What is self-care? The definition varies depending on who you’re asking, but essentially it means taking care of yourself physically and mentally. In recent years the concept of mental health has come to the forefront of societal conversation, so much so that May has been designated Mental Health Awareness Month. Dedicating a month to awareness and support for those living with mental illness is a great step in the right direction, still, it is not enough. The stigma associated with mental health can still halt conversation and make people feel embarrassed for talking about their struggle.
How prevalent is mental illness? Over 45 million adults live with mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14. While these numbers are alarming, they shed insight into where more work can be done. The fact that mental illness often begins in childhood emphasizes the critical need for social-emotional education (SEL) to begin at a young age. As early as February 2011 research cited in the publication Child Development shows that when children are taught emotional intelligence, stress management, self-compassion, and empathy (all aspects of self-care), they demonstrate significantly improved resilience, affecting social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and an academic performance change that reflected an 11‐percentile‐point gain in achievement. (https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01564.x). “The findings add to the growing empirical evidence regarding the positive impact of SEL programs. Policy makers, educators, and the public can contribute to healthy development of children by supporting the incorporation of evidence‐based SEL programming into standard educational practice.” (Durlak, Weissberg) The positive impact imparted by the use of self-care skills carries on into adulthood and lays a foundation for not just happier adults, but also a healthier society.
Discuss and Educate
First things first, in order to have productive conversation and break stigma we must be better educated. What is mental health? This may seem like an obvious question, but ask yourself and ask your kids. You’ll be surprised by the different perspectives. By definition, mental health encompasses our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Mental health disorders are disturbingly common among children and adolescents and with the most familiar mental health issues being: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Anxiety, Depression, and Suicide.
Fortunately, many informative mental health materials can be found online. This is a great place to start to learn about mental-emotional health. Educate yourself first and then include the children in your life by modeling and sharing with them what you’ve learned and what you are doing as a result to better self-care mentally, emotionally and physically. Encourage them to be active, eat well, and talk about how they feel. Make sure they learn tools and techniques that support them in calming, managing, and focusing themselves in healthy ways when events in their life weigh so heavily that they, or you, fear they are tipping. Stress, fear, frustration, and the subsequent anger and anguish are real, regardless if from an outside perspective the emotions seem unwarranted. Get dug in, it’s important. Find out what your child’s school is doing to teach and support SEL. Organizations such as SEL4CA.org and CASEL.org can help you.
Starting a conversation with your kids about mental health is challenging, look for discussion guides, podcasts, and even comic books, that can give you questions to get the ball rolling, or at the least give you questions to ask your doctor about a child who may be at risk. These resources can also suggest activities that demonstrate to your child how their thoughts and emotions are linked and that can explain conditions in terms children will understand. Becoming more comfortable with these kinds of conversations will make kids and teens feel less isolated and will encourage them to share their true feelings.
Encourage Physical Activity
It’s widely known that exercise is good for your physical health, but it’s also one of the best ways to improve your mental health. It’s a great outlet to reduce stress, exude excess energy, and even give yourself a healthy sense of well-being. Those who exercise are more likely to feel more energetic throughout the day, get a better night’s rest, relax and be more positive. Exercise has been known to aid in the treatment of depression, anxiety, stress, ADHD and trauma.
The best physical activities are ones that include friends and family. Whether it’s taking the dog for a walk every day, joining a kickball league or swimming in the pool, any chance to get out and get moving will have significant health effects. When you cannot get outside, play-along videos are a fun and bonding way to exercise inside at home or at school. From the many exercise videos there are to choose from, the one for young children, ages 3-9 years that we want to highlight is the, Movement & Mindfulness Bundle from Move with Me Yoga Adventures. It has 9 yoga videos that combine acting out stories with movement and learning discrete, specific health & self-regulation skills that can be reinforced during your daily life through the use of physical flash cards. The skills taught are not just for kids, they can be used by adults and children alike.
Embrace the Arts
Having a creative outlet is another essential component of self- care. There are instances in which words do not suffice, or perhaps they’re too hard to say. Finding a creative way to express feelings is a healthy alternative to keeping them internalized. Painting, drawing, or coloring are great ways to depict feelings through colors and portraying scenes. Writing, playing, and listening to music is another outlet. Finding music that relates to the way you’re feeling can be a release of emotion. Music can also translate into a feeling of camaraderie. When people are expressing the same feelings you feel, you’re more likely to open up.
For you and your children’s mental health, it’s essential to stop the cycle of stress and the accompanying emotions of helplessness and anger. It is time to start prioritizing your well-being by taking time throughout the day to self-care. When you take the time to learn the skills you need, that intention and action translates to positive growth for your family as well. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Earlier this year, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a grant from the Wallace Foundation, came out with a 350 page analysis of SEL Programs in the USA. Entitled Navigating SEL from the Inside Out, it dissects 25 leading SEL programs for elementary school that are implemented either during and after school. Many of the programs include a pre-school component.
