By Heather Whitaker, IPLI Mentor & Principal at Mt. Comfort Elementary School
I saw a shirt the other day that was printed with just three single words – “Inhale, Exhale, Love.” It was a good reminder about how to approach returning to school after the holiday season and how I wish to attack second semester.
This time of year causes many teachers, administrators, and even students to become more stressed and anxious about school. Second semester leads into many hours of indoor recess, state testing, cramming in standards that maybe you didn’t get in first semester, and continuing to figure out how to “get to” that one student without one ounce of motivation in his body. Many of us are also struggling with increased aggressive behavior from many of our trauma students.
With all these distractions for both students and staff coming from many different directions on a daily basis, it is a wonder that we are able to get anything accomplished efficiently. I remember as a college athlete that our coach would bring in a physiologist a few times a year. This person taught us the importance of deep breathing and visualization to calm our nerves and focus on seeing ourselves successfully completing a routine prior to our competitions. This was the only way I survived many of my grueling routines and exams with success. This type of calming has just become a part of my daily routine, and I no longer think about it consciously.
So, why didn’t I think of this for my school is beyond me! But one day my amazing social worker sent me a couple videos about mindfulness (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVA2N6tX2cg and https://youtu.be/U9-phWL8t08). I watched them and immediately said “YES, we need to teach our students and staff how to use these skills that were so successful for me.”
We did some research and came up with some strategies to implement mindfulness training. We first introduced the program to our staff with some training on understanding the brain and how it works. We discussed how the frontal lobe controls our executive functioning, the amygdala controls our emotional reactions, and that the hippocampus is where our memory is stored. We made many references to the movie “Inside Out,” a movie about a young girl whose world is turned upside down when her family moves from the Midwest to San Francisco. The film is set in the mind of the young girl; where five personified emotions try to lead her through this new life (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seMwpP0yeu4). We decided that as a team of extraordinary elementary educators, we wanted to show the “love” by being more proactive. By providing safety, routine, and coping skills, we can calm the brain and prepare it to respond appropriately when faced with struggles.
We began our student training with a daily focused breathing segment on the morning news to kick the day off right. Taking deep breaths brings an oxygenated glucose blood flow to the frontal lobe. Taking just three deep inhales and exhales calms the emotional brain. Teachers are reporting that they are seeing students using this coping skill throughout the day. We have even seen students drawing circles in the air to represent “circle breathing” (inhale through the nose as you draw the top of the circle in the air and exhaling through the mouth as you draw the bottom of the circle in the air). So, if you are feeling a little stressed give it a try. A brain that is relaxed and ready equals less stress, better attitudes, stronger performances, and the ability to spread kindness and love — two things we definitely need more of.
It is amazing the change three little breaths can make!