Written by: Wendy Piret, Program Director, Move with Me Yoga Adventures
Last April, Janine Harper, Director of the Family Advocacy Program (FAP) for the Army Community Service (ACS) Center in Yongsan, South Korea, a province of Seoul, contacted us regarding resources and training. She wanted MwMYA to come out and work with the staff and family members of the U.S. Army Garrison (USAG) Yongsan. For myself, with 13 military moves (7 with children) in 24 years of active duty service, including 8 years of active duty myself and 16 more as a spouse, it was an incredible opportunity. Intimately familiar with the stress that multiple moves puts on children, coupled with what can often be tough assignments which include family separation, I can think of few communities who can appreciate and benefit from the stabilizing and centering effects of playful movement and creatively incorporated mindfulness and self-regulation skills.
We readily agreed to come out and last week, August 21-24th, 2017, I traveled to Seoul to train the staff and community members at USAG Yongsan. I worked with social workers, OTs, PTs, Speech Therapists, preschool and early elementary teachers, soldiers, and parents. Twenty (20) dedicated professionals attended the full 2 day 16-hour Certification Training for the Movement and Mindfulness curriculum, and 25 more received our 4-hour Introductory to Mindfulness and Self-Regulation Skills for Focused, Fit, and Healthy kids at home and in the classroom. In hindsight, after reading the mission of ACS, we should not have been surprised by the call:
“To assist commands in maintaining the readiness of individuals, families, and communities by providing a world of education, opportunity and discovery to promote self-reliance, resilience, and stability.”
I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to interact with the family members who attended our workshops, and to be able to train the staff of the ACS Center to support them with concrete, accessible skills from simple breathing techniques to the easily achieved brain activating and stress reducing movements we call Adventures Skills. The level of professionalism and forward thinking I witnessed among the staff members was the highlight of the trip. There is no shortage of crisis situations, heartache, and strife when it comes to juggling the challenges that living overseas, working full time, and raising a family. To hold the space for soldiers, sailors, airmen and their families takes an incredible amount of personal resilience, dedication, and commitment.
ACS Yongsan you are the rugged soldiers, realistic, grounded, and unafraid to do whatever you need to do to achieve the best results possible for your families. Janine Harper and the staff of the Yongsan ACS, we sincerely thank you for the opportunity to serve your community.
From Janine Harper, Family Advocacy Program Manager, Army Community Service
“The Family Advocacy Program Manager for USAG-Yongsan, recently hosted a Move with Me Yoga Adventures workshop for both professionals and community members. The Family Advocacy Program focus on healthy ways to decrease child abuse and domestic violence by increasing opportunities for military families to come together. Providing our community training in movement and mindfulness fulfills so many of the goals we are trying to achieve in our community. Many of our families are looking for new healthy ways to share time with their families, and this meets that mission.
Over the last few days both our military professionals (social workers, occupational therapist, teachers, child care professional and counselors) and community members received invaluable training. This training provided a great balance between understanding the science and learning practical skills for implementation. We have already incorporated it in our Back to School Bash and are excited about educating the larger audience with our upcoming events.”
SEL Teaches Character
In 1995, New York Times science reporter Daniel Goleman published the book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, which launched the SEL movement. The case he presents and validates with preliminary evidence is that:
- Character matters
- Character can be taught
- Character improves academic, social, and professional achievement
Since then, all subsequent research shows that SEL does, in fact, enhance children’s academic success while preventing problems such as mental health disorders and violence. Social-emotional competencies, as defined by the list below, empower kids to grow self-aware and confident, to manage difficult emotions and impulses, and to embody empathy, which translates to not only improved behavior but also test scores.
