Addressing the Election


Given the division in our country (even in Massachusetts) I wanted to think of a way that would address the election and acknowledge the feelings of all children in a mindful way.

Here is what I did

When my students came in the classroom, I had them take out their notebooks and answer this prompt: What are your thoughts and feelings to the results of the recent election?

As they were writing, I acknowledged that some people might be feeling happy about the results while some might be feeling upset. Some might be feeling hopeful and other confused. Others might not be feeling anything at all. I told them whatever they were feeling was fine. It was just important that they recognize their own thoughts and get them out.

Usually, when I have students free write, I have certain students who get stuck. They are unsure what to write. However, this was not the case on Wednesday. All of my students had something to say. They wrote fast, and they wrote furiously.

Afterwards, we had our minute meditation in which I assured all my students that no matter what they were feeling they were all cared for and loved.

Once our meditation was complete, we began our classwork and continued on with our day. I think that it is important to give our students time and space to sort through their thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, these thoughts and feelings when left unacknowledged can be a distraction to the present moment and cause stress.

The simple act of providing a safe space for reflection and to sift through some potentially strong emotions can be helpful to a student’s learning and overall well-being.

 Amy Timmins is a sixth grade ELA teacher at Clarke Middle School in Lexington, MA.

Being Grateful Beyond Thanksgiving


In my last blog post, I described The Tree of Gratitude.  During this classroom activity, the teacher makes a construction paper tree.  Students draw fall leaves using the outline of their hands, write one thing for which they are grateful on that leaf, and place it on the tree.   I did this activity myself.  Putting up The Tree of Gratitude made my hallway look brighter for the month of November and research shows practicing gratitude can boost the psychological well being of my students.

It’s December now, Thanksgiving is past, the leaves are off the trees outside, and the Tree of Gratitude has come down.  Despite this, I still want the spirit of gratitude in my classroom.  Unfortunately, I find that stand alone activities like The Tree of Gratitude are difficult to squeeze in on a regular basis. I have a packed curriculum I need to follow.  In addition to that, the amount of half days my school has this month due to parent conferences makes it even harder to fit in all of the curriculum that needs to be covered.  Because of this, it is necessary to come up with strategies to integrate gratitude into my regular classroom activities.

One method I use to incorporate gratitude into the curriculum is to include a time when students can share what they appreciated about a small group literary discussion in which they participated.

Integrating Gratitude Practices into Classroom Discussions

Part of the Reading Workshop model that I use with my students has students engage in small group discussions about literature.  When the time comes for these literary conversations to close, I give my students the following instructions:

Now that your discussion is over, take one to two minutes to let your group members know one thing you appreciated about your discussion.  This expression of gratitude can be directed at a particular group member or you can just say something you’re thankful about the conversation in general.  

For example, maybe you could thank the classmates in your group for asking good questions and keeping the conversation interesting or perhaps thank a particular group member for clearing up something that you didn’t understand at first.

When my students engage in this gratitude activity, I often hear student comments like these:

“I really appreciated how ______ asked about _______. I was wondering the same thing.”

“Listening to everyone’s ideas made me understand the book better.  Thanks so much for that!”

“Thanks ______________ for being the time-keeper.  That helped us to get through everything we needed to talk about.”

This addition to literary discussions takes about 3 minutes and aligns nicely with Common Core Standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6.1.b which requires students to “Follow rules for collegial discussions.”  When kids express their gratitude to their discussion partners, they often restate the rules for collegial discussion, such as keeping discussions on track, asking and answering clarifying questions, and bringing up points that allow the group to think more deeply.

Moreover, students learn school success strategies from each other.  For example, last week one group of students engaged in literary discussion were having difficulty understanding a particular aspect of the book.  As much as they tried to work through their struggle on their own, they couldn’t come up with a clear answer to their question.  Because of this, one student left the group, walked up to me, and asked me to help out his group with their problem.  I did so gladly by pointing them to a part of the book they had not considered before.  After that, their group was able to move on and proceed with the rest of their discussion.

When the time to express gratitude came, I heard that group thank the student who came up to me several times for helping them work out their problem by reaching out to the teacher.  This expression of gratitude is significant to me because sometimes kids who have difficulty keep their struggles to themselves and don’t ask for much help.  I loved the fact that those students showed that they noticed how asking for help was a successful strategy and appreciated the efforts of their fellow student for using it.  These types of interactions do much to support actions that promote school success.