The SEL Programs identified as most effective included:
- Sequenced activities to teach skills
- Active engagement of students in learning skills
- Focused time on specifically targeted SEL skills
I was struck by how kinesthetic these three qualifiers of efficacy are and how few kinesthetic learning strategies were mentioned. The programs that were more physical activity based were not seen as supporting emotional processing, character, or mindset. Yet, statistics point to 80% of children as being kinesthetic learners. Per their own evaluation, the authors point to whole child engagement as being the best teacher yet they don’t seem to value that engagement as much when it is body oriented.
In my opinion, the perceived gap between body and mind in the learning process not only does a dis-service to children, it also disempowers them, especially early learners who are developmentally oriented to the body. What’s missing in SEL programs for young children is an understanding that all learning happens in the body and that all SEL skills must be practiced in the body to be mastered.
We developed the Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum to bridge this gap and to offer educators a way to integrate body and mind for more successful development, learning and social-emotional skills. Children build character, manage emotions, and embody determination through what they do, experience, and practice physically.
The authors also noted four organizing principles shared by high-quality SEL programs, which are:
- Create a safe and positive environment for children and adults
- Support the development of high quality relationships between children and adults
- Offer developmentally appropriate, relevant and engaging activities for children
- Provide opportunities for direct skill build
The paper explains that SEL Programs are only effective when they are integrated into the mission and practices of the organization. The curriculum and activities must be aligned with the school goals, as well as lived and modeled by teachers and administrators. In my experience in ECE, another missing piece is the embodied EQ of the educators and care providers. How do they model self-care when they’ve never been taught or supported in practicing it? How can they help children become aware of and integrate their own body-mind state with specific techniques if they’ve not been taught any tools themselves?
Another reason we started MwMYA is to provide teachers with the education and practice they need to increase their own mindfulness, self-care, self-regulation, compassionate communication, and social-emotional intelligence. To teach a high quality SEL Program, they need to embody both an understanding of the brain and body as well as a set of skills and tools they can practice, model, and teach.
I just found out that last Saturday, April 30, has been declared National Honesty Day. On one hand, that’s laughable, given our current political climate in which truth and facts are considered malleable as well as debatable. On the other hand, maybe that’s exactly why it’s so important for each of us to take some time to personally explore our own honesty.
Is being truthful with yourself and others an important value to you….to our society? I know we all seem to agree that honesty, and the trust it builds, is the foundation of our relationships and culture but it that just lip-service? I’m asking because I read an article by Hiyaguha Cohen in the Baseline of Health Foundation blog that sites some pretty shocking statistics such as:
In conversation, we’re most likely to lie to our parents (86 percent of the subjects did so), and then to our friends (75 percent).
Mostly, we lie about trivial things that make us look better or that spare the feelings of others. Sure, we’ve all done that. What’s really surprising is how much we do that.
The typical person can’t converse more than 10 minutes without telling a lie. Additionally, the average person lies not just once, but three times every 10 minutes!
Don’t panic. Another study, with 110 participants aged 18 to 71 for a period of 10 weeks, found the average number of lies per person per week was only 11. That still sounds like a lot, right. And what’s so wrong with telling little white lies or exaggerations or strategic omissions that don’t hurt anybody? Turns out, they are bad for your health. Why? Because when we lie, we are withholding from others and distancing from ourselves. The unspoken message is: I’m not safe to be myself. Lying also implies that whomever you’re lying to is also unsafe. Living in an unsafe environment is always stressful and when we lie, we literally reinforce that lack of safety and rob ourselves of the opportunity to experience emotional safety in our relationships.
The prevalence of lying reveals how fearful, manipulative, and defended we are. A 2014 study from the Berkeley Haas School of Business tells us that the impulse to lie in order to protect or gain personal advantage is embedded in the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex region of the brain. So, when it comes to honesty, we are a bit at odds. We’re wired to lie while simultaneously programmed for the love and closeness that grows from authentic connections. The lie response, lying to avoid confrontation, will kick in first unless we consciously override it.
The good news is that, per the American Psychological Association study:
When participants in the no-lie group told three fewer lies than they did in other weeks, they experienced on average about four fewer mental-health complaints, such as feeling tense or melancholy, and about three fewer physical complaints, such as sore throats and headaches. And as an added bonus, subjects also reported reducing the lies improved relationships all around.
Being ourselves requires vulnerability. Being vulnerable is scary. You risk being hurt, misunderstood, humiliated, or hurting someone else, feeling guilty, being rejected. Being vulnerable is also, per Brene Brown, the birthplace of everything we are hungry for.
Now I’m really curious to pay attention to how much I lie. I will be watching for my impulse to fudge the truth in order to smooth things over. I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to be real. I want to learn how to be honest in ways that inspire everyone around me to feel safe to be authentic as well.
