Tuesday, October 30, 2012

‘Smartpen’ Pilot Program Helps Students with Disabilities

‘Smartpen’ Pilot Program Helps Students with Disabilities

Great assistive technology that Penn State University is using in order to help student with disabilities take notes. We need to get this technology in our high schools for students with Individual Education Plans (IEP).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Interesting Links

As a School Psychologist I think is imperative to stay informed regarding research, current events and the current psycho-educational zeitgeist. I keep a word document on my computer with all the links I didn't get around to reading from the previous day. Yesterday, I started to realize that the document was growing out of control so I took some time out to catch up  on some reading. Here are some interesting tidbits from what I found.

  • A recent study pretty much confirms what most Educators have already suspected: Children's school performance correlates with parent income and education levels. However, what makes this study so interesting is that these correlations are based on differences in volume of key brains regions - like the Hippocampus and Amygdala- which are involved in learning and processing emotions. You can start the obligatory is it the "chicken or the egg?" discussion below. One of my favorite books points out that parent income levels and stress levels often have prenatal consequences before environmental factors can even impact neonatal development. 

  • It looks like a school district in San Diego that offers free Yoga classes to it's students twice a week are under fire from parents who believe this amounts to indoctrination into Hinduism and a violation of "separation of church and state." Along with this being a completely ridiculous argument, I also think it opens a "Pandora's box" with regards to the mindfulness and Yoga movement that has yet to really been ironed out in education, i.e. how comfortable is the "Mindfulness in Education" movement in becoming a secular movement. I have been meaning to write an entire post dedicated to this discourse but keep procrastinating. Stay posted for that. In the mean time here is a post called "Occupy Mindfulness" that got me thinking about the coming storm of traditionalist vs secularists. Then another one stressing that religion is not part of Yoga in schools. #foodforthought 

  • Here is a great interview with Christopher Willard, which deals with some of the themes I mentioned in the previous bullet. If you teach mindfulness or meditation to children in schools, it is a great read and highlights the importance of finding balance between religious philosophy and secular pragmatics. 

  • I found inspiration from this post  as I often struggle with negative thoughts which I label as "realistic." However, what I have come to realize is that focusing on the positive (which in not always reality) creates a better feeling within you, and  also makes one better equipped to deal with the inevitable "sturm and drang" of the human condition. These ten easy steps are great ways to stay positive and "keep it moving." 

  • Here are a bunch of benefits to meditation from the APA. 

  • Here is a nice "Mindfulness 101" post. I remember when I first started practicing Mindfulness I found it to be an abstract concept that was difficult to explain to others. I also had trouble practically labeling something that really ends up being a state of mind. I think the more one reads basic definitions of Mindfulness from others, they not only crystallize their own Mindfulness practice but they also become more fluent and comfortable explaining it to others.... so read away!

  • I love www.edudemic.com. Its a great website that helps educators and schools incorporate technology and social media into their classrooms.  I also love Twitter. Here is a link combining both. As educators we have a responsibility to spread knowledge. We must gain knowledge through growth and study. Creating our own personal learning network is a great way of doing that. This list will help you know who are best to follow when creating a personal learning network on Twitter. P.S. Follow ME!! ;)

