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7 Tips for Hot and Cold Mindfulness

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April Light by Laura McKelvie

It was a strange winter here in Vermont.

New to the area, I was told to expect many feet of snow on the ground until late April or early May. While gray clouds hinted that an infamous Northeast blizzard was just around the corner, we were never truly inundated. Periodic warm days often melted the snow completely. A bout of blue skies and the intoxicating smell of fresh grass in late March left me confident there would be no more winter. But early April brought enough snow to shovel and I snapped the photo here to commemorate my faulty prediction.

I reflected then about how this on-again off-again winter provided a perfect metaphor for my mindfulness practice. Lately it’s passed through periods of hot and cold, so to speak. Some days my practice has a momentum of its own—I feel settled and concentrated without much effort. But the very next day, contrary to my hope I’ll have another easy session, I struggle with distraction and low motivation; it feels cold, like nothing is happening.

Many of you are familiar with this seesaw in your practice. Often when we struggle during a mindfulness practice, we ask ourselves what we are doing wrong and might even jump to blaming ourselves for…for…something. We must be doing something wrong otherwise we wouldn’t be so distracted. Right?

Nope.

Of course it’s good to review if we are actually trying to follow through with our technique. But it’s also just as important as it is difficult to remember this: the quality of mindfulness practice ebbs and flows. That’s just the way it goes. The mind wanders naturally and we can’t control that. As long as we set our intention to do a technique, such as focusing on our breath, and honestly try, then we are practicing correctly, even if we get distracted often.

I know this, yet even with years of mindfulness practice under my belt, I still sometimes catch myself slipping into judgments. “Why am I so distracted and tense?! I should be relaxed and focused!”

We are so used to having judgmental thoughts that they can happen automatically. Instead of adding fire with yet more judgmental thoughts, I shift to being kind to myself and try one or a combination of these strategies: 

  1. Take a breath.
  2. Remind yourself that harsh judgments about our experience is not what helps us get into a calm, concentrated state.
  3. Congratulate yourself for noticing the distraction. Realizing we’re distracted and coming back to our technique is what builds concentration. Noticing distraction is the solution to the problem of low concentration.
  4. Open up to the idea that this session might remain challenging and deep concentration might not happen.
  5. Avoid comparing it to other mindfulness sessions that went “better.” Be where you are now.
  6. Zoom out. Try to incorporate the distracted state into your observation. Get a global sense of how it feels on the mental, emotional, and physical spaces to be distracted. Is your mind racing like a river or gently meandering around some curves? How tight or calm is your body? Stay with this global observation for the remainder of the session or gently return to your technique after a few moments.
  7. Gently return to your technique. Use as little mental activity as possible.

Developing concentration by staying on a focus point is very important. But so much tension can build up around this goal that we loose sight of the fact that accepting ourselves when mindfulness practice proves difficult is just as important. Sometimes your practice will be going well and you’ll feel so settled it’s like you’re on fire. Many times it will feel like a cold, slow slog. Accepting this fluctuation builds the oft touted but elusive non-judgmental component of mindfulness that’s key for integrating the mindful skills we learn on the cushion into our daily lives.

Being distracted for most of our mindfulness practice session isn’t what we plan on, especially if things have been going well in previous sessions. But if we work with the distracted mind skillfully, it’s just one more thing to observe and relax around. Next time you have a challenging session, try some of the tips and see what happens.

Relaxing homework

IMG_1742Lindsay from Center for Mindful Learning came Tuesday. Last week on Tuesday, I wasn’t here. But this week, we asked who did their homework.

Our class never has homework.

But this time…

It was simple.

Breathe in…. breathe out… relax.

The idea is that this should become a natural tool for us to use thoughout our day. And that it should be small. We’ve been working on that in January. Small movements. Slow movements.

So what does that mean, small? We used to use both our hands, like we were pushing a weight up when we’d breathe in; letting it fall when we breathed out; arms falling to the side when we would relax. But we can do it smaller.

We started with just our hands on our knees. Raise your hand and breathe in, lower your hand and breathe out. But it can be smaller. Just one hand. Or just a finger.

When we do that, we can bring our tool with us… when we are angry in the car (which I seem to be a lot lately), when we are frustrated in math class, when we are angry at our siblings, when we are anxious about a test… We can use this tool to help us function.

