Monday, March 24, 2014

The Multiple Benefits of Exercise and Why We Need it as Educators.

As educators every school year is comparable to a Marathon. We start out happy and excited for what this year’s race will bring. Together packed in with our fellow educators we rush forward towards our personal and professional goals and aspirations. Then…. just like in a Marathon, we hit the wall and question if we can really finish this race. For educators (and especially those that work in Special Education) that “wall” comes right after Christmas when the 12 weeks of intervention wraps up, IEPs are due, requests for evaluations pile up and parents and teachers start to worry if all their efforts will help that struggling student pass the CRCT. These are the times when we feel like we want to give up and drop out of the race. However, it is at precisely these times of doubt we have to push forward and dig deep. We must take one thing at a time- putting one foot in front of the other until we reach the finish line. How, one may ask, can we do this if we want nothing more than to give up? According to John J. Ratey M.D., the answer may very well be exercise.

In his eye opening book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise, John Ratey elegantly lays out the science of exercise and how it can beat stress, lift your mood, fight memory loss, and sharpen your intellect- simply by elevating your heart rate and breaking a sweat.  Exercise, he says, has many of the same neurobiological affects that prescription medication has including boosting levels of serotonin and norepinephrine. These are important neurotransmitters as they are believed to be responsible for regulating our mood and well-being (serotonin, dopamine) and increasing attention and focus (norepinephrine). By exercising we are better equipped to focus on what needs to get done and do it in a positive manner.

Exercise also appears to have a positive result on our ability to recover from stress and bounce back from the biological effects the stress-response has at the cellular level. It stimulates cell recovery, which may have been stripped down from over activation of our “fight or flight response.” This idea is truly groundbreaking as it highlights the neuroplasticity of the brain as well as the ability to activate neurogenesis (brain cell growth). The main player in this neurogenesis appears to be a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which is known to promote the health of nerve cells. It is responsible for maintenance and preservation of nerve cells. It can be compared to the Department of Transportation (DOT) fixing potholes, paving new roads and building highways in our brain (only much more efficient). What Ratey shows through research study after research study is that chronic stress appears to wear down the cells in our Hippocampus which is responsible for learning and memory. With as little as thirty minutes of exercise levels of BDNF elevate in the brain and study participants do better on cognitive test of memory and learning. Further, BDNF also appear to be responsible for combating the degenerative effects of stress in the Hippocampus that leads to depression and anxiety.

According to Dr. Ratey, adding exercise to your lifestyle “sparks your brain function to improve learning on three levels: First, it optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention, mood, and motivation; Second, it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information; and Third, it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the Hippocampus.”  So next time you feel like you want to drop out of the race due to feeling overwhelmed try to find time to go for a short bike ride, walk or participate in a sports activity. It may give you the energy you need to finish out the school year and complete those last few miles in your professional marathon.

More information can be found at Dr. Ratey’s website,  where partnerships are being developed to increase the role of physical fitness in schools, hospitals and businesses to increase personal well-being and mental health. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Mindfulness and Technology: An Unlikely Duo

Mindfulness continues to gain momentum as a practice that can be designed to combat the ever demanding world of technology and media. It is a way for us to "unplug" from the Ipads and emails that vie for our attention like rock star groupies outside of an 80's era Whitesnake concert. Using mindfulness can help us turn off the things that steal our attention and tune into the things that are happening in the present moment such as the way we feel and the sounds we hear. By redirecting out attention to the present moment we are able create space between what is happening and how we respond to it.

In a twist of irony it appears that there are an ever growing list of Applications for our smartphones that make it easier to employ mindfulness in order to unplug from the very smartphones that are helping us to be mindful. Yeah confusing I know... its kind of like trying to start a diet by going to McDonald's and ordering a chicken salad topped with fried nuggets. However, part of dealing with a world that is increasingly being taken over by technology is approaching the way we deal with that technology in a contemplative manner. By mindfully paying attention to how we interact with these technologies we can use them to our advantage and help increase and strengthen a daily mindfulness practice. I have compiled a list of "Mindfulness Apps" that I think can help us maintain our daily practice through fun interactive means.

Insight Timer- Meditation Timer ($2.99): This is my current favorite application for my smartphone. It is available for both Iphones and Android operating systems. With the Insight Timer you can try both guided meditations as well as silent self-guided sits. It has a handy timer that starts and stops your session with a variety of bells and singing bowls. It also has a journal feature to write about your experience after meditating. The app has an online community called Insight Connect that lets you connect with other people using the application.  According to Amazon "With the Insight Connect feature, you can become part of a global meditation community - seeing at a glance people around the world who are meditating with you." 

Conscious App by Makan Studios (free): This is another app that is available for both the Android and Iphone smartphones. This app pushes daily challenges to you that help you stay mindful of a certain goal. It also has a community of users to help you stay motivated. Every morning, everyone gets the same new challenge for the day. If you accept the challenge, you then try your best throughout the day to incorporate it in your experience. In the evening, you mark the challenge as finished and add a daily journal entry to keep track of your progress and share your insights with the others. I think it is a great idea I just am not too thrilled about the idea of more notifications being pushed through my phone.

