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.

New Year’s Goals: Tips to Stay Motivated

Snow Berries by Laura McKelvie

With the new year comes a desire to do something different. It might be a fitness goal, a habit to break, or hobby to pursue. There’s an excitement to tackle this challenge and motivation is high.

And then…it’s February and we realize we’ve already fallen short of our goal. How did that happen? Many of us, myself included, often start with a big thing we want and don’t map out how to get there. Here are five tips to help you get there.

Assessment

The first step is to assess your life and what will make it easy or difficult to achieve your goal. Let’s say, for example, your goal is to increase the amount of time you practice mindfulness. Ask yourself some exploration questions. What motivates you to practice? What obstacles might prevent you from practicing more? A busy morning getting kids to school? Feeling really tired after work? What attitude will you take if you don’t achieve your goal for a day or two? Anticipating possible roadblocks helps us plan ahead and then be creative with how to meet the challenges.

Take Small Steps First

Many of us forget to practice what we ask our students to practice: set positive and realistic goals. Goals like, “I’ll never eat sweets again!” or “I’ll exercise an hour every day,” sound great at first, but they are too big if we are starting from scratch. We can’t run a marathon if we can’t yet jog a mile.

We need to build up to larger goals by finding success in a series of smaller, easier steps. For example, perhaps your goal is to practice mindfulness for 30 minutes a day. That would be great, wouldn’t it? But maybe your assessment revealed that mornings with the family are very busy and it’s unlikely you will have a block of time to yourself. Or perhaps you are too drained after work to practice. Can you commit to practicing in your car for just a few minutes before or after work? What about setting aside just 10 minutes during lunch to do mindful walking? (That could help you meet your fitness goals, too.) Focus on accomplishing these smaller goals and feel good about completing them.

Once you are able to gain consistency with smaller steps, then you can use the momentum to expand the goal.

Accountability

An accountability system helps us keep goals. Are there other people who have a similar goal you can check in with? Can you ask someone to follow up with you about your progress? Some people try announcing their goals to family and friends to create motivation to live up to what they said. You can also try setting reminders on your phone. Take some time now to sprinkle the reminders throughout all the months of 2016 so they’ll be there to support you consistently.

Get Creative

Think about creative ways to support and motivate yourself when you don’t feel like doing your goal. With your mindfulness practice, for example, how could you bring to mind your reason for practicing? Could you hold an object representing your motive or look at a photo of people you love and want to help with your practice? These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg and there are many ways you can make mindfulness, and your other goals, fun and creative. Adding fun and other positive emotions makes goals less daunting, thus allowing us to stay motivated.

Gentleness

As the weeks go by, you’ll notice triumphs and setbacks. If you fall short of your goal, it can feel very discouraging. But if we use the same attitude we have during a mindfulness practice, and treat a setback like we do a distraction, we are open to moving forward. If you notice your mind has wandered, or in this case you haven’t meet your goal recently, congratulate yourself for noticing. Then gently bring your intention back to meeting the goal at the next opportunity. If we view a setback as a fresh chance to start again, then it’s not really a setback but a growth opportunity. With this kind of mindset we can maintain the motivation we have in January throughout the year.

Take a few moments to think about your goals for this year and how you can work with them. See how you can break them up into smaller steps and get creative about how to accomplish them. Work on those steps and congratulate yourself as you succeed. Find an accountability system that works for you. Be gentle on yourself if you have an off day. These tips will help you keep momentum going and then keeping your goals becomes more and more automatic.

Changing Seasons

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Here at our headquarters in Johnson, Vermont, we are witnessing the change of seasons.The vibrant colors of New England fall have faded into forests of empty grey trees. Though some plants are stubbornly holding on to their green, not yet willing to change, many of us are ready for this transition. There’s a sense of slowing down, storing up energy to last us through the upcoming months of cold. It’s clear winter will unfold at its own pace and all we have to do is wait for it.

 

How nice would it be to have such relaxed, seamless transitions in the classroom? It’s true that sometimes one activity flows smoothly into the next and before we know it, the bell has rung and everyone leaves satisfied with their hard work. Other times there is a lot of disruption moving to new activities or classrooms. Students and teachers can feel like those stubborn green plants in November, slow to embrace the present moment and the current subject of focus.

 

One way to approach classroom transitions is to accept that sometimes they will be bumpy and that doesn’t mean something is wrong. As teachers we have such high expectations of ourselves. If students are sullen or goofing off, we often feel it’s a reflection of us, of something we aren’t doing well. But when we open up to variability, we start to see that it’s natural. It’s not possible that everyone will be on the same page all the time. Accepting that there is this fluctuation can help us stay calm during difficult transitions and truly appreciate the times when class time flows effortlessly.
Learning to hold space for students to transition at a different pace is a great challenge AND we can find strength in our mindfulness practice. It’s been said time and time again, but taking a deep breath helps us slow down so we can be present with what is actually happening as opposed to what we wish were happening. We can use this pause to consider that there’s something admirable and beautiful about students showing their color, so to speak, when the world around them is demanding they move into a new phase. Maybe they are still digesting something from a previous lesson, or maybe they want to express their individuality. The practice for us is to learn how to breathe and dance alongside them. 