So the homework was to do it once–just one time–before Lindsay came back. A few did it. Lindsay says she does this hundreds of times every day. HUNDREDS!

That got me thinking that maybe I need to think more about being mindful, especially when I start talking to the cars/drivers in front of me. My children keep telling me that the drivers can’t hear me; perhaps this is my cue to breathe…

At the end of the week, Suzy and I did a webinar to complete our Level 1 training forModern Mindfulness Teacher Training. (Thank you, Partnership for Change for the tuition!) Taking Level 1 training gives you access to a 10-week online course you can use with your students. It fosters leadership in the classroom because students lead the exercise and chose the messages. The more you can turn these experiences over to students, the more likely they are to take this important work into their own lives. And that’s exactly what we want. They have a price break for families, too. If you really want to do this, they will make it accessible to you. At least that was what Denise said in the webinar.

We have follow-up training with Lindsay next week, because the online program is verbose. There’s a lot of talking before you get into the doing. And even the doing has lots of complicated language around it–complicated for our level of English Language Proficiency, anyway.

The program itself looks great. You get access for one year with level 1 training, and perpetual access with level 2, which they recommend doing after 6 weeks. I might choose to do it during the summer, since I won’t really be using this in this form. I do want to work on it with my children.

We could use a little more mindfulness at home.

Relax!

By  Beth Evans ELL Teacher at Burlington High school. 

https://bhsexcell.wordpress.com/2015/01/25/relaxing-homework/

The relationship between executive functioning and mindful awareness practices

Beyond “Focused and Relaxed”:

The Relationship Between Executive Functioning, Mindful Awareness Practices and
Therapeutic Approaches in Alternative School Settings. by Annie O’Shaughnessy

“Mindful Teaching” with Soryu Forall and Lindsay Foreman

July 15, 2014

You might say that we are in the early stages of waking up as a culture to the potential of interiority, to the power of cultivating awareness and an intimacy with stillness and silence. We are beginning to realize the power of the present moment to bring us greater clarity and insight, greater emotional stability, and wisdom. In a word, meditation is no longer It is now as American as anything else. It has arrived. something foreign and exotic to our culture. But please keep in mind … It’s not what you think!

Jon Kabat-Zinn, from Coming to Our Senses, Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness.

Abstract

Research shows a strong connection between poor Executive Functioning (EF) and a long list of conditions and diagnoses typically seen at therapeutic and alternative schools.

EF is negatively affected by different factors common to students who end up in therapeutic environments: cognitive deficits, poor socioemotional adjustment, and poor academic functioning, which may manifest as a lack of concentration, a lack of understanding of cause and effect, an inability to understand mental states, and/or impulsivity. Such disruption in executive function is associated with behavioral characteristics of several childhood onset behavioral disorders including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders, as well as other behavioral problems such as bullying and delinquency (Flook, 2010).

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds have demonstrated particular neurocognitive difficulties in the area of executive functioning (Welsh, 2013). Additional factors that point to the prevalence of poor EF among students at therapeutic schools: Working memory deficits have been seen in individuals with PTSD as well and are thought to be strongly related to prefrontal dysfunction(Welsh,  2013). In addition, there is a strong correlation between substance abuse and executive functioning, especially cognitive flexibility and attention (Al-Zahrani & Elsayed, 2009). The good news is that research shows Mindful Awareness Practices (MAPs) “signifcantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning (Zeidan, 2009).” And in a study by Lisa Flook, et al., “Participation in a mindful awareness practices program was associated with improvements in behavioral regulation, metacognition, overall EF, and specific domains of EF based on teacher and parent report (Flook, et al., 2010).”

Because of their low EF, this author proposes that students in therapeutic or alternative school settings have less capacity to participate in traditional cognitive therapy requiring EF related brain functions such as meta-cognition and emotional regulation. So, rather than simply report on the research that shows how MAPs improve EF, this paper will explore the complex relationship between EF,  MAPs and traditional cognitive therapies in the therapeutic school milieu.  Part of this paper will show how traditional cognitive therapies that rely on re-appraisal of emotions and thoughts have limited success due to their reliance on EF skills to engage in that process. In addition, this paper strives to provide the research necessary to develop a compelling argument for MAPs in therapeutic and alternative schools that recognizes the additional complexities and challenges presented by students with psychiatric disorders and trauma, and pays special attention to how these conditions affect and are affected by  EF, how MAPs can work to strengthen EF and in turn, support cognitive therapies.