Daniel Goleman’s 5 Social Emotional Learning Skills:
- Emotional self-awareness — knowing what one is feeling at any given time and understanding the impact those moods have on others
- Self-regulation — controlling or redirecting one’s emotions; anticipating consequences before acting on impulse
- Motivation — utilizing emotional factors to achieve goals, enjoy the learning process and persevere in the face of obstacles
- Empathy — sensing the emotions of others
- Social skills — managing relationships, inspiring others and inducing desired responses from them
To understand how these 5 components of social-emotional intelligence (aka: EQ), affect learning, we must also look at brain-based research. SEL is all about developing neutral awareness and thoughtful choices (aka: mindfulness). To be able to respond rather than react, children need to cultivate the executive functions of their neocortex (frontal lobe of the brain) as well as the heart-centered intelligence of their mid-brain limbic system, which houses meaning making and memories. SEL helps children move out of their lower, automatic “reptilian brain” thinking and into higher, rational thinking and regulation, by establishing rules and activities that promote safety – physical, emotional and social – and teach respectful, kind and compassionate ways to think and behave.
SEL Shapes the Brain
Classrooms that include SEL are organized around the principles of respect, kindness, and empathy. SEL teachers and lessons engage students in learning and practicing how to embody those qualities. This kind of environment encourages optimal brain development as well as social connection and collaboration. In other words, SEL affects learning by shaping children’s developing neural circuitry, particularly the executive functions. As children feel safe and learn how to inhibit disruptive emotional impulses, they exhibit greater self-confidence, better behavior and enhanced memory. They enjoy the learning process and thus, readily engage and fully immerse themselves in gaining new information and skills.
We don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience. –John Dewey
How to teach social emotional learning
To teach social-emotional skills, educators and parents need to build in time for children to imagine, experiment, and reflect on their experiences and choices, just like any other subject matter. This includes:
- Discussing conflicts and trying out different ways to resolve them
- Naming and being with feelings/emotions inside oneself & expressed by others
- Playing with how to manage big emotions and have compassion for self & others
- Experimenting with sharing, negotiation & collaboration
- Practicing how to be neutral and curious enough to really let in the thoughts, beliefs and values of others without having to defend your own
- Reflecting on the results and feelings from all of the above before, during & after
Being a Mindful Model
To learn social-emotional skills, young children must be safe and encouraged to explore, make mistakes, and viscerally feel. They need a safe, empathetic, and playful environment that provides them with strategies, tools, and reflection around the development of self & emotional awareness, self-care & regulation, social awareness, empathy, and cooperation. You, teacher or parent, make this possible by being a mindful model & compassionate mirror:
- Emotionally honest, self-regulating, available, curious, and responsive
- Clear with expectations and guidelines. Consistent with appropriate consequences.
- Calm when angry. Caring when frustrated. Compassionate with everyone including yourself.
- Supportive with instruction & acknowledging of efforts. Never mock or shame.
- Give choices and respect wishes. Reflect on results. Don’t micro-manage.
- Ask questions that help children solve problems and self-regulate on their own.
- Be culturally aware and respectful.
The Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum gives you everything you need to teach SEL and fulfill most other standards.
Practicing meditation enhances your ability to be the mindful model & compassionate mirror. When you practice focusing your attention, rather than letting it jump around, you move into in your higher neocortex brain and your para-sympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system, and out of your lower survival, automatic brain and sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. You reset your mind-body into an optimal state.
Most of us are programmed to do, act, accomplish. We do not value being, reflecting, processing. Even in the face of all the research that tells us the value of mindfulness practices, it’s hard for most of us to choose to take the time. We have too many things to do! But if you want to improve your capacity to teach SEL, it’s a requirement.
Social Emotional Learning is about developing the ability to:
- set and achieve goals
- feel and show empathy
- establish and maintain relationships
- make responsible decisions
- understand and manage emotions
Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Standards list the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and cognitive skills woven into and necessary for functioning well in everyday life – at home, at work, and at school – for everyone.
Though they differ slightly from state to state, these standards define social-emotional intelligence, which is really just the academic and neuroscientific breakdown of the attitudes, behaviors, and actions that make someone good to themselves, nice to know, and pleasant to work with. Because all the research shows that social and emotional competence is fundamental to academic and personal success, SEL is an essential and integrated part of every pre and primary school curriculum.
CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, supports educators and parents in understanding and cultivating SEL standards through these 5 competencies:
- Self-awareness – the ability to
- Identify one’s own emotions
- Accurately perceive oneself
- Recognize one’s strengths & limitations
- Embody a confident, positive, growth mindset
- Self-management – the ability to
- Control impulses
- Manage stress
- Set goals
- Organize one’s thinking and tasks
- Social awareness – the ability to
- Understand other perspectives and values
- Be empathic & kind
- Appreciate diversity
- Respect others
- Relationship skills – the ability to
- Communicate clearly & listen fully
- Engage & cooperate with others
- Build healthy relationships
- Negotiate & resolve conflicts
- Responsible decision-making – the ability to
- Identify & solve problems
- Analyze & evaluate situations
- Receive feedback, self-reflect & self-correct
- Embody ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms
How do movement & mindfulness activities support SEL?
1.Reinforce Mind-Body Balance & Integration
In The Whole-Brain Child, Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, encourage lots of active movement and sensory play for children. Why? Because the body is constantly providing useful information to the brain. They define being emotionally intelligent as knowing how to listen to and to use that information to both self-care and connect with innate wisdom. All child development experts agree that it is through play that children start to understand their thoughts and feelings as well as to practice how to appropriately interact with others.
In combining active play with self- reflection and self-care, the Movement & Mindfulness Bundle helps kids be more cooperative and resilient. The yoga adventures and self-regulation techniques enable them to understand their feelings, embody ways to control impulses, and manage stress to do their best.
2. Reset the Nervous System to Optimal State
The body and the mind are inextricably linked and our mind-body state dictates how available and/or able we are. Movement & mindfulness activities enable kids to regularly destress and reset their nervous systems such that they can connect, learn, and make smart choices. The more children move and play, the less stressed and more cooperative and learning ready they are. The more children learn how to slow down, relax, self-reflect, and self-care, the more they learn how to shift their own body-mind state.
In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John Ratey, M.D. describes research showing that physical activity sparks biological changes that increase the brain’s ability to learn, adapt, and perform other cognitive tasks. Exercise builds brain cells, lifts mood, and ameliorates the detrimental effects of stress.
3. Explores the Range of Emotions
Playful exercise and sensory awareness encourage children to explore their natural reactions and impulses. In the Movement & Mindfulness Bundle, the yoga stories invite children to move, pretend to be other animals and objects, try on a variety of emotions, and experiment with specific mind-body activities as self-regulation and social skills. The process of being everything in and acting out the story helps kids develop an awareness of the range of human experience. By naming these feelings and working with shifting them, kids start to be able to tame the bigger emotions that can sometimes overwhelm their young systems. Practicing self-care and regulation as play at a young age lays a foundation for social-emotional competence.
Health, Academic, and Social-Emotional Competence starts at home with daily play and exercise.
My interview with Marcia Washington reaffirmed some basic truths about child development that I want to passionately re-iterate!
1. Physical coordination precedes and lays the foundation for cognitive coordination.
In other words, if you want to develop the mind, you must develop the body. That means multiple sessions daily of movement, play, and exercise. Per Marcia’s testimonial as a parent and a pediatric OT, it was doing the yoga story DVDs twice daily that enabled her son to build the motor skills, focus, and self-control needed for kindergarten. My point here is that regardless of your child’s challenges or strengths, if s/he is difficult, stressed, crabby, withdrawn, anxious, etc., s/he probably needs more physical play. Fun movement is the biologically built-in developer of body-mind-feelings awareness and management. At school, make sure students enjoy 90 to 120 minutes of supervised, instructional gross motor activity as well as outside time. At home, my recommendation is 20-30 minutes minimum every day – just you and your child, one-on-one, whatever s/he wants to do.
2. Mindfulness is a sensory-motor skill.
Impulse control, emotional intelligence, self-regulation and executive function develop as children become aware of and understand what happens inside their own bodies. It is through interactive activity such as exercise instruction and pretend play that they build the inner sensory-emotional awareness necessary for self-control. Per the work of Catherine Rosasco Mitchell and others in embodied, sensory-motor education, we know that children can only access and understand their own perception, character, and relationships by using the feelings/sensations of the body. Play and intentional movement help them grow mindful as well as socially – emotionally competent.
