Our focus is on mindfulness (defined by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”), and how it connects to our brain structure and function, as well as our behavior and feelings. It may sound complicated, but it’s actually remarkably simple and deeply calming. AND it also equips students to be self-aware, empathetic individuals who are able to use effective calming strategies when they are triggered by difficult emotions such as anger, frustration, sadness, fear and worry.
We start every class with a 1-3 minute mindfulness exercise. Each time it’s led by a student (everyone in the class has at least one turn and we have a pre-arranged schedule that is not based on their behavior or any other subjective criteria). Students are asked to “get their mindful bodies on” (ask your child what “mindful bodies” means to get a sense of this), are told how long the session will last, and then asked to close their eyes (this is to eliminate visual distractions but those students who find it very difficult or anxiety-provoking to close their eyes just focus their eyes on one spot in the room). Once everyone is settled, the student who is leading the session that day rings a meditation bowl, and we do our best to focus on the present moment for the duration of the exercise. When time is up, the bowl is rung again, students are asked to open their eyes and to notice how they feel.
Although it might seem easy, it can be really challenging for anyone (let alone an energetic kid) to sit quietly for more than a few seconds. Mindfulness teachers often use the term “monkey mind” or “puppy mind” to describe our mind in its natural state – always looking for distractions. A huge piece of work in our class is learning how to train our minds to pay attention.
Once we have settled into class with our breathing exercise, we learn more about mindfulness. Sometimes we’re learning a new strategy to help focus the mind. Sometimes we’re learning how to direct kind thoughts towards others (and ourselves, which can be surprisingly challenging!). Sometimes we’re learning about the power of generosity to warm the hearts of both the recipient and giver. Sometimes we’re learning about anatomy so we can give out lungs lots of space and make sure we’re using our diaphragm (the breathing muscle) properly when we breathe. When we’re done with this work (or sometimes if the class needs to calm down before we do our mindfulness lesson), we do some mindful coloring (the room gets really quiet, I put on some peaceful music and students slowly and carefully color designs created to calm down restless brains).
From PreK all the way through Fifth grade, we have been learning about the amygdala (the “alarm system” of the brain designed to protect us from danger) and the prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for focusing, making decisions and reasoning). When our amygdala is triggered by “negative” emotions like fear, stress, frustration boredom, or anger, it actually prevents information from getting to the prefrontal cortex. If you think about that for a minute, this is revolutionary information: it means (in an admittedly simplified nutshell) that when your amygdala is “on,” the rational, thinking part of your brain is “off.”
The obvious question is: then how do we turn our amygdalae off? And the answer is: calm down. That’s why we have been focusing so much time in Seeds of Kindness on learning just how to do that.