Introduction

Mindful Awareness Practices (MAP) have hit the mainstream. The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 has nearly 1,000 certified instructors teaching mindfulness techniques in nearly every state and more than 30 countries (Pickert, 2014). Even three- and four-time NBA champions, the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls have trained in Mindfulness to improve their performance (Kabat-Zinn, 2005). A plethora of outcome-based research indicate that MAPs result in improved “cognitive functioning; increased self-esteem; improvements in emotional

self-regulation, self-control, and emotional intelligence; increased feelings of well-being; reductions in behavioral problems; decreased anxiety; decreases in blood pressure and heart rate; improvements in sleep behavior; increased internal locus of control; and improved school climate. (Wisner, 2010)” and student’s ability to pay attention and reduce stress (Campbell, 2013). In addition, early research shows that personal training in mindfulness skills can increase teachers’ sense of well-being and teaching self-efficacy, as well as their ability to manage classroom behavior and establish and maintain supportive relationships with students (Meiklejohn, et al.2012).

Given all this evidence and the popularization of Mindfulness in our culture, developing a compelling argument to introduce MAPs into the traditional school setting should be pretty straightforward. Mindfulness teacher and founder of the Center for Mindful Learning, Soryu Forall points out in his class, “Mindful Teaching”:  “It would be very hard to argue against the idea that students learn best when they are “focused and relaxed. How many times do teachers remind students throughout the day to ‘settle down’ and ‘pay attention?’ Aren’t they are essentially asking them to relax and focus? Mindfulness teaches them how. It’s a skill to be learned.” But if you were to record what teachers at alternative and therapeutic schools say during the course of the day, you would hear something very different. A teacher might ask, “Why are you so quiet?” and that question might catalyze behaviors that lead to the next question: “I am concerned for your safety. Please climb down off the roof.” or “Let’s find a different way to express your anger other than throwing the chair.” So what role does MAPs play in a school populated by students with diminished EF skills?

What is Executive Functioning (EF)?

The short answer: it’s complicated. There is ongoing debate around which part of the brain is “in-charge” of EF. While the frontal lobe of the prefrontal cortex has a central role in EF, neurobiologist have discovered that many parts of the brain are involved related to both emotional and cognitive activity,  and no clear architecture has emerged (Flook, 2010). What we do know is that EF strength is a greater indicator of academic success than I.Q.  and is affected by many different factors and encompasses a large set of skills. Lisa Flook et al., in their paper, “Effects of Mindfulness Awareness Practices on Executive Functions in Elementary School Children” provide a definition that reflects some of this complexity:

Executive Functions (EFs) encompass a host of interrelated, yet somewhat independent, processes involved in planning and carrying out regulated, goal-directed activity. Working memory, mental set-shifting, and response inhibition are examples of core executive functions that map onto dimensions of behavioral self-regulation. Executive functions play a role in children’s emerging academic abilities, above and beyond levels of general intelligence.

Read any admission case review for a student at an alternative or therapeutic school and you will find factors that have been proven to in inhibit healthy development of EF. The main factors include:

  1. Early trauma/PTSD: There is research showing that healthy EF is restricted neurobiologically due to the trauma’s impact on brain development. (Welsh, 2013).
  2. Chronic Stress: Activation of the “stress response has been shown to adversely affect the development of brain structures and neural systems important for regulation of the stress response, as well as executive functions. (Welsh, 2013)
  3. Drug/Alcohol abuse: There is a strong relation between abuse of substances and executive functions, especially cognitive flexibility and attention (Al-Zahrani & Elsayed, 2009). And from http://www.michelfitos.com/2013/04/biqef/:
  4. Depression: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11972136
  5. Autism spectrum disorders: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16682102
  6. Traumatic brain injury: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/87565641.2004.9651925
  7. Learning disabilities: http://jad.sagepub.com/content/16/2/138.abstract
  8. ADHD

How Does Poor EF Effect Traditional Cognitive Therapies?