3. To get the benefits, you have to do the practice.
Exercise is a natural mind-body regulator and integrator. Active play causes kids to be less impulsive and more primed to learn by literally building brain cells, turning on the attention system, and firing up the executive functions — sequencing, working memory, prioritizing, inhibiting, and sustaining attention. To realize these effects means you’ve got to actually prioritize and spend more time playing and exercising and less time sitting and on screens. Why? Because intentional movement and playful instructional exercise promote and improve:
- Creative problem solving
- Language skills
- Focus, Attention and Sustained Concentration
- Impulse control
- Balance and coordination
- Anxiety and Hyper-Activity
Marcia Washington, OTR/L, has been practicing pediatric occupational therapy for 20 years. In 2009, in her hometown of Pontotoc, MS, she launched KidSense, a clinic that specializes in pediatric therapy, includes a sensory motor gym, and serves clients from over a 70 mile radius.
Marcia and her husband, David, have 2 biological daughters, Mattie – 14 and Ella – 10. In 2014, they adopted a 2 year old boy from Poland. Marcia helped Gehrig improve his language and overall motor skills using Rhythmic Movement, Integrated Listening, NeuroNet Learning program and the Alert Program “How Does Your Engine Run.” Yet core strength, posture control and unintegrated reflexes persisted to the point of causing inattentive/impulsive behavior in preschool.
That’s when she started to use Move With Me Yoga Adventure DVDs and flash cards daily. She was so impressed with the results that she wrote us a thank you note. We were so touched that we invited her to speak about her experience so we could share it with all of you.
Any questions, feel free to contact Marcia at email@example.com or through her website: kidsensetherapy.com
The free Embodied Mindfulness Video by Wellness Through Movement is an 8-minute animated story (see below for video), designed to be presented to children in 4 two-minute sections. It shows how two children who get in trouble for not listening come to understand what happened for them and how they can use a centering breath technique called, Home, to develop their ability to be mindful and to better direct their attention so that they can listen.
The program is the culmination of 30 years of work and research with children by co-creator, Catherine Rosasco Mitchell. She sent it to me recently after testing it for thirteen years in elementary schools. I was impressed with the simplicity, clarity, and accessibility of the video and with her accompanying User and Teacher Guides. I enthusiastically recommend the program to anyone working with children. What I love about this resource is that it’s free – thank you Catherine! – and that it directly addresses the fact that children are 90% more in their bodies than in their minds.
Children are full of energy, emotion, and sensation inside so they feel more than they think. To develop self-regulation, parents and teachers need to understand that children have to become aware of and understand what happens inside them when they don’t or can’t, hear, think, or pay attention in order to manage it better. They also need both encouragement to self-reflect and time to practice sensory – somatic tools or techniques to reset. When this process is offered and even modeled by their teachers and parents, kids can learn to work with themselves brilliantly. As Catherine explains eloquently: It is only by using the feelings of the body that you can truly help children access and understand their own perception, character, and relationship to others.
In addition to her scientifically designed sequences of movements and proprioception to increase self- awareness and support the development of both internal and external attention, I also admire Catherine’s advocacy for embodied education. She not only understands the vital role of embodiment in development, she also creates lesson plans that integrate sensory self-awareness and shows educators as well as professionals in the psychology, development, and neuroscience how to teach it. Check out her Teaching Embodiment is Crucial Poster presented at conferences on health and movement including the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) and American Association of Health, Physical Education and Dance (AAPERD).
To access and utilize this awesome free resource click here.
In the video below, Rafe Kelley, founder of Evolve Move Play, presents a valuable distinction between that which fills our attention and feeds our monkey minds and that which nourishes our humanity and fuels our personal development. It’s a valuable lens through which to assess our own lives.
How is the stimulation of a plugged in life affecting me?
How do I spend my time? Am I filling my life with fluff or with meaning?
Are my choices aligned with my values? Do I feel full and enriched or empty and depleted?
Are there parts of me that are starving… for connection, expression, integration?
Am I so busy that I’ve disconnected from myself, my health, my relationships, my dreams? Are my passions being replaced with addictions?
What am I modeling for my children? What are my rules around technology for them?