Teach the Teacher:  Schools use Modmind to inspire student leadership in the school and community

Students Lead Mindfulness aWhat’s an effective way to learn new skills? Teach it.

Several educators across Vermont are empowering their students to learn mindfulness through leading, not just in their classrooms, but throughout the community. Jerry Cassels, a guidance counselor at Northfield Middle High School completed the 9-week Modmind exercises with his students. Their mindfulness education continued as he taught them how to lead mindfulness using the Modmind teacher training videos . The students took this training into the community where they led mindfulness practice at the senior center and local elementary school.

After using the 9-week program, Nan Johnson, a teacher at JFK Elementary in Winooski, VT, invited her students to be “the voice of Modmind.” She broke the mindfulness lesson up into 4-parts: The Breathing Part (“breathe in and straighten up, breathe out and settle in”), The Talking Part (leading the technique), The Chimes (to begin and end the practice) and the Mindful Message. Nan draws a popsicle stick and asks the students which part they’d like to do; that way students can participate at the level they feel comfortable. “I couldn’t believe what they came up with when they were leading the exercises! It was amazing,” she said.

At JJ Flynn Elementary School in Burlington, VT students as young as 2nd grade lead the exercises and ask the leader of the day questions with genuine curiosity, “Did you focus? Did you relax? Good job!”

Sharing leadership can be simple. Invite students at the start of a class, during a transition or anytime throughout the day to lead a simple guidance: “Breathe in and straighten up, breathe out and settle in.” Simple and easy. This starts the class with a short practice of relaxation and focus and gives the students an opportunity to put their practice into action. Invite them to share it with family members or friends and have a discussion about what it was like to lead. What did they notice?

Like Nan Johnson discovered from her class, our students are filled with wisdom and eager to express it when they’re given the opportunity.

 

(Pictured above, two middle-school students from Winooski Middle School (WMS) leading a mindfulness exercise at the Winooski City Council meeting.)

Back to school, back to heart

Kindergarteners Practice

I first began teaching eight years ago in Nepal. I’d never taught in a classroom before. Two weeks before the school year started, the principal told me I was going to teach science. I was excited, made all kinds of elaborate plans and developed grand visions for what my classroom was going to look like. And then school started, and the next couple of months was a lot of flopping on my face and getting up again. As I look back, I’m impressed with how fearless I was, or naive; maybe a little bit of both.

After about six months, the novelty of a new country and new class started to wear off. I became homesick and felt very lonely, but every morning I showed up and was willing to learn. And then slowly, slowly something started to shift. I stopped showing up for me and started showing up for them. By watching my students closely and learning what interested them, I became more creative, and the lessons started to create themselves. I was inspired to do the best I could because I loved my students.

As teachers, our greatest strength is the love we have for our students. This school year, practice directing that natural care and attention towards yourself.

Teaching is one of hardest jobs in the world. And so often, we make it even more difficult by being hard on ourselves. This is the part we do have power over. You can’t always change what is happening outside your classroom or your mind, but you can change what is happening inside. How?

One practice that helps when I get frustrated, down on myself, or just can’t relax, is to imagine the people I care about being happy. Try this practice.

Close your eyes and bring someone you care about to mind, someone that’s easy to love and say, “May you be happy.” In your mind, watch this person become happy. Notice what it feels like in your body to see this person happy. Repeat the words, “May you be happy.” After a couple of minutes, start to direct that attention to yourself and say, “May I be happy.” Repeat these words, and watch yourself become happy. Notice what it feels like in your body to see yourself happy.

You don’t have to be perfect. Your students, your classroom, your plans don’t have to be perfect. You’ll flop again and again. And that’s okay. This is why we practice. You can practice using the natural compassion you have for your students, friends, family and pets to develop that same care and attitude for yourself. Some days it’s easy and some days it’s hard. Just as we encourage our students: we encourage ourselves, “keep going.” No matter what happens throughout the year, you can always return to this practice.

May you be happy.

Mindfulness in Kindergarten: Who is teaching whom?

Liz Mariani, a Burlington teacher, shares her mindfulness story about celebrating small gains with kindergarteners. 

After undergoing two levels of training at the Center for Mindful Learning for implementing mindfulness into the school curriculum, I embarked on a journey of unknowns. I had never taught mindfulness, period, let alone mindfulness to Kindergarteners. My position at Burlington Kids at C.P. Smith Elementary School in Burlington, Vermont as the Lead After School Kindergarten teacher afforded a distinct opportunity to work repeatedly with the same group of children five days a week. Thankfully, included within the grandeur opportunity was the opportunity to mess up. I was free to simply make mistakes and so I took risks. This was thrilling.

Children are really here to teach us, as far as I’m concerned. These mindfulness activities were powered by the enormity of wonder and curiosity churning in each child’s eye. Mindfulness activities for these amazing Kindergarteners fit perfectly into other circle time activities. Activities sandwiching circle time activities included options for individual storytelling and exercises in gratitude.