According to research conducted by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough (2003)  the routine practice of expressing gratitude can increase one’s psychological well-being.  Moreover, in another study by Froh, Selfick, and Emmons (2008), students who were given opportunities to express gratitude and did so had higher levels of school satisfaction.  The students in the aforementioned Froh, Selfick and Emmons (2008) study were instructed to write about what they appreciated about their lives in general (ex. I have great parents.).  When students are given the opportunity to express gratitude at the end of literary discussions (or any other type of group work for that matter),  the impact on student school satisfaction may be stronger since students are reflecting upon what they appreciate about the contributions of their classmates, the content of the curriculum, and their current classroom experience.

Additionally, a 2009 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology  by Froh et al. showed that young people who were measured at lower levels of positive affect grew more in positive affect after participating in a two-week gratitude intervention.  Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that integrating a regular routine of practicing gratitude at the end of literary discussions or group work may be considerably more beneficial for students who seem to have a tougher time feeling good about themselves and their ability to perform academic tasks.

One day while observing my students as they were expressing their appreciation for the contributions of their group members, I noticed that one of my students singled another out for making an insightful comment.  When I overheard this, I was particularly excited because the student who was being appreciated was a student who sometimes struggled in my class.  Upon being thanked for his part in the discussion, I saw that student perk up and a smile creep across his/her face.

Now that is something to be grateful for!

Mindfulness and the Economy of a Smile

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 9.11.00 AM

By Susan Reinecke,


I smile at strangers. It’s just who I am. Sometimes they smile back, sometimes they look confused (“do I know you?”), sometimes I am met with blank stares. No matter, I believe fully in the economy of smile.

When I was in graduate school in 2002, I conducted what I termed an “interactive public social research performance.” For a little over 6 weeks, during two different seasons, for 15 minutes a day, I would walk the same route from where I was living in Brooklyn to the subway station and smile at strangers.

In all, I smiled at 854 people. Of these 854, 43% percent of them, that is 368 people, met my gaze and smiled back.

As a natural smiler,* there were few days that I had to will myself to give the first smile. Yet, after the first one or two, each subsequent smile became easier, more genuine, and my mood became lighter. I found myself becoming more and more aware of every person around me. This heightened awareness, increased my overall sense of connection with the people around me. And, I felt more connected to myself.

Ellen Langer (Harvard University Professor of Psychology) defines mindfulness as “the process of actively noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived mindsets, and then acting on the new observations.” My determination, my goal of smiling at strangers, enabled me to be truly mindful of others. Rather than being oblivious to the world around me, I was present, in the moment, and engaged. And the more I smiled, the more I wanted to keep smiling.

Today, I googled smile studies and found Tedtalks, articles in numerous academic journals, magazines and blogs, all referencing the power of a smile to improve mood and increase overall well-being. Yes, there are detractors and yes, there are cultural and regional differences in response to smiling. Yet, there is overwhelming evidence that a real, genuine smile will not only lift the spirit of the smiler but of the recipient as well. In my brief experiment, 368 strangers smiled back. Imagine the economy of this experience if these 368 people then smiled at other strangers who smiled at other strangers and so on.

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 9.11.24 AM

Here is my challenge to you- starting today, challenge yourself to smile at a minimum of ten people today. Do it deliberately while you are walking down the hall at work, down the aisle at the grocery store, while walking your dog or standing in line at the post office. Smile at your students, your co-workers. Smile at people you know and people you don’t know. Make a deliberate effort to interact, to see and appreciate the people around you. It may feel uncomfortable at first but what do you have to lose?

Let me know how it went, ok?


9 December, 2015


*Note: the word “smiler” does not appear to exist in any dictionary I found on-line. I used it anyway. My unofficial definition, for those who may not be able to guess:

Smiler: noun, a person who smiles. J


Susan is a lifelong learner who believes passionately in the economy of a smile. She holds an MFA-IA from Goddard College and an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She currently offers interactive workshops in Communication, Presentation and Risk and may be reached at

The Power of Practicing Gratitude


Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times of year. I love the fact that we as a nation have a holiday that is totally dedicated to appreciating what we have. In my opinion, it’s also one of the most meaningful holidays that teachers are free to openly acknowledge in public schools. Because of this, there are a plethora of activities that teachers have created over the years that encourage young people to get into the spirit of this holiday by encouraging them to give thanks for all the good things they have in their lives.