As an educator and a parent, I believe distinguishing stimulation from nourishment is an essential lens through which to assess the lives and development of our children. Given the technologizing of childhood, it’s imperative that we protect the growing brain from the proven negative consequences of over-stimulation and inappropriate stimulation. We need to understand what is truly nourishing for the whole child or we risk a generation of kids who are dysregulated, out of synch with their own natures, and regulating through consumption.
In his TED Talk, Media and Children, pediatrician and researcher Dr. Dimitri Christakis, explains how over-stimulation from fast-paced and/or violent TV watching or other screen time actually damages the developing brain’s ability to pay attention and learn. He advocates for the nourishment of cognitive stimulation in early childhood instead. Cognitive stimulation comes from whole child engaging activities such as block play, reading, singing, dancing, cooking, etc. with parents and care-givers. Children who spend plenty of time getting nourished in these ways have very few attention or self-regulation issues later in life. Conversely, children, especially those under the age of 3, who watch lots of non-educational, inappropriately paced TV, have much higher rates of attention, regulation, and learning issues.
The official definition of executive function is: a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation. Think of executive function as the “conductor” of all cognitive skills, enabling us to manage our lives, responsibilities, and projects. These skills include:
- Inhibition – The ability to stop one’s own behavior at the appropriate time.
- Shift – The ability to move freely from one situation to another and to think flexibly in order to respond appropriately to the situation.
- Emotional Control – The ability to modulate emotional responses by bringing rational thought to bear on feelings.
- Initiation – The ability to begin a task or activity and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies.
- Working memory – The capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task.
- Planning/Organization – The ability to manage current and future- oriented task demands.
- Organization of Materials – The ability to impose order on work, play, and storage spaces.
- Self-Monitoring – The ability to monitor one’s own performance and to measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected.
Looking at this list, it’s obvious that self-regulation is a critical competency of executive function in two major ways: social-emotional (appropriate behavior in a social context) and cognitive (focus, academic learning, problem-solving). When children are self-regulating, they can both stop or start doing something, even if they don’t want to. They can delay gratification; they can think ahead; they can control impulses and consider options. It is crucial that children learn basic self-regulation in early childhood because research indicates that “children who cannot control their emotions at age four are unlikely to be able to follow the teachers’ directions at age six, and will not become reflective learners in middle and high school.” (http://toolsofthemind.org/learn/resources/research-by-tools/)
Breathing Techniques for Executive Function
Breathing techniques offer easy-to-practice activities for building basic self-regulation in the body of youngsters and in your classroom. With something specific to do to support themselves when confronted with transitions, sharing, waiting, and re-directing impulses, children are better able to navigate those challenges. As they experience how specific ways of breathing enable them to tolerate feelings and manage impulses, they start to embody greater control. This process strengthens executive function, which builds self-esteem and self-trust.
Help kids learn how to count on their inner wisdom and intelligence. Make time for self-reflection and self-care throughout the day. Then introduce and practice breathing exercises regularly as a way to de-stress, recharge, and reset to to an optimal mind-body state. Below are 2 options that offer simple, effective tools for healthy self-regulation.
is a fun technique that is sure to make kids laugh and not take things too seriously. Because it requires make a silly blooping sound on the exhale, like a fish, it disperses tension, releases frustration, and busts the stress of over-efforting. Humor and playfulness are keys to accessing executive function and creative thinking. Physiologically, when you inhale deeply, you pull in lots of oxygen needed by our brain and body to stay relaxed and alert. When you exhale completely, you make room for more which helps us release toxins and recharge.
And again, deep breath in your nose…
Fill up your cheeks with it and …
Exhale it out your mouth …
Bloop, bloop, bloop, bloop, blooooooop.
activates the midline of the body, connects both hemispheres of the brain, and relieves tension in the eye muscles. As they inhale, direct children to place one hand on their belly button and the other on their sternum, like giving themselves a hug. Then, as they exhale, have them move just their eyes (head remains still) slowly from right to left and back again 2-4 times. This movement facilitates improved eye teaming skills and cross-motor coordination.