I knew the very chances of teaching mindfulness based on a foreseen goal was simply, myopic. I couldn’t chart success if I was attempting to measure attention spans in minutes. Seriously, could I get a Kindergartener to sit for minutes at a time or even one minute straight? Probably not. I just wanted to lead the way, to clear a space, so that they, these bright children, could teach us and themselves their own way to be present. Time was never goal.

With each mindfulness activity, I stressed the importance of posture and breath. Sometimes we’d work on our breath separately before and after the sitting portion by encouraging children to stand and lift their arms to a T inhaling and drop their arms to their sides slowly exhaling. I found that showing them the power they had to control the pace of their individual breaths worked. In addition, to loosen up their bodies, we’d practice a modified Uttanasana pose by pretending we were actually weeping willow trees blowing in the wind. Children have vivid imaginations. This is great news when teaching mindfulness.

I encourage all after school programs to provide opportunities for mindfulness exercises. I found these activities to be especially useful in providing alternatives to the restless energy fueling cabin fever during the winter months. It’s a way to bring their minds outdoors and turn their breath into the wind. These young children looked forward to their daily mindfulness activities. They expected it and talked about it. Many times, after a brief sitting session, I’d ask students, “Do you feel different? Do you feel better?” Happy, affirmative nods would domino through the circle.

*I’d like thank Dacia Ostlund, Director of Burlington Kids at C.P. Smith for the openness in embarking on this journey and the CML for training and support.

-Liz Mariani

 

 

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/

Mindful Cities on the News


WINOOSKI, Vt.- What began as a way to help grade school students have better focus has turned into a city-wide initiative in Winooski.

The Mindful City Project is being made possible through a $20,000 grant given to the Center for Mindful Learning by the Vermont Community Foundation.  On Monday night, Winooski city council members experienced how to practice it first hand, before their meeting.

“You pick a focus, so in there we were doing relaxation,” says Lindsay Forman, Program Director at the Center for Mindful learning.  You notice your tension going to something else and every time that happens, you bring it back to relaxation.”

The Mindfulness Project started two years ago at JFK Elementary School.  Its success caused the project to branch out to The Winooski Middle High School.
Arica Bronz is partly to thank for the start of the initiative.  She, along with another mother, asked the Center for Mindful Learning to teach the practice to Winooski students.

“If we don’t have training on what it means to be ‘present,’ then more and more we’re going to move off of something that’s scary, or sad, or challenging, and we miss something there,” says Bronz.  “We miss part of our humanity and our ability to connect with each other.”

In a world of technology and stress, Bronz wanted her daughter to have an escape.

“It’s a really nice way to relax,” says 11-year-old Linden Bronz-Russo, Arica’s daughter.  “Everybody just seems a lot calmer.”

The council members are in support.

“It’s a great community builder,” says Winooski City Manager Katherine Decarreau.  ”It’s kind of weird to think about if you sit in a room and breathe all to yourself it builds community, but trust us, it does.”

Lindsay Forman is in the process of setting up a mindfulness practice session with the Winooski Police Department as well, which is one of three partners in the project, along with the Winooski school district.

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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What’s Taught in the Classroom

Getz Class Practice

Post by Soryu Forall

I have visited many classrooms to teach mindfulness in schools. I have paid close attention (paying attention is my specialty, after all) to what the teachers tell the students. I’ve noticed a pattern, something generally true in all the classes I’ve joined. By and large, teachers teach the same two points most often. They ask the students to focus, and they ask the students to relax. They teach these two subjects more often than any others.

“Focus” is voiced with the phrases,“Pay attention,” “Let’s begin,” “Eyes on me,” among others, and also simply by saying a certain student’s name who isn’t concentrating.

“Relax” is voiced with the phrases, “Settle down,” “Calm down,” “It’s okay,” among others, and also simply by saying a certain student’s name who isn’t calm.

I was very happy to find that mindfulness is already the most-taught subject in public education.

But tellin’ ain’t teachin’.

Teachers rarely teach their students how to focus and relax. No teacher would merely tell their students to understand math. Mindfulness, the basic skills required for learning, must be taught like other subjects, with careful instruction and time for practice.

Students need instruction in order to learn how to focus and relax. They need time to master these basic skills. They need time to practice these basic skills exclusively.

If we give students a chance to learn the foundational level of learning, all learning will be more effective.

There are two levels to teaching any subject.

The first is teaching the students to focus and relax. “Focus” means that students are able to pay attention to what’s most important to their learning at a given time, and then investigate it. “Relax” means that they are able to settle their bodies and calm their minds in order to work with the various challenges that school offers.

The second is teaching the subject, whether it is language arts, mathematics, science, or any other.

Students who have not yet learned to succeed at the first level will never succeed at the second.

Never.

Teachers know this. That’s why they tell their students to focus and relax, or some similar message, more often than they tell them anything else.

When we practice mindfulness, we concentrate on only the first level. As is the case with every subject, the students will not suddenly be able to succeed. They will not magically be focused and relaxed, able to concentrate, deal with stress, and listen attentively and sympathetically to others. They will need practice and time, just like they do for any other subject. Mindfulness is not magic. It is the opposite of magic. It is good old hard work, so it is highly effective.

Give your students a chance to learn the foundational level of learning.