One activity that I have done with my middle school students for the past several years has been the construction of the Tree of Gratitude. A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, I assemble a tree with brown construction paper either in my room or the hallway. I then have each student make an outline of his/her hand on yellow, red, or orange construction paper. These form the leaves of the tree. Hand leaves look surprisingly similar to the leaves of a maple tree.

On these leaves, the students write a sentence about one aspect of their life for which they are thankful, decorate the leaf, and put it up on the tree. I love the simplicity of this activity and reading about all the wonderful things in the lives of my students.

In addition to that, this activity can extend far beyond the Thanksgiving season. After Thanksgiving, students can be invited to add more leaves to the tree. Teachers also can replace the leaves with snowflakes and create a winter wonderland of gratitude.

While this simple activity is useful for making the hallway look brighter and getting to know our students better, engaging young people in practices that allow them to notice and give thanks for what they have is good for their mental health and well being. In a series of psychological studies, researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough (2003) studied the act of practicing gratitude. In other words, they looked at what happens when people “dwell on the favorable, to appreciate the benefits that others provide, and hence reflect on the benevolence of others” (pg. 378-379). What they found was those who had a weekly or daily practice of showing thanks, were more optimistic, experienced more positive emotions, slept longer and better, and enjoyed stronger social bonds with others. (Click here to read the study yourself.  It’s really interesting.)

Not too shabby for a tree made of construction paper . . . .

By Amy Timmins, 6th Grade ELA Teacher, Clarke Middle School, Lexington, MA

Addressing Student Anxiety Using a Mindfulness Approach


Amy Timmins, Sixth Grade ELA Teacher, Clarke Middle School, Lexington, MA


This annotated bibliography provides secondary school teachers with resources to help them deal with the issue of student anxiety in the classroom. It was designed with a focus on how teachers can justify the use of mindfulness in their classroom and actually apply mindfulness exercises to help their students effectively manage their stress and anxiety levels to increase their levels of well being.


  1. Ciesla, J. A.;Reilly, L. C.;Dickson, K. S.;Emanuel, A. S.;Updegraff, J. A. (2012). Dispositional Mindfulness Moderates the Effects of Stress among Adolescents: Rumination as a Mediator. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 41(6), p.760-770 Text: Academic Journal Article. Overview: This study looked at the correlation between an adolescent’s level of mindfulness and stress level, mood as well as tendency to ruminate or worry. First, the mindfulness levels of participating high school students were measured for “observing” (the ability to tend to the present moment), “describing” (the ability to identify one’s feelings), “acting with awareness”, “nonjudging of inner experience”, and “nonreactivity to inner experience” (Ciesla et al., 2012, p 671). After this testing, students tracked how how much they felt stress, sad, or worried for a week (ibid, p. 673). The results showed that those who scored higher in nonjudging and nonreactivity on the mindfulness scales tended to ruminate less and were not as negatively affected by life stressors as students who scored lower in those areas. Uses: (Informational) Teachers who are looking to incorporate mindfulness practices could use this as evidence that increased levels of mindfulness help protect adolescents from the negative effects of stress that could generate anxious feelings. A teacher might use this study to focus his/her efforts on practices that cultivate nonjudgmental and nonreactive states of mind.


  1. Brantley, Jeffrey (2003). Calming Your Anxious Mind. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Text: Book Overview: This book provides basic information on the causes of anxiety and possible negative effects. The first section of this book provides the reader with an understanding of what anxiety is, what causes anxiety, the type of thought patterns it creates, how it is felt physically, and its psychological and emotional effects.   It also provides an explanation of how the body’s fear system works and mind’s ability to generate or curb thoughts that can create anxiety. The author offers the use of meditation as a vehicle for dealing with anxiety issues. The second part of the book is comprised of various mindfulness exercises that can be used in order to lessen the effects of anxiety. Uses: (Information) The accessibility of this book allows it to be a good introduction to understanding anxiety and how to manage it through meditation. (Practical) The meditation exercises presented in the book can be implemented in a classroom setting. A teacher can use this book for ideas if he/she would like to have a mindfulness group outside of class time as well. Teachers who get overwhelmed and feel anxiety due to the pressures of being a teacher may wish to engage in some of these mindfulness exercises on their own too.

