one song dance party” at least once per week. I have found this to be a great way to re-energize and refocus everyone involved. Students can make song requests for upcoming dance parties and they can invite special guests, such as the principal, to join in on the fun.

Consistent Schedule

Michael’s mom, Deb, saw the value and benefits of keeping Michael on a consistent, structured schedule, which consisted primarily of: schoolwork, nutritious meals (low sugar), and swim practice to keep him focused. Michael never missed a day of swim practice; you could even find him in the pool swimming laps first thing in the morning on Christmas Day.

Help keep your students focused by posting a consistent, structured daily schedule or agenda on your classroom wall. Students thrive when they know what to expect throughout the day. When there is an inevitable schedule change, inform students in advance any changes. During independent work time or other less-structured parts of the day, consider using a timer to encourage students to work on a given task until the timer goes off.

Interest-Based Learning

In an interview from additudemag.com, Deb Phelps explained how she applied her son’s interest in swimming to help him learn. She encouraged Michael to read the sports section of the newspaper and books about sports to motivate him to read. When Michael appeared uninterested in math, Deb had his math tutor modify word problems based on swimming (for example: How long would it take to swim 500 meters if you swim 3 meters per second?).

Find out what your students are interested in and tailor your lessons around their interests, whenever possible. Get to know your students by allowing a brief “share time” on a regular basis. For example, students might tell the class what they did over the weekend or they might share something they are looking forward to later that day. Through share time, teachers can learn so much valuable information about students that can be used to pique their interests which promotes learning.

Calming/Relaxation Strategies & Visuals

In the same interview, Deb Phelps recalls a time when Michael furiously ripped off his goggles and threw them on the ground after coming in 2nd place at a swim meet. After having a heart-to-heart talk about sportsmanship, Michael and his mom agreed to a visual hand signal (the form a ‘C’) which was a reminder for, ‘compose yourself’. Deb used the hand signal whenever she recognized that Michael was getting frustrated.

Students need to learn and practice calming/relaxation strategies before experiencing strong feelings or losing control. Some basic calming techniques include: deep breathing, slowly counting backwards from 10, using positive self-talk, requesting a walk to the drinking fountain or to the bathroom, drawing, reading a book, looking at a bubbler, listening to calming music, and squeezing a stress ball. Practice various techniques as a whole group on a regular basis (perhaps during your morning meeting time). Using visuals, post a menu of your students’ favorite relaxation techniques on the wall to refer to as needed (for example: a picture of a student listening to music). Visuals are an effective method for students with ADHD to regain control of their emotions and behaviors.

Our students with ADHD might not be gold medal Olympians, but they are champions in their own ways, with struggles that Michael Phelps can relate to. Research supports the positive impact in which one adult role model/mentor can have on a child’s life for determining future success. Michael’s mom, Deb, believed in her son and advocated to get the supports he needed. Michael acknowledged the important role his mom played in his life by presenting her with the flowers he received after winning his first Olympic gold medal in Athens. Who do your students have in their lives to guide and encourage them to victory? Perhaps you are that person.

Interested in learning more about ADHD, along with proven teaching strategies to help your students be more successful in the classroom?

Register for our new course – ADHD: Teaching and Learning Strategies.

Sources:

  • http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20307161,00.html#michael-phelps-2
  • http://www.mensfitness.com/life/sports/mf-icon-michael-phelps-revealed#sthash.1Jp9NncQ.dpuf
  • http://www.additudemag.com/adhd/article/1998.html
  • http://www.everydayhealth.com/adhd/living-with-adhd/mylife/debbie_phelps/landing.aspx
  • http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/index.shtml

The Connecting Link Announces Partnership with Seattle Pacific University

Seattle Pacific University’s Center for Professional Education announces today that they have entered a partnership arrangement with a nationally recognized professional development provider, The Connecting Link. Both entities share similar values and goals including a commitment to enhancing lifelong learning.

The Connecting Link was founded in 1981 with the mission of offering engaging and relevant courses designed to meet the professional learning needs of educators. Courses offered through The Connecting Link are aligned to national standards and designed to support teachers’ development.

The mission of the Seattle Pacific University School of Education is to equip educators for service and leadership in schools and communities by developing their professional competence and character, to make a positive impact on learning.

Founded in 1891, Seattle Pacific University is a premier Christian university that equips people to engage the culture and change the world. Its comprehensive academic program serves more than 3,500 undergraduate and graduate students. Known for both their competence and character, SPU graduates are bringing about positive change in communities around the globe.