Given the major role EF has in academic and socio-behavioral success it follows that students with weak EF end up needing a therapeutic or alternative environment. However as the research below suggests, the quandary present in many therapeutic environments is that the absence of healthy EF skills can undermine the success of traditional cognitive therapies and thereby sidetrack growth in the development of EF, creating a negative feedback loop. The author proposes that without EF skills such as meta-cognition and impulse inhibition, students can’t process events and emotions related to events in order to change future behaviors (the goal of traditional therapies).

Mainstream cognitive behavioral therapy assumes that changing maladaptive thinking leads to change in affect and behavior (Hassett, 2009). This is often called ‘cognitive reappraisal’,  which means “to manipulate the input to the emotion-generative system by actively reinterpreting emotional stimuli in a way that modifies their emotional impact (Gross, 1998b)”  This kind of emotion regulation has been found to involve a “top–down” regulation of prefrontal brain regions on emotion-generative brain regions, such as the amygdala (Chiesa, et al.,2013). This is also called “reframing.” This process requires recruitment of “higher” brain regions. The same regions that play the primary role in EF.  (Chiesa, et al., 2013). (Neurobiological studies of EF indicate extensive prefrontal cortical and anterior cingulate functioning with circuitry links to frontal-striatal assemblies (Flook, 2010)) The author proposes that in students who suffer the effects of one or more of the factors influencing poor EF, this “recruitment” proves difficult or impossible and limits their ability to respond to “reappraisal” strategies and may even increase stress thereby further limiting EF and therapy efficacy (Margolis, 2011).

MBIs [Mindfulness Based Interventions] might be effective for patients not responding to traditional psychotherapies. Indeed, psychotherapy frequently relies upon top–down mechanisms, such as cognitive reappraisal, to regulate unpleasant emotions. However, the possibility to reappraise one’s own emotions is often impaired in psychological disorders. As a consequence, the effects of MBIs might be superior to the effects of traditional psychotherapies for patients with an impairment of their ability to reappraise unpleasant emotions (Chiesa, et al., 2013)

In addition, poor EF contributes to a student’s failure to inhibit information associated with re-experiencing symptoms or a failure to inhibit unsolicited emotional memories (Welsh, 2013). Related, is the negative relationship between EF and rumination (Howlas and Jankowski, 2013). Dealing with unsolicited emotional memories and rumination both inhibit therapeutic progress.

What Can Be Done?

Students with poor EF need an approach that will develop their EF skills while regulating the behaviors that create the negative feedback loop. In their paper, “Meditation, mindfulness and executive control: the importance of emotional and brain-based performance monitoring,” Teper and Inzlicht present compelling evidence that confirms meditation practice is related to better executive control. MAPs have also been shown to increases cognitive flexibility and the ability to shift attention away from challenging emotions or thoughts (Temper and Inzlicht, 2013) that might interfere with therapeutic progress. Based on the key markers used in this study they were able to conclude “that enhanced acceptance of emotional states may be a key reason that meditation improves executive functioning.” This is a notable discovery, as it contradicts the basic goal of cognitive reappraisal which is to change emotional response not accept them. It follows that If students are able to achieve “enhanced acceptance of different emotional states” they are less likely to worry and ruminate over one particular feeling or thought (Davis & Hayes, 2012). Teper & Inzlicht go further to suggest that the nonjudgmental acceptance of thoughts and emotions are integral to the effective initiation of executive control.

“Mindfulness holds that all cognitive and emotional phenomena are merely mental events, and therefore they do not need to be acted upon”. Rather, “a capacity to simply allow these mental events to come and go is systematically developed” (Chambers et al.,2009, pp. 566–567).

According to this claim, mindfulness training involves the development of a greater ability to “stay in touch” with whatever is experienced within the phenomenological field with no need to actively regulate or reappraise what is experienced (Chiesa, et al., 2013) Pawel and Jankowski, in  “A Cognitive Perspective on Mindfulness” state that “a reduction in the intensity of worrying and rumination, may give rise to a freeing of central executive resources that control behavior inhibition, self-monitoring, self-regulation, working memory, regulation of affect, motivation, arousal, and analysis and synthesis of information (Welsh, 2013)(Flook, et al.,, 2010). In the same way, a more effective utilization of the specific executive processes connected with attention and working memory become possible (Howlas & Jankowski, 2013).