  1. The Hawn Foundation. (2011). The Mindup Curriculum TM, Grades 6-8. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Text: Curriculum/Book. Overview: This book contains the complete MindUp Curriculum which is divided into four units that support social emotional learning. In the first unit, students learn about their brain and how it works. The teacher also instructs students how to engage in the “Core Practice” of focused breathing. Students learn that this type of breathing will help them decrease their own anxiety and avoid the “fight or flight” response during stressful situations. Once these concepts are taught, the curriculum advises teachers to engage their students in the core practice daily during homeroom time, at the beginning of classes, or during transitions, so that students can center themselves before engaging in new academic tasks. The second unit provides teachers with activities that will help students see the ways in which their thoughts shape how external information is processed through their senses. In the third unit, teachers facilitate lessons that show students how their attitudes determine how much they learn. The final unit focuses on mindfully connecting with others. Uses: (Practical) Using this program, teachers can instruct students how to manage their emotions and giving them time and space to practice potentially useful strategies for lowering feelings of stress and anxiety. All of the lessons come with curriculum connections that can be applied in multiple subject areas. A particularly interesting component of this program is an explanation of how mindfulness training applies to various careers.


  1. McGonigal, Kelly (June, 2013): How to make stress your friend, TED Global 2013. Video retrieved from:

Text: Ted Talk Video Overview: Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal argues that the bodily effects that stress produces can actually be beneficial to accomplishing goals. She details studies which reveal that the negative physical effects most associated with stress and the fear response can be avoided by viewing stress in a positive way. Instead of thinking of stress as something bad, she encourages people to understand bodily signals of stress, like a quickening heartbeat, as “my body helping me rise to this challenge”(McGonigal, 2013). Uses: (Informational/Practical) So many people have been taught that stress is inherently a bad experience and something to be avoided. Because of this, some teachers are very nervous about making students anxious from academic stress. However, trying to shield students from stress is not realistic and does not prepare students for life outside of the classroom. In addition to that, what might be a stress inducing situation for one person may not be for another. Therefore, in some situations for some students, stress might not be preventable. Teaching students to deal with stress in healthy ways can potentially lower anxiety among students. For example, in a testing situation, this video might prompt a teacher to say something like this: If during this exam, you notice your heart rate is increasing, just think of it as your body helping you by pumping more oxygen to your brain. When a person runs, his/her beating heart helps him/her go faster, do better. So just like a runner, take some deep breaths and allow your beating heart and steady breath get you to the finish line for your personal best.

Meditation in the Classroom


These past three weeks were the first days of school for me and many other teachers.  As usual, I went over the classroom rules and procedures with my middle school students.

  • Before you enter the classroom, make sure that you have all your materials with you.
  • Raise your hand before you speak.
  • Take one minute to focus on your breath at the beginning of class.

While the first two classroom procedures listed above may seem fairly typical, the third is not.  Mindfulness in schools has received much positive attention recently with articles published in The Atlantic and The New York Times. However, the consistent exercise of incorporating meditation and mindfulness into the regular routine of the school day is not widespread.

When I first decided several years ago that I wanted to give meditation and mindfulness a try, I was intimidated and quite frankly nervous about adding another thing to do on a to do list that was already infinitely long.  Because of time constraints, I created practice based off common meditation teachings that only takes three minutes to complete.  Once my students have completed their opening activities such as writing down their homework assignment in their agenda books, the sequence I follow is this:

1.  I instruct them to place the students feet firmly on the ground, noticing if they feel their toes and heels on the ground

2.  I direct the students to sit up straight and tall with their heads held high, looking like the important people that they are.

3.  Next the students place their hands on their knees, palms facing up, and close their eyes.    Guiding students to place their hands in this position keeps their hands are free of anything (including the fingers of their other hand) that may distract them during this time.  In addition to that, students seem less self  conscious when meditating with their classmates when their eyes are shut.  Since everyone has their eyes closed, they don’t feel like someone is watching them.