Friday, October 19, 2012

5 Ways to Find Balance as a Special Educator

As a School Psychologist I often find myself pulled between different roles. As an advocate for children, a consultant to teachers/schools and a perceived gate keeper for extra services my roles in an educational setting often blur the reality of any given situation. On top of this, schools are microcosms of society; and as such, they often house varying opinions, cultural values and social norms, which impact the dynamic and flow of collaboration. As a stake holder in this system it is imperative to find a balance between the myriad of factors at play. This balance helps to foster meaningful growth and change. This is especially true with regards to children who need extra assistance or are receiving specialized services.  Academic Support Team, Special Education Eligibility and Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings are often charged with frustration, misunderstandings and varied intentions, which lead to angry parents and disenchanted teachers. As a  member of these meetings I often focus on different ways to balance the multiple dynamics at play. By merging the cacophony of opinions into a symphony of support, our team is usually able to come to a plan that we all agree on. Although written from the point of view of a School Psychologist, these 5 recommendations will help anyone find balance when heading into a difficult meeting or decision.
1.) Establish Your Intention-  No matter what your role is on the team (parent, administrator, advocate, teacher), there is a reason that you were asked to participate in this meeting. Before any meeting I ask myself why am I here and what do I intend to bring to this meeting. For the most part my intention in all meetings is to help a child be successful. I typically have some familiarity with teacher concerns and background history before the  meeting. From this information I ask myself "How can I full fill my intention to help this child?" I don't always have the answer; however, this question creates a positive and goal oriented mindset for the meeting. It also creates a nice filter to screen out extraneous information others may add. For example if a teacher starts talking about other students or confronts parents on their parenting style, I can notice whether or not this is consistent with my intention. I can then choose to engage in the conversation or remain silent on the topic. Knowing your intention will help from having to choose sides at a meeting. I usually tell myself, "I am not on the parent's side nor am I on the school's side. I am on the child's side." This typically helps me keep my actions rooted in my original intention.
2. Practice Non judgement and Compassion- As earlier stated, school meetings often have a variety of opinions and feelings that create a dynamic and tense atmosphere. Each of the these opinions are important in that they inform decision making and utilize the expertise of well trained personnel. However, when there are too many "hens in the hen house"...well, you know the rest. It is important to practice non-judgement to others' opinions and exhibit compassion for their current state. For the most part, all parties want what's best for the child involved; therefore, even if you don't agree with their opinion, you should have compassion from where they are coming from. This compassion can be fostered through the practice of non-judgement. Through my daily mindful practice I have cultivated an ability to notice my thoughts and feelings as they are. Although difficult, as I notice these thoughts and feelings I try to not place a judgement upon them. Good or Bad, Angry or Aloof, Wrong or Right these are all labels we add to our thoughts that cloud how we see a situation and perpetuate unfavorable inner dialogues. By just acknowledging our thoughts as thoughts and not attaching a judgement we are able to clearly process what is happening in the moment and bring ourselves back to the original intention we set at number 1. Another reason I find non-judgement to be so important is that I don't always have all the information or answers in a meeting. Parents, teachers and administrators often bring valuable information to meetings, which help to fulfill our intentions. If we immediately judge or label what someone else is communicating we can't internalize the personal knowledge and expertise that they are bringing with it.
3.) Practice Perspective Taking- I have found that trying to take the perspective of another to be one of the most helpful things I can do when collaborating with a team. Putting yourself in the shoes of someone else helps you understand where they are coming from and makes practicing non-judgement that much easier. Before a meeting think about who is going to be there and what their role is. Think about what their intention may be. Think about how they feel about the issue at hand. Try to imagine what they may feel when they come to the meeting. For example I often try to think about how a parent would feel when they walk into a meeting with 3 or 4 school officials around a table with laptops open. Would they be anxious, scared, or paranoid that they were being talked about. Think about how they feel when they sit down on the other side of the table with all school personnel facing them. I try to choose my seat at the table to balance out the dynamics. If all the school personnel are on one side I try to sit on the side with the parent. This may help to prevent the illusion that the meeting may be one sided. I also take the perspective of the teacher, which is not always clear. Are they frustrated with the student ? the school? themselves? It is important to take perspectives and feel empathy; however, one must not create preconceived notions. Practice non-judgment when perspective taking. If during the meeting you realize that your perspective of the participant was inaccurate, be open to creating a new perspective. Put yourself in their shoes regarding what they are saying right now in the present moment.  
4.) Ground Yourself when Necessary- School Meetings can be emotional and stressful. At times people become angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed by what is being presented. Meetings can also be cathartic, creating a new found respect and camaraderie for team members and the agreed upon plan. It is imperative that participants stay mindful and aware of the feelings they are having and ground themselves in the moment they are experiencing. Recognizing emotions and grounding yourself when necessary creates balance and helps to build space between thoughts and feelings. This space will help you when practicing non-judgement as well as aligning with your primary intention at the beginning of the meeting. If you feel overwhelmed, begin focusing on your breath. Focusing on your breath has been shown to help with stress management. Feel the air come through your nasal passage on the in breath and the rising of your diaphragm. Feel your stomach go down as you exhale. Notice any shortness of breath or elevated heart rate. Don't label these things as negative, just notice how they feel. You can even chose an anchor word to bring you back to your sensory experience and away from negative thoughts that may be occurring due to your elevated emotional state. If you are angry or frustrated just label the feeling as that... a "feeling". Breathe in and breathe out and repeat the word "feeling" in your head as you do this. When I feel this way I am able to bring myself back into the moment after about ten breaths.
5.) Check in- with your intention during and after the meeting- As any meeting or discussion progresses topics change, people go on tangents and new ideas are thrown around. It is important to check in with yourself and observe if you are still acting or speaking from your original intention. One way of doing this is to set the timer on your phone for 10 minutes. As it vibrates in your pocket notice where the topic of the meeting is and how you have contributed to taking it there. Is this consistent with your original intention? What do you need to change in order to get back to your original intention. Notice how you feel about this. It is also important to check in with yourself after the meeting. Did you meet your intention? Did you achieve what you set out to do at the beginning of the meeting? If not what things could you do different next time? After the meeting is over, leave it in the past and focus on what is next. What are the next steps that YOU need to do to continue with your original intention.
Not all meetings go as planned and there are often situations that are not solved or wrapped up by the time the meeting closes. Nonetheless by following these steps and creating balance you are better preparing yourself for the collaboration and open mind necessary for future discussions. Whether it agreeing on IEP goals, negotiating a house closing, or working on a marketing campaign, creating balance is important for us to achieve our goals as well as work together smoothly as a team. As Special Educators we have to share our ideas opinions and expertise together as a team. By creating a balanced and focused team we are ultimately creating better service delivery for the child at hand. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Great Video Highlighting Johns Hopkins Research