According to Peter Renn, Director of the Center for Professional Education at Seattle Pacific University, “The Center for Professional Education at Seattle Pacific University is excited to partner with The Connecting Link to provide exceptional online graduate-level courses to enhance the professional skills of educators across the United States.”

The partnership is expected to enhance online learning opportunities available to certified educators in Washington.

For further information regarding the array of 5 quarter graduate credit courses visit www.ConnectingLink.com


Create an Enrichment Experience in your own Classroom: Part 1

Gain a deeper understanding of forecasting the weather. Go on a trek through the Arctic Tundra. Learn about STEM careers in the United States Navy on board the USS Nimitz. All of these things are possible without even leaving the classroom through the use of Virtual Field Trips (VFTs)!

Teachers are often faced with figuring out just how to engage their students throughout the 180-day school year. How do we gain our students’ interest as we push through each lesson in each unit? Is there something we are missing – like a truly unique experience that may capture the attention of students in a more meaningful way than merely discussing a new topic in order to activate background knowledge?

The use of Virtual Field Trips is something that teachers may not even know is available to them. I was in a professional development seminar about Discovery Education over the summer when I first heard about the opportunity to use VFTs in my own classroom. If you are like me, sometimes I am skeptical when I hear about things like this. Allow me to explain the possibilities for a VFT through the following scenarios:

  • A whole class goes on a “field trip” where students stay in their desks and view a presentation through the projector. As the virtual field trip is taking place, students may be taking notes in order to complete an assignment that was discussed before the field trip started. This assignment will be to write an informative essay about the topic of the VFT.
  • As students move through a rotational instruction model, the students who are at the computer station will participate in a pre-selected VFT as a group. Again, they will be made aware of an assignment to be completed. Each group will go on a different field trip than the other groups. The assignment here is to create a PowerPoint presentation that will be presented to the class as a whole in the coming days.
  • Students will use individual laptops or tablets to go on a field trip all their own. This can easily be turned into an assignment where they will be allowed to do a presentation to their class. A part of this assignment, which is given out during a holiday/celebration week, will be to do a presentation while being dressed up as someone during the holiday/celebration who is living in whatever time period or location they choose to visit on their field trip.

All of these scenarios are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to utilizing VFTs in your classroom. They can also be used for building background knowledge before starting a new unit about a topic that may be foreign to many students. Teachers who instruct English Language Learners (ELLs) may use VFTs on a more scaled-down level on a daily or weekly basis in order to make the content more accessible to ELLs. Providing VFTs for these students can be effective as they will benefit from having visuals along with an auditory explanation of the content.

There are many resources and avenues to take for VFTs. Nearpod, Discovery Education, and Google Earth are all ways to integrate VFTs into your lessons. The Connecting Link offers a non-credit (15 clock hour) course in creating Virtual Field Trips. This course walks the learner through what a VFT is, the various ways to create a VFT, and how VFTs can be used in the classroom.

Check out The Connecting Link’s Virtual Field Trip Course


Preparing to Handle LGBTQ Issues in Your Classroom

As an educator, do I have a personal agenda in addressing the LGBTQ issues in our classrooms and lives?

Yes.

Let me share the “why” of my answer.

I have two brothers. We three siblings grew up in the same Judeo-Christian family. Today one brother lives with his wife and has raised his kids. The other brother lives with his partner and has raised his kids.

As a sibling in my family, I get to choose how to love and respect and value each brother because of who each adult is.

In my career, I have worked with some truly gifted and brilliant people. On teams I have had the privilege of leading, the LGBTQ or straight “label” team members choose to identify or label themselves as, is part of the tapestry of who they are. Just as various celebrations, religions, ethnic culture, beliefs, and other categories of diversity come with us to work and our classrooms everyday across our world, to what degree are we equipped to respect and provide a learning environment to support everyone?

To what degree are we educated in how to best support and value every individual we work with and teach – regardless of their perspectives on LGBTQ issues in our society today? What does that perspective of respect look, sound, and feel like in a K-12 classroom?

Today as educators, regardless of our personal beliefs, how and where we were raised, and how we choose to live our lives, we share one common need. We must ensure we model and foster demonstrating authentic respect and value for each individual person we get to work with and teach.

Supporting human beings, or students, in the classroom regarding issues related to the LGBTQ aspects represented in our world is something we must do. Providing an optimal learning environment for ALL students, and building a classroom and school culture upon the foundational block of respect is a priority.