4.  Once the students have gotten in position, we take our first three inhales and exhales together as a class.  I direct the students to concentrate on breathing in through their noses and out through their noses, while their bellies, then rib cages, and chests expand.  They breathe out through their noses.  This exhale will result in a Darth Vadar sound, although many meditation practitioners compare the noise to the sound of the ocean.

5.  After these initial three breaths, I tell the students to follow their own breath the next minute, and if their attention wanders away from their breath to gently direct it back.

6. At the end of the minute, the students and I take the last three breaths of our meditation together as a class, once again I instruct students to follow their breaths as they fill their lower bellies, rib cages and chests and empty them in a likewise fashion.

7. Once we have done this, the students open their eyes, and we begin the lesson/activity for the day.

Given the high stakes testing environment in which we live, one might ask why would a teacher give up fifteen precious minutes of academic time per week to have kids focus on their breath.  What about reading comprehension, writing ability, critical thinking skills, the Common Core Standards?  The reason I offer is the following.  Although meeting the Common Core Standards is necessary and the critical thinking skills found within them are ultimately useful to students, I believe it is also necessary to teach students how to emotionally navigate the world in which they live.  Without a strong personal core, it is difficult for students to use the skills they have developed in school purposefully and effectively.

While many articles published on meditation and mindfulness in schools focus on the good it can do for high poverty schools, I work in a high performing school district where kids continuously push themselves to do well.  That drive comes along with many positives, like a majority of my students complete their homework thoroughly and on time.  However, that drive can also bring kids to demand perfection in everything they do, and if they don’t live up to these unrealistic standards of continuous excellence, some can become quite down on themselves.

Research by Arsenio and Loria (2014) found that students who had higher levels of academic stress were more likely to have a negative academic affect.  In other words, kids who felt more stress around their school work and getting it completed correctly, generally had a worse attitude about completing projects, homework, in class assignments, tests, and quizzes.  Although these researchers could not find a direct link between the level of student stress and their grade point averages, they did find that students with a higher negative academic affect tended to have  lower grade point averages.  When negative academic coping strategies were factored in, the link was even stronger.

As a teacher reading this, I think to myself , “Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.  Kids who feel bad about school and avoid their work do worse.”  However, I cite this research to make another connection.  If students can be taught and given opportunities to practice strategies that allow them to manage and decrease their own stress levels, they may be able to bounce back more easily from academic challenges and setbacks.  Research has shown that people who practice meditation on a regular basis (and not just by the Zen Buddhists monks) have lower levels of stress and anxiety.

In addition to helping students relax, the practice of meditation has been linked with increases in self-regulation.  Zimmerman and Kinstas (2006) define self-regulation as processes that people use to activate and maintain thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to attain personal goals.  In many ways, the level of a student’s self regulation determines how well they manage their own stress and potentially negative situations.

For example, a student may be self-regulating in the following scenario:  John gets back a test in his biology class.  When he looks at the paper, he sees that he has gotten a C.  He feels that he studied hard, and he can’t understand why his grade was so low.  John begins to feel very stressed about this and to get upset with himself.  He wonders if this class is just too hard for a kid like him.  However, before his feelings start running away with him, he realizes that feeling bad about himself and getting upset about the low grade isn’t going to get him what he wants, which is an A or A- for the quarter.  Because of this realization, he decides to take a look at his mistakes and make an appointment with his teacher to go over where his thinking was wrong.

In my experience, students who have developed self-regulation skills are considered to be mature.  Like intelligence and academic skills, self-regulation is plastic and develops over time.  (Blair and Raver, 2012).  In a recently published 2015 study entitled “Fostering Self-Regulation Through Curriculum Infusion of Mindful Yoga: A Pilot Study of Efficacy and Feasibility”, Bergen-Cico, Razza, and Timmins found that middle school students who engaged in mindfulness practices, specifically 5 minutes of yoga and meditation approximately four times a week, had significant increases in global and long term self-regulation.  Global self-regulation can be described as one’s overall ability to notice their urges and manage their subsequent actions.  Long-term self–regulation is the ability to do the same in service to a particular goal an individual has set for him/herself.  Both of these types of self regulation are necessary for school and overall life success.

