Why mindfulness can help staff, students gain critical self-care skills — and 3 pointers to get started

Superintendent Michael Cardona knew something had to be done to address the growing stress affecting staff and students in the San Marcos (Texas) Consolidated Independent School District.

“I could see the stress on teachers’ faces every day,” Cardona said. “They were trying to do what’s best for kids, but that wasn’t always best for themselves.”

Left unchecked, stress can deteriorate the health and well-being of your school communities, leading to employee burnout and manifesting in students as anxiety, attention, and behavioral issues.

As part of a larger social-emotional learning initiative, districts like San Marcos are encouraging staff and students to practice mindfulness techniques to learn how to handle stress and self-regulate strong emotions. San Marcos’ staff and students practice daily “brain breaks” and mindful movement exercises from open-source resources created by the nonprofit Pure Edge.

Here’s how to teach staff how to implement mindfulness for themselves and their students:

1. Train staff first.

“The first focus needs to be on taking care of our educators,” said Chi Kim, CEO of Pure Edge, which offers free mindfulness trainings to school staff. Special educators are at particular risk of burnout, Kim said. “Depending on the student population they’re working with, they may be dealing with secondary trauma, and they’re under intense pressure from compliance demands,” she said.

In San Marcos, the first full year of training was focused on staff learning about mindful breathing, movement, and guided rests, Cardona said. “We wanted staff to incorporate this themselves first and understand the neuroscience behind it,” he said.

2. Recognize how stress and trauma affect students.

The way that stress and trauma manifest in students may look like a learning disability, an executive functioning disorder, or an attention issue because students are not able to attend in the classroom, said Eileen Manitta, who will become special ed director for the Riverhead (N.Y.) Central School District next school year. Manitta said she is planning to train staff to recognize the prevalence of stress and trauma in students and use Pure Edge’s mindfulness resources as a pre-referral intervention. “[This] will hopefully reduce unnecessary referrals to special education and discipline,” she said.

3. Focus on simple, mindful breath, movement, and rest activities.

Be specific when you teach students, particularly those with disabilities, how to practice mindfulness, Kim said. “When you tell kids, ‘calm down’ or ‘stay focused’, they actually don’t know how to do that,” she said. “Instead, mindfulness can offer very explicit instruction. For instance, students learn how to put their hand on their chest, focus on their breath, feel their chest rise and fall with the breath. They start to focus on something tangible and in that process learn how to calm themselves down.”

In special education settings, consider using “brain breaks” at the beginning of the day and during transitions to get students ready to learn. Pure Edge’s brain breaks focus on three types of activities:

  • Mindful breathing: Help students focus on their breath as a self-soothing tool with exercises such as “starfish breathing.” A student spreads the fingers on his left hand like a starfish. He traces the fingers on his left hand with his right index finger. When the student traces up the side of a finger, he inhales, when he traces down the finger, he exhales.
  • Mindful movement: Incorporate mindful breathing into brief movement breaks. “Movement can actually calm kids down,” Kim said, pointing to research on activity breaks by Dr. John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard. Have students practice simple yoga poses from a seated or standing position. For example, in a seated chair cat/cow pose, a student sits tall on the edge of her chair and arches her back for seated cat position and bends forward for seated cow.
  • Mindful rest: Use guided rest breaks to teach students how to self-calm and self-soothe. In “mindful listing” students sit cross-legged, close their eyes, and silently list in their minds the things they are feeling, hearing, and thinking. Consider having students lead the activities, said Dawn Brooks DeCosta, principal at the Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School in Manhattan where staff and students practice Pure Edge brain breaks. Also, use consistent vocabulary, she said. “Having a common vocabulary — ‘alligator breaths,’ ‘starfish breathing,’ etc. — helps kids make a connection and build on that from one grade to the next,” she said.

Find more examples of mindfulness activities and lessons here.

Jennifer Herseim covers Section 504 and education technology as it relates to special education for LRP Publications.

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