Bringing Mindfulness to the Classroom, Part 2: ‘How Do You Move Your Students?’

October 09, 2012

Carlapostphoto courtesey of Mindful Practices

This post is the second part of a Q&A with Carla Tantillo, owner/founder of Mindful Practices, author of Cooling Down Your Classroom, and a frequent facilitator in HSC's Fit to Learn professional development program.  A former teacher in the Chicago Public School system, Carla has experience working with youth from low-income communities.  Both her private yoga practice and her occupation as an educator inspired Carla to start a business that combines her two passions.  Now she works closely with Chicago schools, demonstrating how to incorporate mindfulness techniques into the regular school day.  Read the first part of this Q&A here


What has been surprising to you as you continue to practice yoga and mindfulness with children in schools?

I’m consistently surprised by how receptive students are, even at age levels when you traditionally think they wouldn’t be.  I don’t know how I would be if some strange lady came into my middle school classroom and said “Do yoga!” But, I am consistently amazed at how students identify the need within themselves. I think that students are saying more so than ever that they’re stressed.  More so than ever they’re acknowledging the issues Healthy Schools is working on — when they don’t eat right, when they don’t get enough sleep, these elements of student wellness. . . I think because they’re identifying that, there in is the window to mindfulness.

In turn, what they’re kind of doing is pushing their teachers in that direction as well, which I think is really cool.  They’re saying, “We need to relax for a minute.” So, they’re using language that you or I may not use in the field but they’re articulating what their need is for themselves in that moment.  And, that is awesome to me. . . .  you’re really talking about students self-regulating, whether [that means] they’re not going to eat the bag of Flaming Hots for breakfast or they’re not going to punch the kid next to them on the playground. When you’re talking about students’ ability to self-regulate, that comes from self-awareness. It’s really born from self-awareness because when students are self-aware they realize they’re tired, they’re agitated, they’re frustrated, they’re hungry, etc.  They realize what action should follow that and what they need to do to keep that negative action from happening.  And so when you hear students identifying and talking about it on this level, it’s really, to me, like, “That’s it! That’s why we’re here.” It’s good stuff.

How does mindfulness help the learning process? Won’t practicing yoga at school take valuable learning time out of the day?

I would say no.  And I would say because we can’t assume that all time has the same level of quality.  [In my presentation at Fit to Learn] I had [the teachers] sitting, up, down and moving around because research shows that after 15 minutes of direct instruction, attention begins to wane.  And so my job as an educator is not just to have really spiffy, cool prepared content.  My job is also to differentiate for the needs of the learners that are in the room, to understand the environment in which that learning is taking place.  I know my responsibility besides delivering content is also getting people to use kinesthetic learning, auditory learning, visual learning, etc. . . .

What we need to do is understand the impact and the connection between physical activity and learning.  When we blend physical activity and learning together, test scores show, data shows, students learn better.  And so what we need to do is we need to mindfully include the physical activity throughout the school day.

Now, the biggest red flag to this is usually transition time.  So what do I have to do? Do I have to get up as a classroom teacher and have my students all push their desks to the side, which is going to take six minutes, at least.  And then we’re going to do some physical activity and then we’re going to move all the desks back, and then we’re going to continue with our math lesson.  My answer to that is, absolutely not.  Then you are doing your instruction a disservice.  Because that transition time, you’re probably looking at 12-15 minutes there.  And then so-and-so has got the wrong desk and you have a disciplinary problem because so-and-so is fighting because their pencil is missing. . .  no, no, no.  Instead, what we need to do is take a look at the resources we have.  How are our classrooms set up? Do we have our desks in rows for direct instruction, or do we have seating in pods? How much space do we have? What needs to happen at the desk? What needs to happen standing? We create really mindful ways and lessons to include relaxation breathing into the classroom throughout the school day while we’re still honoring transition time.  We’re not wasting time. 

My book is called Cooling Down Your Classroom, and that's because you aim for cool—students keeping their cool.  Well some students are going to be boiling over because they just got in a fight at lunch or recess.  Some students are going to be freezing, really lethargic and tired.  So how do you move your students, if you’re visualizing a thermometer, how do you move your students to that cool place on the thermometer? You acknowledge that they’re not all in the same place.  Instead of shaming your students into an energy level you want them to be, you acknowledge where they are and do some physical activity, some breathing, yoga. . . And then continue your school day.  And you can use these strategies simply.  If you’re preparing for a test, instead of just passing out the tests, you have your students stand up and do tree pose.  You have your students do some seated breathing and arm movements at their desk.  So you’re including the physical activity throughout the school day to improve the quality of instruction without lengthening transition time.

Thanks to Carla for sharing her experience; stay posted for the next in this series on mindfulness in the classroom.

P.S. – Check out this great classroom activity from Carla that combines math and mindful breathing!