When my students meditate at the beginning of class, they practice how to relax themselves as well as how to check in with themselves and manage their emotions.  I believe that, in turn, these skills will funnel over into other areas of English class.  I know that meditating with my students has not magically changed them into young people who are not ruffled by their mistakes or setbacks that occur to them. However, it is my hope for this practice is the following:  when facing any type of stressful situation, my students will have the ability to pause, assess the situation, problem-solve, and move forward.  And I hope that this skill is utilized both within and outside my classroom walls.

Amy Timmins has been teaching since 1997 and is currently a sixth grade English teacher at the Jonas Clarke Middle School in Lexington, MA.  She holds a Masters degree in Elementary Education from Catholic University and another Masters degree in Education with a concentration in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.  She also is a 200 hour Registered Yoga Teacher through Yoga Alliance.  She was trained in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction  and studied mindfulness under Ellen Langer.  Amy strives to support teachers by providing information from research in the areas of child development and psychology to help the classroom become a place where positive mental health is fostered.

Removing Barriers


Being an educator of elementary and middle school students for seventeen years, I have had a lot of experience with teaching within a school context. However, one of the most game changing experiences I had in my life as a teacher happened outside of the classroom, and the person who I had taken on as a student ended up being one of the best teachers I ever had. In order to protect her privacy, I will refer to her as Stephanie in this piece.

Stephanie and I were enrolled in the same 200-hour yoga teacher training. We got to know each other when we were midway through our yoga training. During a class break, Stephanie was next to me in line for the bathroom. Trying to make small talk as the wait was going to be a long one, I looked her way and asked, “How are you doing?”

Nervously, Stephanie glanced off to the side and confessed, “I have to present today, but I haven’t finished my paper.” The paper about which she spoke was a ten to fifteen page reflection paper. It was a major requirement for the completion of the yoga training and we were to give a talk based on the content of our paper to the rest of the students in the class. Without waiting for a response, she continued, “You must be so mad at me.”

To that, I simply responded, “I’m not mad. I am sure it will be great.” When this response came out of my lips, I was actually quite surprised at myself. If one of my middle school students came into class unprepared like that, I would have been pretty upset. This feeling of discomfort on my part would not have been because my orders weren’t followed. It would be because I want my students to do well, and I work very hard to help them. For me, when a student fails, I have failed them. So when it seems I am getting angry with them, I am mostly getting angry with myself. However, Stephanie wasn’t my student, and so it seemed more natural to be easy going with her.

After our break was over, the presentations began. To Stephanie’s dismay, she was called up first. She started out her presentation by telling everyone that she was the daughter of South American immigrants. To her parents’ pride, she did extremely well academically and earned a full scholarship to a prestigious university.   The world was hers for the taking, and she was filled with hope.

Despite this seemingly fairy tale ending to a very successful high school career, Stephanie’s experience in college was rocky, with her senior year being the hardest. Nevertheless, she was getting by and was on her way to finishing up her final papers and projects. However, Stephanie spoke of one particular term paper that seemed to give her a lot of trouble. For some reason that she couldn’t put her finger on, she couldn’t get it done. The due date for her paper went by, and she got an extension. Then the due date for the extension went by, and she dropped it.

After working four years to be the first person in her family to obtain a college degree, Stephanie walked away without her diploma. She was heartbroken. Upon hearing her story, I was heartbroken for her.

Recognizing a similar pattern emerging and knowing that Stephanie’s reflection paper was already written in her mind, I approached her after the presentation was complete. “Stephanie,” I said, “I was really touched by your talk. I don’t know if you remember this, but I am an English teacher. Let me know if you want me to help you get your paper done.”

With that, I gave Stephanie my phone number, and she called me later that week. I reminded her that she had her paper already written since she had presented, so all she had to do was get it down on paper. We worked out a schedule, and I provided some encouraging phone calls to keep her on track, asking her what was getting in the way and helping her find solutions to removing the various barriers she had in life to getting her work done.

Some of the barriers were simply time management or figuring out the right location to sit and write undisturbed. Those were easy to solve with a little creative looking at Stephanie’s schedule and the decision to write at one particular Starbucks versus another. However, there were some that were tougher to navigate, such as feeling like a failure for not having made the original deadline. Those barriers required gentle encouragement and reminders to use the meditation practices we had been learning throughout our program. Within two weeks, the paper was done and handed in, and eight weeks later we both got our yoga teaching certificates.