Here is a great video showing the research that is being completed at Johns Hopkins University with regards to Mindful Meditation and Yoga in schools. The more research that is done, the more schools will begin to accept the possibility of a Mindful curriculum as a viable and sustainable Social Emotional Learning (SEL) intervention.

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Monday, October 1, 2012

5 Ways for Teachers to increase Mindful Awareness in the Classroom

As Mindfulness in schools goes mainstream, new and practical ways of classroom integration continue to be explored and enjoyed by teachers. Increasing mindful awareness in classrooms can help reduce teacher and student stress, increase attention and focus and foster social emotional competence. Although not a full mindfulness program, teachers can implement these quick and easy mindful based activities into their daily routine in order to help foster the awareness that comes from a full mindfulness practice. The following 5 activities can be implemented throughout the day in order to help students transfer between activities, de-stress after a test, and refocus after an exciting project or experiment. Although created for elementary age students, these ideas could easily be revised for high school or college age students as well.

1. Mindful Minutes- Mindful Breathing is the foundation of any Mindful practice and should be the first thing that is taught to children. This technique is best taught by teaching children to focus on a sound, then slowly transfer their attention to their own breathing. A mindfulness bell is a great way of transitioning between a sound and  breathing. By focusing on breathing children "anchor" themselves in the moment and focus inward. If you cannot find a mindfulness bell, a chime, triangle or singing bowl can also work. Once the sound goes away have the students focus on their breath for 1 "Mindful Minute". These Mindful Minutes can be included at any time of the day between any activity. It's especially good to start the day with a Mindful Minute or have one after coming back from lunch or recess. As children get better at focusing for the full minute you can increase the time to 2 minutes or 5 minutes.