Anyone who has worked in a therapeutic environment for young people knows what it looks like when a student loses the ability to attend rationally to a situation. Reasoning, reframing, and explaining often have no impact. Stress reduces a student’s EF, which means the student has less impulse control, less ability to see cause and effect, less ability to make reasonable decisions. “Executive development happens primarily in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain more sensitive to stress than any other. Unlike anywhere else in the brain, even mild stress can flood the prefrontal cortex with the neurotransmitter dopamine, which causes executive functioning to shut down (Margolis, 2011).” Often, students in a therapeutic environment experience innocuous stimuli as a significant threat triggering the amygdala hijack. Over-simplified, this “amygdala hijack”, a term coined by Daniel Goleman, is a primitive neurological response to a perceived threat that causes us to think less rationally and act more rashly (McKeever, 2011). It is helpful if a person needs to escape a burning building, but not so helpful when the perceived threat is a simple question from a teacher. Research has shown that even short term implementation of MAPs increases a student’s ability to mobilize the necessary regulatory resources (Chiesa, et al., 2013), at the first “pang” of affect, minimizing the negative consequences associated with full-blown emotional reactions (Teper and Inzlicht, 2013) and decreasing emotional reactivity to challenging events (Temper, 2012) Although emotions have been caricatured as artifacts of our ancient animal pasts, it is becoming increasingly clear that some of the most positive outcomes of mindfulness, such as improved executive control and emotion regulation, rely on an ability to attune to and accept one’s emotional states. (Teper and Inzlicht, 2013)

In addition, improved EF is linked with MAP’s ability to develop increased sensitivity to “affective cues in the experiential field due to improved present-moment awareness and nonjudgmental acceptance.” This refined attunement and openness to subtle changes in affective states fosters executive control because it improves “response to incipient affective cues that help signal the need for control. This, in turn, enhances emotion regulation” (Teper & Inzlecht, 2013). Their research reflects the complexity of interactions between EF and emotions and how MAPs creates a way to more effectively regulate behavior while developing EF skills, specifically the ability to inhibit one’s impulses (Nauman, 2014). Bottom line: “enhanced acceptance of emotional states may be a key reason that meditation improves executive functioning (Teper & Inzlecht, 2013).

Given this research it can be proposed that MAPs are an approach to regulating behavior and developing EF that is not dependent on higher order “top-down” cognitive approaches but enlists a “bottom-up” process that directly modulates the emotion-generative regions of the brain (Chiesa, et al., 2013). This is very important to supporting students who do not have the cognitive resources, in the moment or ongoing, to process their emotions and monitor their behaviors. Furthermore, research shows that even short sessions of MAPs over the short-term can lead to enduring structural changes in the brain involved with attentional and emotion-generative processes (Chiesa, et al., 2013). The author identifies this as a profound benefit of MAPs for at-risk students who lack the cognitive capacity to engage in traditional therapies because it implies that MAPs actually works on the neurobiological level to strengthen the executive control system of the brain structurally.

Interestingly, MAPs have been shown to increase the effectiveness of Cognitive Therapy approaches. So while the two approaches may seem antithetical they actually compliment each other, which is good news for therapists and social workers who may struggle with the inconsistent gains “due to the supposition that reappraisal requires [the client’s] identification with and aversion toward the original stress appraisal.” In fact, mindfulness is a key mechanism that makes reappraisal possible (Chiesa, et al.,). In addition, improved EF increases a student’s ability to maintain a mindful state. EF, “both attentional and nonattentional, play a crucial role in evoking a mindfulness state.(Howlas & Jankowski, 2013).” In this way a therapeutic school can create a positive feedback loop between MAPs, improved EF, more effective cognitive therapies and the experience of Mindfulness. This research points to the need for the integration of MAPs and EF strengthening therapies.