Once that hurdle was jumped, I asked Stephanie if she wanted to take on another challenge: finishing her degree. Although the prospect of doing that was appealing, Stephanie was nervous. Nevertheless, she decided that getting her degree was a goal she wanted to take on, and we immediately got working to make it happen.

Since finishing Stephanie’s degree was going to be a more academically challenging task and one that she would be doing without the support of a cohort of fellow students, I had Stephanie imagine what having that much desired degree would look like and feel like to her. She imagined the happiness of seeing the diploma hanging on the wall of her parents’ living room. She imagined the pride after accomplishing a task she wasn’t sure she could do. She imagined the lightness she would feel after the burden of not finishing her college degree had been lifted after eight years.

The next few months were demanding Stephanie had to now retake two classes to earn her diploma. During this time period, she faced similar obstacles as she did while completing her yoga paper. I called her frequently, and we talked through how she could overcome those obstacles by creatively looking at her time, finding a quiet place where she could do her work in peace, and meditating when the negative voices in her head were drowning out the information from her classes. All of these strategies allowed her to stay on the path that she imagined for herself and unlock her untapped potential.

And within eight months of her presenting her story on how she didn’t get her college degree, Stephanie felt the joy of seeing her diploma on her parents’ living room wall, she felt the pride for accomplishing a task she thought she couldn’t do, and her burden was lifted.  I will never forget the night she brought her diploma to my home. I remember how she told me that she couldn’t have gotten through this without me. Although I was extremely flattered to hear her say that, it was Stephanie who was doing all of her readings and writing all of her papers for class. I didn’t provide any academic support, only psychological.

The reason why this experience was a game changer for me was that it made me realize how many barriers to learning might be caused by other factors than academic difficulties, learning disabilities, or lack of resources. Sometimes, internal barriers need to be mindfully removed in order to unlock untapped potential. What I did with Stephanie wasn’t magic. It was a personalized approach to her learning that addressed her psychological needs. In order to do this, in each interaction with her, I followed this line of questioning:

  1. What are you doing right now? Is this action working?
  2. What is your next step?
  3. What is keeping you from accomplishing your next step?
  4. How can you reinterpret your situation so that, while remaining realistic, you can see opportunities rather than obstacles?
  5. What is your next step now? Is it the same or did it change?

Helping her answer these questions allowed her to create stepping-stones so that she could get from her starting point to her end goal.   Because various psychological factors like regret, shame, doubt, and fear were clouding her decision making process, she was stuck. However, our conversations and this line of questioning helped her see her situation more clearly and move forward.

Teachers are the first responders to our students’ mental health issues, and psychological factors can create barriers to learning. Education can be transformational when students, like Stephanie, are taught how to identify, understand, and think of solutions to overcome their own barriers. In my own experience, schools are adept at addressing issues on the surface level, including time management. Many schools are also very responsive in giving kids additional academic support. Additionally, social emotional programs have become increasingly important components of a school wide guidance program.

However, I see a need for teachers to be trained in how students’ minds work and develop. Doing so will provide teachers with the necessary background to support student personal as well as academic growth. By learning specific practices and language that teachers can use in their everyday discussions with students, like the questions outlined above, teachers can promote positive habits of mind as well as foster reflection, empowerment, and resilience in their students. These factors will go a long way towards students being able to take control of their own learning and ultimately, their own destiny.

Possible Selves in the Classroom

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 5.45.27 PM
          One day after school while I was helping a student named Kim with a writing assignment, Kim confided in me that she wanted to be a surgeon when she grew up. The conviction in her voice as she uttered those words told me that this aspiration was more than just a passing fancy. Becoming a surgeon was something that Kim believed she could accomplish. Hearing this made me more fully understand why Kim had distinguished herself from some of her other classmates. She had goals, and these goals created a vision of what she wanted to be in the future. This vision motivated her to work harder and longer than some of her classmates. However, I believe the vision did more than that. It gave her purpose. She wasn’t trying to get good grades, just so she could please her parents and her teachers, although that was a helpful side effect of her enhanced efforts. Kim saw her efforts and school successes were stepping stones in service of her larger goals.
          When I reflect upon this particular classroom experience, I see various psychological forces at play. However, one of the most prominent in this circumstance is the concept of possible selves. Psychologists Markus and Nurius (1986) define the possible self as “how individuals think about their potential and about their future” (p. 954). A possible self can be a future version of oneself that is desired (successful, wealthy, knowledgeable, loved) or one to be avoided (defeated, destitute, inept, friendless).
          Understanding possible selves may be of great interest to teachers as students’ possible selves play a big part in motivation and regulating behavior (Markus and Nurius, 1986). This is because possible selves are closely related to Bandura’s conception of self-efficacy, one’s belief that he or she can accomplish what he or she has set out to do (Bandura, 1997). What a person believes about what he can or cannot do and what the future has in store for him has a large impact on what he notices and remembers, as well as how he interprets that information and the world around him (Markus & Nurius, 1986). For instance, a young person who believes she is destined to be a doctor one day will view a poor grade in biology differently than one who believes he will be a banker or another who believes that the only viable path for him is to be the person who stocks shelves at the local Costco.

