Resilience: Gifts of the Exceptionally Minded

I chose the title “Exceptionally Mindful” for this blog because over and over again I hear friends say to me, “I could never be a teacher, I don’t know how you do it.” To be honest, I don’t know how most of them work with adults all day but that is a whole other point…

While people often say that the best teachers are the most patient, I agree to a degree but I also feel like we have to be….exceptionally mindful. Our words hold so much weight to them and even after teaching for almost 9 years now, I still go home and think about whether I handled a situation right or said the right things.

Especially working with students who are struggling learners, I am even more mindful about what I say and how I act. School is already a challenging place for them, so I want to make sure that I create a relationship where at least they enjoy or feel good about facing that challenge with me.

I recently fell into the black hole of TED Talks, and stumbled on this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxkBqFbbAP0

Scott Sonnon, who is a five time world martial arts champion was sharing about his experiences growing up with a learning disability. It was crushing to hear about the verbal abuse he endured and it went as far as him being institutionalized. It made me wonder, IF he had been treated better, or his teachers were more supportive, would he have been as successful? Or was it that he was so resilient, that he finally found his gift and he became so incredibly successful. There are SO MANY successful and famous people who have learning disabilities, there is no doubt that every one has a gift. Did they become resilient because they have had to work harder to compensate for their disability- or is resilience innate and they are the ones who pushed through against all odds and made it out stronger?

As teachers, can we teach resilience? Can we measure it? Can we assess it? We may feel confident in our abilities to support our students, but they move on from us and won’t always endure the most supportive learning environment. Our words can be SO powerful, how can we best use them so our students leave us ready to face the world? I am getting a head of myself, but what truly has ignited my passion to become a learning specialist is the feedback I have been given by some of the families I have worked with. Last year I received a note that read, “Mrs. Staub, I know this year was not easy for you because of my son. We weren’t easy on you either. While some of the things you have shared with us were difficult for us to hear, it was only because you were able to put them in the most beautiful, nurturing but truthful words. You touched our family and while it will be hard for us to move on, we are so grateful we are now able to give him the support he needs thanks to you.” I am crying again as I type this, but yeah…our words matter.

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Mindfulness in the Classroom

A blur flashes past me and then there was the crash. The pile of rest mats fall all over my student who for the 100th time, has thrown his body across the room. I know I shouldn’t react the way I feel inside, so I bite my tongue and close my eyes. All of the strategies I have tried with this student flood my mind. The visual cues, the charts, the fidgets, sensory chairs, gum, weighted pads, you name it. I think about being told to “work on my classroom management” when seeking support from my administrators. I think about the endless hours reading articles and books for new ideas and approaches to help this student. It was in this moment of pure frustration that I knew I needed to take care of myself.

I called all the kids to the carpet and just closed my eyes. I sat on the floor with them, hands on my knees and sat there still. The kids started to giggle and whisper to one another, while I tried to tune them out. I took three, loud, deep breaths and the same kid who threw himself across the room shouts, “oh!!!!! I know what she is doing! She is meditating!” I opened my eyes slowly, expecting to explain what I was doing and give a whole spiel about how it can help calm our bodies. However, I was shocked to see that almost the entire class was mirroring my performance. “They clearly need this,” I thought. And so did I.

I spent the entire month researching and trying meditation and mindfulness activities with my students. I started to incorporate it in our schedule for at least 2-3 minutes every day. They LOVED it and I loved it even more. I didn’t realize until I had the moment to stop, that I was on the go, go, go every day with this student. It was the year I also had THAT class, the one that you never forget and I don’t believe I even slept that year.

Did this “fix” my student? Of course not. He was impulsive, easily frustrated and lacked social navigational skills. But what it did do was give him the space to be MINDFUL and PRESENT. It allowed his body to stop, even though some days it was really difficult for him to do so. I found peace in giving him that space, whether it was  for him finding his internal calm or creating the calm around him. Three years later, he has now been diagnosed with severe ADHD, is on medication and I have heard he is doing very well in school. While at the time I didn’t have the support of his parents or my own administrators when I was seeking an evaluation for my student, I know that I had at least fostered 2-5 minutes of peace and calm in his day, and in mine!

I still try to do this with my students as much as possible. They don’t always engage, but I want there to always be the opportunity for them. When I shared this with my colleagues they all agreed that they often focus so much on trying to find ways to manage their students, or find ways to support them academically. They admitted that their modifications and support systems are typically ones that are either mandated on their IEP, or strategies to foster their independence. We want them to be successful and think that a “free time” or a “choice time” is a break for them, however it is one of the most social parts of their day. We know that young children of all types of abilities need to move their bodies, be engaged and need social time. But we often forget how much they also mentally need nourishment.

Much research has been done that proves that meditation improves our well-being, and I found this article to be very helpful in describing the ways that which it can affect myself and my students.

How Meditation Can Help Students :

-increased focus

-improved memory

-reduce anxiety and stress

-reduce fatigue

-boost immune system

Below are more resources I found to be the most helpful in incorporating this into my classroom of diverse learners!

*GoNoodle.com: Great site for yoga, meditation, and mindfulness videos that the kids can easily follow along with! Create a mascot for your class and motivate your students to build stronger “mind muscles”!

*This was on of the first articles I read that really motivated me to try it with my class: https://acestoohigh.com/2016/01/19/mind-powers-meditation-matters-for-special-education-students/

*Great overview of the different types of mindfulness activities you can do with kids: http://annakaharris.com/mindfulness-for-children/

*Great book for the kids! Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda by Lauren Alderfer