This integration is already happening. Traditional cognitive therapy models have evolved to incorporate the aspect of non-judgemental acceptance. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) emphasizes acceptance of emotional states versus reappraisal strategies. “DBT’s strategies for acceptance include mindfulness (e.g., attention to the present moment, assuming a non-judgmental stance, focusing on effectiveness) and a variety of validation and acceptance-based stylistic strategies … the treatment goals are to replace “quiet desperation” with non-traumatic emotional experiencing” (Dimeff & Linehan, 2001). Also,  Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), based on the model of MBSR, was developed to prevent the relapse of depression by remediating the negative feedback loop associated with client’s negative associations with depressive emotions (Williams & Kuyken, 2012). “The goal of MBCT is to interrupt these automatic processes and teach the participants to focus less on reacting to incoming stimuli, and instead accepting and observing them without judgment (Felder, 2012).”

Conclusion and Recommendations

Given that the key executive functions of EF, “cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control (self-control), working memory, planning, and self-awareness (Margolis, 2011),” are skills central to successful engagement in therapeutic programming (Welsh, 2013), especially those programs that are reliant on cognitive therapy (Chiesa, et al., 2013) and given that students who need a therapeutic environment have limited or severely limited EF skillset (Welsh, 2013), an approach should be enlisted that improves emotional regulation while developing EFs without the recruitment of higher brain processes. Based on research, the author proposes that MAPs represent this approach. Further to the deficits represented by poor EF— severely limited self-awareness, behavior inhibition, and emotional regulation—this author believes the delivery of MAPs needs to be woven holistically into the student’s overall treatment plan. In other words, it may not be effective to ask a student with very low EF skills, who may not have the biological capacity, to sit down and practice mindfulness for even five minutes. What the author recommends is a careful design of mindfulness activities that matches the student’s neurobiological development. This recommendation is inspired by the work of Bruce D. Perry who developed the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. (NMT).

NMT is not a specific therapeutic technique or intervention; it is a developmentally sensitive, neurobiologically informed approach to clinical work. The NMT integrates several core principles of neurodevelopment and traumatology into a comprehensive approach to the child, family, and their broader community The NMT process helps match the nature and timing of specific therapeutic techniques to the developmental stage and brain region and neural networks mediating the neuropsychiatric problems (Perry & Hambrick, 2008).

As an example: for a student with very low EF skills due to early trauma this model might include a MAP that uses contact with a large physio-ball as the focus of attention. It is not within the scope of this article to develop a working model of mindfulness practice inclusion using the NMT approach, but given the role that neurobiology plays in NMT, EF development and MAPs, it is clear why NMT should be considered when designing treatment for severely impaired students.

A second recommendation from the author regarding the implementation of MAPs in a therapeutic environment is the intentional creation and cultivation of a culture of acceptance and awareness where teachers model self-awareness themselves and in their interactions with students. For example, the intentional application of Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR) results in such a culture. UPR is a clinical, client-centered approach used by Centerpoint School and credited to humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. UPR means “valuing the person as doing their best to move forward in their lives constructively and respecting the person’s right to self-determination no matter what they choose to do (Joseph, 2012).” In other words, UPR creates a culture of acceptance —a key tenant of mindfulness. As adults model acceptance and non-judgmental awareness  of the student’s behaviors (through verbal noting), the student begins the process of acceptance and self-awareness themselves. And as mentioned before, it is this acceptance of various emotional states that is closely linked to the development of EF skills.

Given the volumes of research that support the use of MAPs to develop EF and the use of MAPs to improve therapeutic outcomes for students and clients, it is clear that they merit inclusion in therapeutic programming. Furthermore, research strongly indicates that students with poor EF skills show a measurably greater rate of improvement in those skills than students with average EF skills (Flook, 2010). High­risk adolescents can sense the benefits of mindfulness meditation after just brief exposure to the practice (Campbell, 2013). In this paper, the author has tried to convey the complexity of the relationship between MAPs  and EF, the challenges of traditional cognitive therapy  and to recommend approaches that would support the introduction of MAPs to students with very low EF skills.

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Zeidan, F., et al.,(2010), ‘Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training.’ Consciousness and Cognition ( doi:10.1016/j.concog.2010.03.014.