          This is because people who have high levels of self-efficacy tend to set loftier and more challenging goals for themselves (Bandura, 1997). They have confidence they can handle setbacks or stressors that come their way and are less likely to give up during a difficult task than people with low self-efficacy. For example, the student who believes that he can become a doctor is more likely to revisit the mistakes that he made on the test and learn from them because he believes that he has the ability to one day understand the material that he might not have gotten on the first (or even the second or third try). This could be very different from the student who believes he will be a banker or shelf stocker because he doesn’t have what it takes to fully understand the complexities of biology.

In sum, possible selves are “hypothetical images (the self one would like to attain, the self one would like to avoid) critical for motivating action” (Oyserman, Terry and Bybee, 2002, p. 314). Possible selves can be focused on a variety of areas where goals can be set: school, work, personal, etc. They are the tools by which one develops and commits to his identity (Dunkel & Anthis, 2001). They can act as personal targets to which our students continuously recommit to particular ways of viewing themselves as well as their futures they have imagined. Being mindful of this psychological concept at play in the classroom empowers teachers to understand their students at a deeper level. In the next segment of posting, I will further explore possible selves and what teachers may be doing already in their classroom that addresses this concept.

Posting written by Amy Timmins

Integrating Practices that Foster Mental Health Into the Classroom

While I was at the Mindfulness in Education Conference in Washington, DC last year, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan spoke about the importance of teaching mindfulness practices to students because it will foster the growth of mental health in our young people and the knowledge of those mindfulness skills will benefit them throughout the course of their life spans. Additionally, Congressman Ryan asserted to the audience of teachers with “plates” that were beyond full that they would actually save time by teaching mindfulness skills. I have heard the same proclaimed about taking time out of the day to teach kids about executive functioning, social skills, emotional intelligence, and how their brains work.

With no sign on the horizon of the school day or year being lengthened either at the state or national level, I wonder how much time will I have left to teach my academic curriculum after building in this “non-cognitive” curriculum. As an advocate for the teaching of mindfulness and other practices that foster mental health, I find that incorporating these non-cognitive factors of school success requires me to be more mindful in the way I approach teaching academics.

Many people are familiar with the scene from the 1980s classic, The Karate Kid, in which Mr. Miyagi has his karate protégée Daniel performing every day various chores for him such as waxing his car and sanding his floor. After four days of performing these duties, Daniel feels that he has had enough. Daniel complains to Mr. Miyagi that he came to learn karate, not be his personal slave. However, Mr. Miyagi then shows Daniel that through these chores he has been building up Daniel’s muscles and teaching him these movements the whole time.

We as teachers can in effect accomplish the same task through mindful, thoughtful reflection on our daily interactions and practices with students. Mr. Miyagi fully understood the mechanics of each defensive karate move. He was able to integrate the teaching of these moves into motions that most people do anyways and to which they don’t give much thought. This could be considered multitasking in its highest and most evolved form.

When considering how to include practices that foster mental health inside the classroom such as the teaching of mindfulness, self talk, executive function, and mindset, teachers (such as myself) might ask the following questions:

1. How does this mechanism (ex. mindfulness practice, self talk, mindset) work?
2. What might I be doing already that accomplishes the teaching of this important skill?
3. What simple, but thoughtful, tweaks can I make to my academic lessons that will accomplish this?
4. How can my goals be measured, looking at, as well as beyond, academic test scores?

I believe that when teachers ask these questions their lessons can become transformational.