The Connecting Link’s new course – LGBTQ Students: Meeting Academic, Social, and Emotional Needs, is one I’m excited to share with educators. The course was developed educators for educators, through the lens of learning strategies to apply in the classroom to promote student learning for all. Check it out!

 


Mindfulness: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Classroom

Imagine coming to your neighborhood middle school one morning to find three dead bodies dumped in the schoolyard. This is exactly what students experienced one morning when coming to Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco.

As shocking as this might sound, the children at Visitacion were used to murder. Barry O’Driscoll, the school’s head of physical education (PE) commented that “In 2006 there were 38 killings in our neighborhood.” The culture of violence infected the school, which was the theatre of constant fighting, frequent suspension and poor academic achievement.

Anna Leach, who wrote about Visitacion Valley in a November 2015 Guardian article, shared how in 2007 the school decided to counter the culture of violence by introducing a “Quiet Time.” This was essentially an opportunity for students to be trained in the practice of mindfulness meditation.

That was before mindfulness—attentive, purposeful and non-judgmental awareness of one’s experiences—was trendy. Perhaps that is why teachers initially didn’t take this experimental practice very seriously.

Visitacion Valley a Month Later

A month into Quiet Time, the teachers began noticing changes in student behavior.

“They worked harder, paid more attention, were easier to teach and the number of fights fell dramatically,” O’Driscoll commented.

The results of mindfulness continued over the next decade. Here is what Leach reported in her Guardian article:

 

“In the first year of Quiet Time suspensions at Visitacion Valley – which has 500 students aged 11-13 – were reduced by 45% (pdf). By 2009-10, attendance rates were over 98% (some of the highest in the city), and today 20% of graduates are admitted to the highly academic Lowell high school – before it was rare for even one student to be accepted. Perhaps even more remarkable, last year’s California Healthy Kids Survey from the state’s education department found that students at Visitacion Valley middle school were the happiest in the whole of San Francisco.

How much of these changes were specifically because the students practiced mindfulness, and how much were due to other factors? Researchers wanted to know, and so they began testing mindfulness at other schools, including setting up controlled studies with rigorous research methods.

What We Now Know, A Decade Later

Over the next ten years, various studies and meta-studies began appearing in the peer-reviewed journals. These studies increasingly showed evidence of a consistent pattern: mindfulness (especially mindful breathing) is positively associated with improvement in student behavior and academic achievement. The organization, Mindful Schools, has a helpful summary of some of this research, which shows mindfulness programs affecting children’s grades, test-taking skills, emotional regulation, compassion, truancy rates, anxiety, memory, social and emotional learning, as well as improvement on numerous other metrics.

The research also shows that teachers who regularly practice mindfulness tend to be more satisfied with their jobs and better able to connect with students.

It isn’t surprising that taking time to calm down and engage in mindful breathing would improve student behavior. Calming down is always a good thing, especially for children prone to aggression and troubled emotions. But what is surprising about this research is the effect mindfulness is having on academic achievement. Some studies even suggests that mindfulness improves math scores by as much as 15%.

A clue to the relationship between mindfulness and academic achievement emerges when we consider the role that attentiveness plays for life success in general and educational success in particular.

Is Attention Key to a Successful Life?

The famous psychologist, William James, wrote about attentiveness in his 1892 book Psychology: Briefer Course. In James’ oft-quoted words, he pointed out that,

“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui [master of himself] if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.”

Williams James recognized that the skill of attentiveness, or focus, lay behind the virtues that education tries to cultivate, but he was at a loss to know how this skill could actually be cultivated.

Modern research has confirmed James’ belief that attention is at the root of good judgement and character. In his 2013 book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman shared research showing that a child’s ability to focus (i.e., to exercise cognitive control, to remain focused on goals, to exercise impulse control) was an even greater indication of future life success than the child’s IQ or the social economic sector of the child’s upbringing. As Goleman shared on his website,

“…a 30-year longitudinal study of more than a thousand kids – the gold standard for uncovering relationships between behavioral variables – found that those children with the best cognitive control had the greatest financial success in their 30s. Cognitive control predicted success better than a child’s IQ, and better than the wealth of the family they grew up in.

Cognitive control refers to the abilities to delay gratification in pursuit of your goals, maintaining impulse control, managing upsetting emotions well, holding focus, and possessing a readiness to learn. Grit requires good cognitive control. No wonder this results in financial and personal success.”