Overall, Ocean Breath slows, calms, and centers both mind and body, which will enable children to access executive function.
Place one hand on your belly button,
place the other in the middle of your chest.
Press your thumb and forefinger into the
soft tissue points beneath your collar bones
on either side of your sternum. Inhale fully
through your nose and then, as you exhale
slowly, move just your eyes from right to left.
The Damage Being Done by the Focus on Early Academic Instruction
For all of you still having to “fight” for more active play/yoga/mindfulness/nature time with early learners, research funded by the Alliance for Childhood and Defending the Early Years Foundation confirms that “young children learn best through meaningful, play experiences.” Unfortunately, though most early childhood educators would recommend whole child engaging activities, a la programs like the Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum, they are being forced to abide by new requirements that focus on academics. Current statistics show that long-term damage is being done by this shift to developmentally inappropriate practices for young kids. The less play-based experiences preschool – kindergarten children engage in, the more sensory issues they have.
Preschool years are not only optimal for children to learn through play, but also a critical developmental period. If children are not given enough natural movement and play experiences, they start their academic careers with a disadvantage. They are more likely to be clumsy, have difficulty paying attention, trouble controlling their emotions, utilize poor problem-solving methods, and demonstrate difficulties with social interactions. We are consistently seeing sensory, motor, and cognitive issues pop up more and more in later childhood, partly because of inadequate opportunities to move and play at an early age.
Peter Gray, PhD, research professor at Boston College, and author of Free to Learn (Basic Books, 2013) offers a synopsis of the research of the negative effects of academic preschools and kindergartens in his article in Psychology Today: Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm. The biological fact is that children are born with instinctive drives to educate themselves through play and exploration. When we interfere or try to impose rather than support those innate impulses, we stop the natural learning process and damage the child’s confidence, ease, joy, and creative, critical thinking. What makes this so frustrating and infuriating is that this research has been around for decades!
In a well-controlled experiment, begun by David Weikart and his colleagues in 1967, sixty eight high-poverty children living in Ypsilanti, Michigan, were assigned to one of three types of nursery schools: Traditional (play-based), High/Scope (which was like the traditional but involved more adult guidance), and Direct Instruction (where the focus was on teaching reading, writing, and math, using worksheets and tests). The initial results of this experiment were similar to those of other such studies. Those in the direct-instruction group showed early academic gains, which soon vanished. This study, however, also included follow-up research when the participants were 15 years old and again when they were 23 years old. At these ages there were no significant differences among the groups in academic achievement, but large, significant differences in social and emotional characteristics.
Thankfully, in Germany, they paid attention to the research and adapted their early learning programs accordingly:
A study with similar outcomes was done in Germany where play-based kindergartens were being transformed into early learning centers in the 1970s. The study compared 50 kindergarten classes using each of the two approaches. The children were followed through grade four, and those from the play-based programs excelled over the others on all 17 measures, including being more advanced in reading and mathematics and being better adjusted socially and emotionally in school. As a result the German kindergartens again became play based.
With ample proof that an academic focus in early learning is detrimental, it’s mind boggling how direct instruction for math and reading continues to proliferate?! Defending the Early Years, and Alliance for Childhood ask the same question in their article: Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain, Much to Lose. In it, they reveal that, on the committees that wrote and reviewed the new Common Core School Standards (CCSS), there is not one K-3rd grade teacher or an early childhood professional. Nor is there any actual evidence that the standards are based on research.
I can’t explain this total disregard for valid research but I do know it means we need to continue to push back – harder. If you, as parent, teacher, therapist, need support for fighting this battle, reach out to us and feel free to use any resources from our website!
To summarize, here’s what the EXPERTS say and encourage you to be doing:
Children learn best when they are engaged in activities geared to their developmental levels, prior experiences, and current needs. As they construct their ideas through play and hands-on activities that make sense to them, children’s knowledge builds in a gradual progression that is solid and unshakable. They build a foundation of meaning that provides the basis for understanding concepts in language, literacy, math, science and the arts. In active learning, their capacities for language development, social and emotional awareness, problem solving, self-regulation, creativity, and original thinking develop, transforming them into effective learners.