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School is back in full swing and educators, parents and students alike are trying to adjust from the comparative freedom of the summer. For the last couple of months, the majority of kids probably weren’t even in the same place each day, hopefully, they were outside more, and were naturally moving daily in a way that’s not usually possible in a classroom. Now the new school year has once more rolled around, and we are asking students to once again sit still after they’ve been used to this physical freedom. As many an educator has experienced this can be challenging. Because the truth is, biologically, children should be moving about. “This idea of children sitting for long periods of time, they aren’t naturally wired to do that,” said Dr. Pamela Cantor, Founder and Chief Science Advisor of Turnaround for Children. The suggested antidote is encouraging your students, regardless of their age, to have ‘movement breaks’.

In-depth research has shown that short movement breaks activate the brain, and help students get focused and improves both their skill-building and knowledge retention. Dr. Pamela Cantor goes on to say, “So rather than put them in a position where they have to act out to demonstrate that they need to be able to move, building in movement breaks means that they will get some of the stress relief, some of the energy release that they need in order to be able to get calm again and pay attention to learning.” Of course for some students being able to move is even more important, particularly for those who come to school having experienced some form of trauma or toxic stress. “They have high levels of cortisol and the way to release that is through physical movement,” said Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, head of school at Van Ness Elementary school in Washington, D.C.

Within a classroom setting, you can try asking students to stretch every 15 mins – ‘stretch up to the sky, to their toes and side to side’. Then during recess and lunch, hopefully, they’ll have access to outside exercise and this will help them self-regulate during class time as well. But for many kids, it can also be difficult to transition from high energy spaces to calmer ones. This is where in addition to a movement break, incorporating a simple ‘mindfulness’ practice after lunch or at the start of the school day can help students calm down and prepare them to focus and learn again. This can be brief, just a few minutes: you’d preferably ask your students to sit down in a comfortable position and invite them to focus on something not distracting, while trying to be present in the moment: not thinking about the past or future. “I never require kids to close their eyes, because that can feel really unsettling,” said second-grade teacher Lindsey Minder. “We talk about looking into the palms of their hands or they’re looking into the seam on their sneakers, whatever works for them.” She’s aware that mindfulness doesn’t have to look a certain way to be effective. Its main purpose is to help students transition, calm down, and get to know their own needs. “The impact of the mindfulness practice is really this general sense of them being more comfortable and confident with themselves and their varying needs and decreases in anxiety around academic work,” she said.

Mindfulness moments may seem the opposite to movement breaks, and they are in the physical sense, but the purpose is the same – in that students can experience the stress relief that they need to be able to get calm, focused and pay attention to learning again.

Let’s look at ways of bringing Movement breaks and Mindfulness to your school.

  • Firstly, and probably the most challenging part, is to develop a culture where everyone is on-board so there’s consistency and a strong emphasis on acceptance, self-care, and empathy. Educators and students need time to learn what’s behind the purpose and understand how to talk about it.
  • Educators need dedicated time to engage in mindfulness practice themselves. In order to help students reap benefits, teachers also need time and support in adopting it. Research has shown mindfulness to be helpful to teachers, improving their own emotional well-being, helping them understand student perspective, and freeing them up to be more effective in the classroom.
  • There needs to be space to actually make these practices happen. For movement breaks, children need a classroom layout that doesn’t restrict them from moving when needed. Fixed rows of desks are very restrictive. Having different seating options available encourages movement. Standing desks are ideal as they allow continuous availability for movement.
  • For mindfulness, create a dedicated area in your classroom, maybe an area where there’s a rug or carpet, preferably near natural light and if possible, the addition of green plants is very calming for everyone.
  • Allow students to make their own time for mindfulness. Encourage students’ awareness of their own emotions by allowing and encouraging them to identify times when they can use and practice mindfulness. These are times when you could allow them to have some quiet time in a dedicated area of your classroom.

The goal is always to support children in recognizing their own needs and allowing them the opportunity to learn to regulate their own emotions, it really doesn’t have to look a certain way. But as an educator, you need time to figure out what works best for your class as a whole, individual students and yourself. But having a welcoming, calming, natural learning space goes a long way to creating an environment that gives you all the best chance of a positive outcome.

Thank you to KQED News and Harvard for their research paper about Mindfulness.

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