Winooski: A Mindful City

 

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What would happen if an entire city practiced mindfulness? To answer this question the Vermont Community Foundation awarded the Center for Mindful Learning (CML) an Innovations and Collaborations Grant to teach and integrate mindfulness into the core city institutions of Winooski.  Starting this October, CML will be partnering with the Winooski Police Department, the Winooski School District, and Centerpoint Adolescent Treatment Services to implement a city-wide mindfulness initiative in Winooski. The initiative, called Mindful City, will also offer mindfulness training opportunities to parents, community members, and businesses throughout Winooski.

 

Mindfulness is a practice of building attention and relaxation skills. Research shows that mindfulness effectively reduces stress, anxiety, and depression in youth and adults.

 

Mindful City Project Coordinator, Lindsay Foreman said, “Mindfulness helps us to know how precious life is. It gives us the skills and motivation to care for ourselves, each other, and the planet. It is not easy to do, so we need a community to support us.” Community support is the essential component of this initiative.

 

The impetus for the initiative began in 2013, when two passionate Winooski mothers approached the Center for Mindful Learning looking for a mindfulness program for JFK Elementary. They wanted to find a program that would support students and teachers to cope with stress. The two mothers, Arica Bronz and Tori Cleiland, were attracted to CML’s Modern Mindfulness Program’s because of its easy-to-implement design. The program uses an online curriculum that guides teachers and students in a 5-minute daily mindfulness practice. Third grade teacher at JFK, Lisa Goetz, said “This program has been life changing for my students and myself.”

 

After a highly successful year of implementation at JFK, Winooski Middle and High School decided they wanted to jump on board. After several planning meetings, the team of educators, administrators, parents, and mindfulness teachers, decided that the impact on students would be exponentially greater if the whole community were involved in the training. From there, the idea for The Mindful City Initiative was born.

 

Foreman said, “As far as we know, a city-wide mindfulness initiative has never been tried. This is a huge opportunity for all of us and we are excited for the potential impact it will have.” The success of this initiative could ripple across the state and even the country as other cities are inspired to become a Mindful City.


You can follow the progress of this initiative on the Modern Mindfulness blog, www.modmind.org and Facebook page.
 

 

The Discovery of Mindfulness

This summer I taught an eight-week mindfulness and movement class to a group of teens. Throughout all of our exercises, we emphasized again and again the skills of focus and relaxation. One day after I led a guidance focusing on relaxation in our bodies one of the young women said, “I couldn’t do it. I have ADHD and I can’t focus. It’s impossible.”

I asked her what she focused on. She pointed to the ceiling and said, “I played tick-tack-toe with the lines on the ceiling.”

“Great! You did focus. You focused on the lines on the ceiling. You focused on using the lines on the ceiling to play tick-tack-toe!”

We are always focusing on something. The discovery of mindfulness is that when we practice the skills of focus and relaxation we can learn to focus on anything. These are skills that we learn when we practice.

Dr. Victor Carrion, a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Studies at the Stanford University’s School of Medicine, oversees a mindfulness study monitoring the effects of stress on low-income youth at Cesar Chavez Academy in East Palo Alto, CA.

“The issue that we have with stress and chronic stress, as in PTSD, is that some of the areas (of the brain) that are effected are areas that we need for our learning, for example, brain centers that process memory, brain centers that process executive function are particularly vulnerable. So PTSD can have an effect on how children learn.”

The discovery of mindfulness is that these are skills anyone can learn when we practice. Watch this short story about the mindfulness research Carrion and his colleagues are doing with students at Cesar Chavez Academy.

 

Second Grade Teacher Talks about Modern Mindfulness

Patty Kissel, a 2nd grade teacher at CP Smith Elementary School in Burlington, VT, talks about her initial doubts of using Modern Mindfulness in the classroom. After using the program for only a couple of weeks Patty learned that the “kids not only needed mindfulness, but that they wanted it.” Patty was so inspired by what she saw happen in the classroom that she went on to take the Level 2 Integration Training and the Mindful Teaching graduate course we offered at Burlington College this summer.

Hear what Patty has to say:

Mindfulness in Schools

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A poster at JFK Elementary with students thoughts on how mindfulness helps them in their lives.

We had a very rewarding year, working with teachers and students as they learned and  used mindfulness in the classroom. When we talked to the students about the experiences they had while using our program they always impressed us with their thoughtfulness.