Pause for a minute to think about the implications of these findings. As parents and educators we spend enormous effort (not to mention huge sums of money) trying to help our children be smart, to learn lots of information and to have high IQs. Ironically, however, when it comes to actual success in life, these factors are far less important than the simple skill of being able to exercise cognitive control, to voluntarily bring back a wandering attention over and over again.

If attention is so important, shouldn’t our schools be teaching it?

Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science

When Williams James was writing, brain scientists didn’t know how the skill of attention could be taught. However, if James had looked outside the confines of the science of his day, he would have seen that numerous civilizations have a practice for cultivating attentiveness, one that is thousands of years old. That practice is mindfulness.

While mindfulness practices have not always been called by the same name, and while these practices have differed from one civilization to another, they all involve deliberately drawing the wandering attention back to a point of concentration, usually focused on one’s breath. In some religious traditions, the focus has been on a prayer instead of the breath, although the same principle is at work: reigning in a wandering mind.

Try it yourself. For the next ten seconds breathe in deeply, then exhale deeply, all the while drawing your wandering mind gently back to your breath. Okay, go…

Welcome back. You just practiced mindfulness! It’s really as simple as that.

Although people have been doing this type of mindful breathing for thousands of years, it is only recently that science has been able to explain what this practice does in the brain.

Discoveries about neuroplasticity have shown that the brain is like a muscle: the more we use certain functions, the better they become. This means that when we struggle to gain control of our attention in the context of mindfulness meditation, we are actually strengthening the neuro pathways needed for exercising attention at other times, including times when attention is required for maintaining impulse control, managing upsetting emotions, focusing on a difficult task, and so forth. Think of mindfulness as spending some time in the brain gym, developing the mental fitness needed to be successful in life.

Pushing Back Against a Culture of Distraction

The dark side of neuroplasticity is that attentiveness can be eroded just as much as it can be strengthened. Many researchers believe that overuse of technologies like the Internet and the smartphone can habituate children’s brains to permanent distractibility and split attention. They are showing that the smartphone does this directly through drawing children into a stream of continually changing stimuli. But researchers have also suggested that the smartphone erodes these neuro-mechanisms indirectly, through distracting children away from attention-building activities that used to be part of the normal childhood experience (e.g., playing with dolls, building forts in the woods, doing craft hobbies, organizing neighborhood baseball or football games, reading, playing cops and robbers, creating imaginary worlds, etc.).

Mindfulness offers a push-back against this culture of distraction. Through mindfulness practices, students are given the tools for strengthening the capacity to exercise cognitive control and the opportunity to strengthen the neuro-networks involved in attention.

What’s In It For Teachers?

I know a teacher who used to love reading. But over the years this teacher found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on a book without being distracted. “If I have about 20 or 30 minutes to spare,” he shared, “it’s much easier just to go on the Internet or social media than to read. When I do try to read, I find my mind being distracted by all sorts of things.”

This teacher began practicing mindful breathing. After a while he found that he could apply to the same cognitive control used during his mindfulness sessions to the activity of reading.

“Now when I read,” he explained, “I am able to use mindfulness to draw my attention back to the text instead of being perpetually distracted. It’s great, because every time I do this, I visualize the positive neuropathways in my brain being strengthened.”

I know this is true because I am that teacher. Through practicing mindfulness, I have been able to rediscover my love for reading. But I also find I do better at my work, because mindfulness has given me the skills for knowing how to bring my full attention to whatever I am doing at the moment.

That brings me to the final point I wanted to share in this post, which is the advantages that mindfulness has for teachers. Although most of the research has been focused on the benefit mindfulness brings to students, another side of the research shows that teachers who regularly practice mindfulness stand a far better chance of reaching their full potential and avoiding some of the common pitfalls associated with the profession.

Some of this research has been summarized by The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley (for example, see HERE and HERE). Further research in this field is certainly required, but so far there seems to be good evidence that mindfulness can help teachers to:

 

  • remain present in the classroom;
  • maintain posture of self-control;
  • be more effective at managing stress;
  • experience decline in cortisol functioning;
  • achieve emotional balance;
  • be less affected by burnout and psychological symptoms;
  • have higher levels of self-compassion.

Mindfulness is certainly not a cure-all for the problems that teachers and students face. It works best when integrated into a teacher’s entire lifestyle, and into a school’s entire culture. But at the least, this research suggests that mindfulness is too important to be ignored.

Indeed, if attentiveness is really as central to success in life as researchers are discovering, then offering our students the chance to practice mindfulness may be one of the most important things we can do for them. A time may soon be coming when mindfulness is no longer considered merely an optional extra for our schools.