The article also affirms the importance of creating an environment in which children feel safe enough not to lie and are not shamed when they do. What they need is our help in understanding why they felt the impulse to lie. Once they can see and name what happened and why they were afraid, they can start to see the larger consequences and create other options. Honesty can only be built on a foundation of self-esteem. We cannot judge dishonesty and make the child who lies bad. Instead, we need to support them in noticing the impulse and feeling safe enough not to. For children to to build both emotional intelligence and healthy attachments, it’s up to us to become mindful about our own lying such that we can help kids navigate theirs.
The continued “push-down” of academics to PreK and Kindergarten is frustrating to any early childhood educator and damaging to early learners. Wendy Lecker, columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media Group and senior attorney for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity project at the Education Law Center, offers a succinct summary of why current policies are developmentally inappropriate and how they actually inhibit the development of creative and critical thinking as well as long-term learning in her article: The Disturbing Transformation of Kindergarten.
The gap between developmentally appropriate practices (curriculum activities that nurture the whole child for successful lifelong learning) and current educational policies (mandates issued by a state or federal education department) is outrageous and insulting. “In 2010, 500 child development experts warned the drafters (of the Common Core Standards) that the standards called for exactly the kind of damaging practices that inhibit learning: direct instruction, inappropriate academic content, and testing.” Why were these warnings not heeded? Clearly, “these so-called educational leaders have no idea how children learn.”
“Two major studies have confirmed the value of play vs. teaching reading skills to young children. Both compared children who learned to read at 5 with those who learned at 7 and spent their early years in play-based activities. Those who read at 5 had no advantage. Those who learned to read later had better comprehension by age 11, because their early play experiences improved their language development.”
Early childhood educators know that standardized tests for children under 8 are invalid and that lots of engaging, purposeful play is what young ones really need for not only physical health and coordination but also cognitive skills – language, early literacy, concepts, problem solving, perspective, representation, memory, and creativity. They also know that to teach reading, writing, subtraction and addition before children are ready means forcing them to memorize concepts they cannot understand or actually learn AND that this memorization will not help their achievement later on.” Yet, teachers nationwide are expected to teach to the test. It’s a terrible, heart-wrenching bind.
At Move with Me, the intention of our Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum is to help teachers bridge the gap between policy and practice. We understand first-hand the agony of living this gap in daily classroom life. On one hand, teachers are told to provide more physical activity and social-emotional learning, especially self-regulation skills, which they are not trained to teach, and on the other, they’re required to have children complete all kinds of rote academics. Our goal is to give educators ways to both serve the child and accommodate the standard mongers.
All the lessons and activities are aligned with and address the early learning domains and common core standards. Every cooperative game and movement story supports academics as well as the child’s well-being, creativity, and ease of learning. Every self-care exercise and mindfulness activity is designed to help both teachers and students diminish the stress of developmentally inappropriate policies and still experience the joy that learning can be. Just as we cannot separate our bodies from our minds, we cannot separate play from learning. As Dr. Pearce wrote so many years ago in his book , The Magical Child: Play is nature’s biological plan for learning.
What if your new mantra was: I have plenty of time?
Say it to yourself a few times …. let it sink in to your body and mind as fact. Let yourself feel that you have plenty of time.
Notice your internal response. Did you soften, widen, slow down, take a deep breath? Did the outside world seem to slow down, too?
Notice you shifted your state with a shift in your thinking.
When TIME is your friend, and you appreciate her, she’s spacious and accommodating. When TIME is not your friend, and you belittle her, she is constricting and stress producing. TIME is a creation of your perception. How you hold her is how she appears in your world.
Last year, in order to shift the level of stress I felt in my life, my new year’s resolution was to align with specific qualities I wanted to feel – EASE being at the top of the list. In the process of cultivating ease, I realize now that I also re-created my experience of TIME. I could not feel ease and rush, or worry. I had to slow down and reorganize. And what a revelation… I learned that being busy all the time does not increase productivity; it is instead a recipe for misery by taking the enjoyment out of everything.
If you feel caught in some version of “rat race”, you are stuck in a round room. When you think, speak, and act as though there’s not enough time, your experience will reinforce that concept and continue to generate debilitating stress in a race of your own creation that you can never win.
Meditation, mindfulness practices, and yoga are wonderful ways to re-invent your concept of and relationship to TIME. Build in time for a practice or a class that resonates with you and stick to it. As with any practice, it is the cumulative effect of regularity over time that is essential for transformation.
Even if you spent just 20 minutes a day, 10 in the am and 10 in the pm, repeating the mantra: I have plenty of time, you would start to embody a slower inner speed, and a shift in consciousness that translates to less stress and more enjoyment. With plenty of TIME, you have the space to more deeply experience and appreciate the moments that make up your life.