ReWire by Seated Monkey (free): This free app tries to increase your inherent ability to pay attention. It is simple and easy to use. You listen to sound and when the sound disappears you tap the screen. I also find it to be a great precursor to a meditation session by helping to ready your ability to focus. I  like that you can import your own music or purchase the ReWire "brainwave tracks." Although not specifically meditation this is a great app to use with kids or other novices who may not be experienced with staying aware of their own attention. 

The Mind Gardner App ($.99): This app can be download on both the Android and Itunes platforms. It is based off the popular Mind Gardener website which focuses on positive thinking in the realm of positive psychology rather than mindfulness. It is another app that tries to help with mind training to increase attention and focus. However, it relies more on training your brain for positive thinking and motivation... kind of like a pocket sized Tony Robbins. According to the Android store "Mind Gardener Moments contains 20 topics, including the procrastination buster, the relationship smoother, the mood shifter, the busyness buster, the change embracer and the creativity booster. Each topic reveals 3 simple and practical exercises designed to hit the spot." I don't use this app and by the looks of the website its full of platitudes that can come off a little trite. However give it a shot it may be just what you need. 

Mind Hacker app ($1.92): Mind Hacker uses binaural beat technology to alter your though patterns by stimulating specific parts of the brain using various frequencies. Binaural beats are believed to lower brain frequency, decrease anxiety and increase learning (working memory). Theta waves specifically are supposed to help with meditation. The jury here at the Mindful School Psychologist is still out on this one, but if this is your thing its a great app. 

The Meditation Jar (free):  This app is only for the Iphone and is great for kids to practice "mindful seeing". The Meditation Jar app gives relaxation to your mind and helps you to focus on the simple settling of dots in a jar- similar to a snow globe. Just shake the jar and let the dots clear your mind in 10 seconds right where you are.

As mindfulness continues to "go mainstream" more and more of these apps will continue to be developed. From websites that are dedicated to tracking the growing movement of technology in contemplation/ meditation, as well as podcasts that discuss their utility, the lines between awareness and technology will continue to blur. As a practitioner who is  excited to be apart of the growing mindfulness movement I am optimistic about how these apps can help us to strengthen or daily practice as well as bring mindfulness to those who have not found it. However, I am cautious and always mindful to approach my relationship with this technology in a inquisitive and introspective manner. What apps do you use? Are there any you would recommend. Leave your recommendations in the comments section. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

What the Internet Does to Our Brains

I found this great video from Epipheo that highlights the importance of devoting a little time each day for cultivating our ability to pay attention to one thing. Wether it is our breath, the sound of birds singing or going for a run, we must triage the never ending sensory stimuli in our ever growing lives in order to learn, grow and think to our best human ability.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

3 Essential Facts About your Feelings

Here is a great short video I found that focuses on three essential facts about feelings and emotions. It is from the great website Six Seconds , which " is the first and largest organization supporting EQ development globally. Businesses, schools, consultants, and individuals use our scientifically rigorous tools and solutions to create positive change." EQ is short for Emotional Quotient or Emotional Intelligence. The three facts it stresses are:

1. Feelings and emotions are messages

2. All emotions are valuable

3. Emotions are part of our bodies.

I believe that Emotional Intelligence or EQ is something that needs to be taught directly and reinforced throughout our society. It needs to be integrated as part of a comprehensive Social Emotional Learning curriculum in schools (SEL) as well as part of a Positive Culture in Businesses.  Short informational videos such as these help us better understand our emotions and the actions of others.  Through this understanding we can work more efficiently in the work place and help to prevent the cognitive dissonance and alienation that many individuals feel in our increasingly insular society.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Your Mind at Work

Here is a great link and PDF document from Mindful magazine that give some easy ways to use mindfulness when you are dealing with everyday frustrations in the workplace. I like the idea of using little mindful tips to help combat work place frustrations. I know I am someone who often gets easily frustrated. It usually leads to me losing track of my focus as I contemplate the many ways an annoying colleague is making me feel. I especially can relate to the advice about others who gossip, which is one of my biggest pet peeves. Although not a panacea to all problems of the work place, I think these little tricks can be a great way to further a mindful practice if you already have one.

3 Activities to increase Mindful Awareness

I am trying to get back to updating this blog on a regular basis regarding my work with mindfulness and children. I wanted to write about a few activities that I have been doing that seem to be fun and well received by my kiddos.  I am currently working with 4th grade boys that struggle with attention and focus. Although they are not all diagnosed with ADHD, they have been recommended for my group as children who "struggle with attention and self-control." Recent studies have suggested that  mindful training not only helps children with ADHD increase attention skills, it also helps with developing executive functioning skills. Executive functioning skills are the skills necessary for us to control our behavior as well as  plan and self monitor our actions. Due to this growing area of research (which I recently contributed to and will write about on this blog) I have started to focus more on building mindful awareness with my students. One of the ways we do this is to focus on sensory exploration. Whether its exploring breath, pulse or the sense of touch; focusing on sensory input is one way to build the awareness needed to stay in the current moment. Here are three recent activities I have been doing with my students to build sensory awareness.

