Bringing Mindfulness to the Classroom, Pt. 3: Keep it Simple and Consistent

November 20, 2012

Screen Shot 2012-10-16 at 10.57.29 AM

Students cool down in the classroom after lunch in a “Warrior I” pose. Photo courtesy of Mindful Practices.

This post is the third 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 two parts of this Q&A here and here

What small changes can teachers make to support a more mindful classroom?

I would suggest they start with something simple, like 5-10 minutes a day.  I would say they start with a little toolbox of 3-5 activities.  The cotton ball breathing is the perfect activity because you teach it and then can replicate it every time the students take a test.  I always encourage the teachers to reflect on when throughout the school day they’re stressed and agitated, because we know that when teachers are stressed and agitated, it impacts the level of efficacy. And then also taking a look at where your students are. Do students exhibit a lot of anxiety when they come in from lunch or recess? Is it prior to testing; is it prior to the spelling test that happens every Wednesday? 

The most important thing is that you make it consistent.  If it’s something where the students are like, “Eh, this is the thing for this week, and that thing is going to change next week. . .” then the students aren’t going to buy into it because you’re not buying into it.  So teach the cotton ball breathing activity and then you say to your students, “OK, every Wednesday prior to our spelling tests we’re going to sit at our seats and do cotton ball breathing for 30 seconds to help us cool down and get centered and be ready to learn, ready to take our spelling test.”  So you’re articulating what you want out of the activity, you’re articulating why you’re doing the activity, you’re narrating for students the activity. You’re helping them cool down simply by telling them why they’re doing the activity and that you understand they are experiencing stress and anxiety prior to a spelling test. And then you’re practicing it consistently.  All students respond positively to structure, so let’s honor that and let’s build in these techniques into the curriculum.  It honors the teacher’s needs, it honors the context and the environment in which the learning is taking place.

Have you ever had to deal with “push back”?  How do you respond to people who are skeptical of your approach?

There are two types of push back.  I think that the first is a fear that parents are going to think yoga is religious.  I would say that that fear happens way more than the push back from parents actually does, which is interesting.  In six years of operation, since we opened our doors in 2006, we’ve only had three parents that have said their students cannot participate in the classroom yoga.  Now, in [Cooling Down Your Classroom], yoga is a piece of it, for sure, but there are activities that can be taken outside of the yoga. The cotton ball breathing, for instance.  It doesn’t mention yoga, doesn’t have Sanskrit in there — a cotton ball is a pretty innocuous object….

What I always say is: you send a weekly bulletin home, you have newsletters, you have curriculum nights and you include this in that newsletter, you include this in the curriculum night, you do an information sharing.  Any schools that we work with, we’ll always talk for free and talk to parents on curriculum night, on a family wellness night.  I always suggest including this practice in an overall wellness plan.

The other [push back] is transition times, that they will become too long. A lot of times teachers will say they hate the time period after lunch. “I hate getting my students into the classroom and getting them focused on reading after they were just running around playground all sweaty.  How do I do this?” And so you say, “Let’s tackle those times.  Let’s tackle your Friday afternoon.  Let’s tackle when your prep is cancelled because the computer teacher called in sick again and you’ve got 45 extra minutes and you’ve already showed your Shrek video.  What do you do?” There’s a real functionality here.  You’re not just looking at the automaticity that your students need to help control behavior; you’re also looking at how your classroom functions and where you need help as a classroom teacher.  So you chat that out, both the fear of the religious piece and the fear of transition times being lengthened, you get teachers and parents to identify what their needs are and you can waylay those fears.

Thanks, Carla, for more great tips on implementing these practices in the classroom!