The ability to slow down is available to everyone. It can feel uncomfortable at first because we are not mirroring the outside world but if we are willing to move through the discomfort, it feels more natural overtime until it actually begins to feel pleasurable to sit with our feelings. We become aware of the many different parts of a feeling we label with only one word. For example, we say I feel stress but when we slow down, we see stress is a representation of feeling tired, bored, anxious, irritated, inadequate and under-appreciated all at once. This deepening changes our relationship with time. Everything eventually slows down to a manageable pace when we allow our relationship with this moment to matter.
If you have not yet instituted regular rituals with your children that develop mindfulness, it’s time. The research from neuroscience, education, child development, and positive psychology all agree. Practices that cultivate self-awareness and the ability to self-care enhance social-emotional learning and executive functions. They also nurture a positive affect or attitude, which has been shown to widen our literal and figurative vision. We know that feeling good, connected, and cared about improves problem-solving, academic performance, creativity, resilience, and health. In other words, not taking time to regularly participate in some kind of mindful exercise is actually inhibiting student potential and progress.
Where to begin?
As teacher/parent, you are the model and the music in the space so mindfulness begins with you. Start any sort of practice for yourself and commit to doing it regularly. It could be 10-20 minutes a day of loving kindness or any other kind of meditation, or 30 minutes 2-3 times a week of yoga or a walking meditation. It doesn’t matter what, except that it be an activity that you resonate with and feel more focused, settled, and present after practicing. This shift in your own regimen will source much of what you bring and eventually develop for your classroom or homeschooling schedule.
With younger children, it’s important to start with simple sensory activities and to do them regularly. Examples are: listening to the sound of the bell until it disappears, or feeling the raisin on your tongue melt, or noticing the rise and fall of your belly as it breathes, or watching the lines of the tree drawn on the water drawing board evaporate. The process of observing via one sense organically brings children into a present, focused, calm, and open state.
I recommend also introducing and practicing how to breathe fully and smoothly; how to slow inner speed to better notice, name, and reflect on what goes inside and outside; how to self-soothe and self-care; and how to ground and center body and mind through games and yoga. It’s wonderful to also include affirmations, uplifting songs, movement stories, and partner yoga. Note: as you read this, are you mentally sorting these activities to the “if there’s time” category? If so, please review the research highlights:
Embodied Self-Regulation Skills using Bilateral or Intentional Movement –
- Decrease off-task behavior in preschool age children (Dr. Jennifer Dustow, Cornerstone Educational Preschool 2-year Autism Project, Nov 10, 2009)
- Improve creative problem solving, language skills, and memory (Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., The Cognitive Benefits of Play: Effects on the Learning Brain)
- Increases attention span and ability to ignore distractions and concentrate better
- Enhances behavioral regulation, metacognition, and overall global executive function
(Effects of Mindful Awareness Practices on Executive Functions in Elementary School Children. Journal of Applied School Psychology Vol. 26, Iss. 1, 2010. Lisa Flook, Susan L. Smalley, M. Jennifer Kitil, Brian M. Galla, Susan Kaiser-Greenland, Jill Locke, Eric Ishijima, Connie Kasari)
Cardio Exercise –
- Over-rides the body’s physiological response to stress
- Improves the cognitive control of attention
- Enhances academic performance. The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. Neuroscience. 2009 Mar 31;159(3):1044-54. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2009.01.057. Epub 2009 Feb 3. Hillman CH, Pontifex MB, Raine LB, Castelli DM, Hall EE, Kramer AF)
- Stimulates the release of BDNF, which grows the brain (Ratey, 2008)
- Improves the cognitive control of attention
- Enhances academic performance (Hillman, CH, Pontifex, MB, Raine, LB, Castelli, DM, Hall, EE, Kramer, AF, 2009)
Slow Intentional Movement – yoga
- Unifies (integrates) mind/body experience (Journal of Cognitive/Behavioral Practice 2009)
- Organizes whole-brain function for optimal learning (Dennison and Hannaford, 1999)
- Improves executive functions – not seen from aerobic exercise (Science 2011)
To empower you to introduce and integrate more mindfulness into your teaching, there are lots of resources.
We developed the 30-week Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum with the sole intention of helping you become a more effective teacher and enhance all your goals for children. Our program offers a wide range of mindfulness building activities intertwined with movement because science has shown that movement is integral to optimal development and the way into children’s joy, confidence, self-control, and executive functions.
Additional options and ideas can be found at:
Move with Me Mindfulness Videos
Yoga 4 Classrooms
We understand it’s challenging to institute new classroom rituals.
Like any lifestyle change, it takes desire and persistence.
We encourage you start where you are and take just one step.
Let yourself be inspired by the compelling research to access any of the resources and support available and launch even one mindfulness practice this year.