Getting Schooled: Cultivating A Mindful Classroom

We are all connected, we like to say. It doesn’t always feel that way, especially with my own children and  those I serve. The force and frequency that so many of our young people operate with today has us all in a frenzy. The pace is too frantic. The energy out there can be just too much. 

In our work in the community, nowhere do we see these truths at play more than in our schools. Many kids today carry a heavy emotional weight in those backpacks to class each morning. Massive forces are reshaping the development and maturation in how all young people learn: a destabilization of family life, a lack of academic preparation, a decline in social-emotional learning, the absence of resiliency, an explosion of behavioral, intellectual, and physical disability diagnoses, and a rapid rise in mental health issues—we’re at a tipping point. And this was all even before Covid-19. Additionally, childhood trauma can negatively impact learning and behavior because of how terror and fear change the brain. Without trauma intervention, research has shown that these emotional states alter brain function and the young person’s ability to process information. 

It doesn’t have to be trauma, though. There are all sorts of barriers to learning—disabilities, environment, language acquisition, curriculum design, teacher disposition, the list goes on. Thus, those of us who hold leadership positions have a special responsibility to ensure that what we’re fostering is universal and accessible to all. To create equitable and inclusive classrooms and schools, it’s our job to co-create with our students, parents, and community the space for diverse voices and visions to flourish.   

One of my favorite places to practice all these virtues in action is Bishop Heelan’s Dual Language Academy. There’s a beautiful community of learning and care here, evidenced clearly in the closeness of bonds between teachers and students and amongst the students in the different classes. They belong to one another. They support one another. They pick each other up when someone gets knocked down, even if they are the ones who knocked them down in the first place (they’re kiddos, after all). They have challenges, and some of their students struggle pretty mightily, but there’s a lot of love in that building and clear communication between the adults. These aren’t always a given. 

One of the greatest lessons I learned from my time studying and serving with the Veterans Yoga Project years back is how the teacher/facilitator can help to shape the interpretation or meaning of internal states by:

1. Focusing on breath and sensation

2. Normalizing sensations and experiences

3. Encouraging non-reactive awareness/acceptance

4. Facilitating consciousness rotation throughout the body (body scanning)

The constant test-taking in schools, over-committing in sports and clubs, and lessons out of school, coupled with a generally more disjointed home life and an over-reliance on technology is producing a generation of children who are missing golden opportunities to cultivate their critical thinking, communication, and resilience skills. And they’re screaming at us for help. 

When our schools listen and our teachers create safe, mindful classroom spaces, we all feel the benefits. During the school year, our kids spend more time with their teachers each day than with their parents. There is power in time. Here are a few suggestions for how to use it wisely:

  1. Have fun. Rethink discipline. Emphasize play. 
  2. Repeat #1 often. 

The closer an activity is to a game the more likely it is to be successful. Games allow us to forget that we’re learning because we’re having so much fun playing. Imaginative play empowers children to use physical, social, and intellectual skills. They develop focus, concentration, coordination, self-awareness, self-control, and a trust in their creativity and problem-solving skills. 

The physiological impact of fun and joy produces a coherent mind-body state and stimulates the production and secretion of positive mind-body regulating chemicals, such as dopamine, serotonin, and epinephrine that integrate and support all the systems of the body to function optimally and are vital to the growth and plasticity of the brain. And because the body is always keeping score (Van Der Kolk), when we play games, we allow ourselves to journey from body to bliss within the layers of our Being. The more we play, the better we feel, and the better we feel, the quicker and deeper we learn.

Play is essential to childhood development. Play is not a reward—IT IS A NECESSITY and taking play time or recess away almost always backfires. So, when in doubt, play a game. Change the momentum. Create a little confusion. When the flower doesn’t grow, we don’t blame the flower. We change the environment. We observe. We plan. We evolve as our understanding changes. We keep caring. We keep loving. 

Maybe the hardest thing for a more seasoned educator to do is to rethink discipline and to reframe the negative behaviors we experience more as bids for connection. The hour of the time out is ending, my friends; the era of the time in is here. Instead of thinking kids act out because they want attention, we understand that kids act out because they need attention. Instead of forcing time apart, disconnecting, and withdrawing, we cultivate time together, give attention, and foster connection. Instead of leaving a child to regain their regulated state on their own, we offer ourselves to help the child co-regulate back to stasis. Instead of being punitive, and shaming, and rejecting, we promote growth, self-empowerment, and acceptance. It’s time for all of us who love and serve kids to up our game, to go to school ourselves, and to look ourselves in the mirror.  Loving that person is step one to serving the rest. 

The bell is ringing. Take a deep breath. Class is back in session. 

By Ryan Allen & Meghan Nelson

Lumin Therapy provides integrative health and education for the mind, body, and spirit to those who are suffering or struggling to step into and live their heartfelt mission and purpose. Through the practice of physical therapy, medical therapeutic yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and resiliency mentoring, Dr. Meghan Nelson, DPT, and Dr. Ryan Allen, PhD, bring more than 40 years of knowledge and experience serving individuals, families, and organizations to learn and heal and live without boundaries.

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