Tactile Awareness

Our hands are one of the most sensitive parts of the body. Our fingers have over 100 touch receptors in just their tips. All of this information is rushed to our brain and relays messages within a blink of an eye. However; we are often unaware of the sensations our fingers and hands send to our information processing system and having the sense of sight to go with this information we often take tactile sensation for granted. One way to increase tactile awareness is to play the "What is it?" game. In this game you gather a random assortment of small toys (race cars, action figures ect.), office supplies, coins and anything else that is lying around your office or room and throw then into a sack or tote bag that can not be seen through. Write the names of all the objects on note cards and shuffle the cards. Have a student pick a card and then try to find that item in the bag without looking. They must only use there sense of touch. I like to set a timer or have a song play (students choice :))  for 15 seconds while they search. Before I set the timer I have them describe what the item may feel like. Is it smooth? Rough? Round or Soft? If the student finds the item they get to keep the card. The first student to get to 3 cards wins the game. I got the idea for this game from this amazing educational activity called the the Touch Game, which appears to no longer be in production #sadface. The Speech/ Language therapist at my school had one that I borrowed and the students loved it. It even has a timer built into it. You can buy them on Ebay, but 80-100 dollars seems a lot for a game you can recreate with random objects laying around the office.

Awareness of Breath

Often times when I have students focus on their breath, they start to breath in a loud and labored manner, which is not only unsustainable it also causes a distraction to the group. I began to realize that children may need a fun way to practice sustaining and modifying their breath. The old fashion Floating Ball Game is a great way to facilitate breath awareness. These floating ball games can be purchased for a cheap price on Amazon. I bought one for each of my students. I start by demonstrating how to make the ball go up and down, as well as sustaining it at a certain height. I then show them how to get it to land back in the cradle. After the first demonstration the children are given a couple minutes to practice making the ball go up and down and getting the ball back into to the cradle. We talk about how one must modify their breath to make the ball go up or down as well as focus on the rate they breathe in order for the ball to get back into the cradle. After the students spend some time practicing and focusing on their breath, I then turn the game into a competition. Each person gets two tries to see how long they can keep the ball in the air and get it back into the cradle. The trial only counts if they get the ball back into the cradle. Who ever was able to keep the ball up longest gets a prize (by the way I kept my up for 15 seconds and its not as easy as it looks). After the game we do a 1 minute silent meditation. The students try to focus on their breathing in the same manner they did during the game so they can "practice their breath" for next time.

Pulse Awareness

Our pulse is a great barometer of how our body is feeling in the present moment. Just as a barometer tells us about the future weather patterns our pulse can also tell us how we are about to act or feel in any situation. When there are sudden changes in barometric pressure there may be a storm brewing. When we have sudden changes in our heart rate or pulse, dynamic and unpredictable emotions or behaviors may be coming. However; the great thing about a barometer is that by watching for changes in pressure (or pulse in this case) we are better able to prepare for the coming storm. Listening to the waring signs in our body can lead to improvements in our mental health. Teaching children to listen to their pulse is an easy way for them to gauge how they are feeling. I begin this activity with first teaching students how to find their pulse. There are three different easy ways to find your pulse. The first is by placing you index and middle finger just below your wrist.

If the children have trouble locating their pulse here then they can also try to locate it by placing two fingers just above and to the right of their adam's apple. Finally if this is not working they can lay their hand over their heart, which seemed to work for a couple of my students. Once they find their pulse, I have them count how many heart beats they feel while just sitting. We record each persons heart beat. Next we have 2 minutes of active time. I usually let them pick a song to listen to and we do jumping jacks, run in place and pretty much just run around crazy. For my students who know Yoga, we do 5 sun salutations in row. After two minutes is up we again find the pulse and count how many beats are in 10 seconds. After we record each student's number we then talk about the difference in number of beats as well as how it feels when your heart is beating so quickly. I have them share times when they became nervous or angry and their hearts started beating quickly. Finally we do 1 minute meditation where we focus solely on our breath. After the one minute has ended I ring a mindful bell and the students raise their hand when they can no longer hear the sound. The students then find their pulse again for 10 seconds and notice if focusing on their breath has made their pulse go up or down. We then discuss ways to use breath awareness when we may be faced with times that make our pulse go up.

The great thing about teaching mindfulness to children is the many different activities one can use to help facilitate awareness. Whether it is mindful walking, mindful eating or mindful breathing, teaching children to slow down and be mindful of their actions helps them to cultivate their ability to actively pay attention to the world around them. These three activities alone will not create perfect executive functioning skills or laser sharp attention skills in children. However, my goal  is to help children start to become aware of themselves and aware of their ability to control and regulate behavior. This will help them achieve what ever goals they have for themselves, whether it is passing a math test or getting through a parents' divorce. Hopefully the skills I teach them will turn into future techniques for self regulation. Or as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, "planting seeds" of effective emotional tools for creating future peaceful, happy lives.


Thich Nhat Hanh (2011), Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, Berkley: Parallax Press