Here are a few examples  our teachers caught while working in the classroom:

Frances Brown, mindfulness teacher:

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I asked the students in Mrs. Hodgson’s kindergarten class at Flynn Elementary School “How has mindfulness helped you?” A little girl put up her hand and said, “Last week I had a bad dream and I got up scared.” I asked her what she did and she said “I sat up in bed and did mindfulness, it helped me to calm down and I went back to sleep”. I was amazed that she was able to use mindfulness on her own so skillfully.

I was observing my co-teacher work in Mrs. Cronin’s 2nd grade class at Flynn Elementary School.  One student reported, “Last week someone made me upset, I had to move away from the person to find a quiet space where I could calm down.  I focused on my breath to help me relax and I felt better.”

I thought “Wow” how powerful for him to recognize what to do instinctively.  I was impressed.  They have only been learning mindfulness for the last 7 weeks in the classroom.

Jeff Hill, mindfulness teacher:

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I was working in a first grade class and asked the students to tell me about some of the ways they have been mindful in their lives. Here are a few things they said to me: “When I was with my brother I realized I was getting mad. So, I used mindfulness to stay calm and walked away. What did you feel after you walked away? 
”I felt awesome.”

“When I’m mindful helps me think about ways to make other people happy. When my parents are sick I’ll make them something.”

“I use mindfulness to help other people in my neighborhood. It makes me happy.”

These young students and all the students we work with throughout the year have really inspired us. As they practice mindfulness they are able to apply it to their daily lives in a very meaningful way. Listening to their stories we know that mindfulness has had a tremendous impact and is helping them develop skills that will make them successful in all areas of their lives.

Student Uses Mindfulness to Remain Kind During Competition.

While visiting JFK Elementary School in Winooski VT students tell us how they have been using their mindfulness practice throughout the day.
By Lindsay Foreman

Photo Credit: HILL STREET STUDIOS, GETTY IMAGES

Photo Credit: HILL STREET STUDIOS, GETTY IMAGES

The other day I visited a 5th grade class in Winooski, Vermont. The students were energetically engaging in a conversation about how we can be both mindful and competitive. This highly sophisticated conversation was started by a student who shared how he used mindfulness to get along with his peers on the playground during a football game. He said that practicing mindfulness helped him to be respectful of the opposing team. Then another student chimed in and said that mindfulness helped him to try hard without worrying about winning or losing. He said that he was more able to feel good after the game regardless if he won or lost. If we could all do what these young people are learning to do… how different our world would be.

Monday Mindful Message: On Kindness

Social-emotional well being is so important to the learning process. The mindfulness techniques used in Modern Mindfulness teach empathy and improve student’s concentration. As students use the program they begin to acknowledge their feelings and thoughts and are less likely to bully others or show other impulsive behaviors. It becomes a resource that they can draw upon when they are experiencing a stressful situation. Recent research conducted by Amy Saltzman, director of the Association for Mindfulness in Education suggests that young people who practice mindfulness show decreased ADHD behaviors and perform better on computerized tasks that measure their capacity for paying attention. Data from our pilot school program shows dramatic improvements in behavior, cooperation, and independent study habits as well.
As one of our students said after using the program in her classroom:

“Mindfulness helps me with my friends, even when they annoy me I can take the good with the bad.”

Creating Mindful Moments in the Classroom

A day in your average classroom can be hectic and tightly scheduled. How do we keep our students relaxed and attentive and ready for learning? The Modern Mindfulness program was designed to start the day off with 5 minutes of mindfulness in the morning. Students breath deeply and take a moment to center themselves. How can they practice mindfulness throughout the day?

Mindful Moments happen all the time. We can point these moments out to our students, building on the skills they are already practicing. When a student is concentrating on reading while having a good time, it shows they are practicing the skills of focus and relaxation. A child may notice that the raindrops outside look bigger than usual. Thats a great moment to point out that they are practicing their focus skill.

We can also create Mindful Moments throughout the day, here are 3 great examples:

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These Mindful Moments help our students build focus and relaxation skills, and they help our students learn how to apply these skills when needed throughout the day. Want more mindful tips? Our program comes with a teacher’s manual that is a great companion to the Modern Mindfulness software. Give it a try today!