2. Cool Down with Yoga- A simple series of Yoga poses are a great way to get children moving within a classroom and ground themselves in the moment. For teachers that are unfamiliar with Yoga there are a few classroom based Yoga programs that give more detail about how to infuse Yoga into a school setting such as Go Grounded Yoga, Yoga 4 Classrooms, and Yoga in My School. Learning a simple Sun Salutation and guiding your class through it, is a quick and easy way to get them moving and mindful of their bodies. Have your students focus on where their bodies are in space as well as how they feel after 1-2 rounds. Also encourage them to focus their attention on their breath, coordinating in and out breaths with each pose in the series. If there is not enough room to do sun salutations focus on some standing poses such as Tree, Mountain or Warrior. Here is the Grounded Flow Clock from the Go Grounded program which is a great visual to help student learn the classic sun salutation. A Yoga break is a great way to transition between activities and get kids blood flowing between long periods of sitting.

3. Mindful Seeing- This a great activity to build children's awareness and ability to sustain focused-attention. It helps children recognize the difference between just looking/labeling something vs. acknowledging/being aware of the personal experience of seeing something in its individuality. Mindful seeing can be accomplished with any object. I like using lemons. Grab about 6 different lemons and have your classroom break into 6 different groups. Assign each group a lemon and have them all look at the lemon very closely. Have them touch it, look for special bumps, notice the size and any individual characteristics. After five minutes collect all the lemons and put them in a basket. Shake the basket then pull out one lemon at a time and have each group try to decide if that is their lemon. This activity helps the children understand the multi-sensory aspects of memory as well as how we engage all of our senses during active observation.

4. Mindful Listening- As music lover I really enjoy this activity and often practice this on my own when I am listening to music or taking a walk. You can pick a children's song (there are a variety of children's songs out there) or a current song from the radio. Try to have the students actively listen to each instrument and melody in the song. It may be helpful to pause the music and hum the bass line, or the melody and then play the song again. Try to have the students focus on one particular part of the song and only that part of the song. For example the guitar may be playing a melody. Teach the students to recognize the guitar and focus on the guitar only. After a couple of minutes switch to another instrument. This is great activity to try during music class. Another listening activity that I enjoy is having students close their eyes and listen to the quiet room for thirty second. After thirty seconds have them list all the sounds that they came up with on the board. Try the same activity again and this time listen quietly in the room for a full minute. See if the class is able to  notice more sounds than before. This is a great activity to anchor students in the moment and practice focused attention and concentration.

5. Wishing Good Will-  Good will wishes are a great way to develop gratitude in your classroom as well as a positive classroom environment. Research has shown favorable results from positive affirmations as well as acknowledging gratitude. Positive Psychology is a growing field that touts neuroscience as support for the positive effects of optimism and other positive thoughts within a classroom setting. One activity to facilitate positivity and interconnectedness in the classroom is developing good will wishes. This can be completed by having students take a mindful minute (as stated above) and think about someone granting them one good will wish that can help someone else. They can send the wish to themselves silently saying "I wish that .....". Have them repeat the wish to themselves silently. Encourage them to notice how they feel when they say the wish. Next, after a minute or two, they can focus on a friend in the class or a family member. Send that person the wish and silently say " I wish that (person of choice)......" Again, encourage them to recognize how they feel when they wish good will to others. After about five minutes have them focus back on their breathing and slowly switch attention back to the classroom. These well wishes can be referred to throughout the day if disagreements arise. It is also a great way to start of the day or week.

By incorporating these ideas into their classrooms, teachers can begin to build mindful awareness and social emotional competence with their students. Although not a full curriculum, these activities can help to foster stress reduction and awareness. They can also help with transitions between activities and create a classroom culture that is ripe for learning. For more information regarding mindfulness in schools, refer to the following links: