In our homepage powerpoint, we site the work of Paul Zak. His research shows how stories stimulate both cortisol, which focuses attention and oxytocin, which activates empathy. By actually changing brain chemistry, stories are powerful motivators and teachers. Check out the explanatory video at the bottom of this page!
As teachers, we all know the vital importance of the ability to attend, and to self-care and regulate, so that our mind-body states can attend. Attention and self-regulation are like muscles. If untrained, the mind and feelings wander all over the place all the time. If trained, however, focus, filtering, prioritizing, concentration, analysis, reasoning, emotional intelligence – all executive functions of our higher level thinking neo-cortex brain – are strengthened. And like all skills, attentional, emotional and behavioral control takes practice. We must build it from the inside out with activities and repetition.
Stories, movement and embodied mindfulness activities are more needed than ever in supporting children in developing these skills. Why? Because mutli-tasking and digital distractions are producing students unable to comprehend the same texts that students previously mastered without problems. According to Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence researcher and expert: “Digital natives need help cultivating what was once an innate part of growing up.” He finds that the ability to focus, be mindful and reflective, is more important than IQ or the socio economic status of the family you grew up in for determining career success, financial success, and even health. He advocates, like so many others in the fields of brain and behavioral science, that it’s time for schools to start teaching kids how to pay attention by using more exercise and mindfulness practices daily.
Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, psychology and neuroscience professors at Duke University conducted a longitudinal study on concentration with over 1,000 children in New Zealand. They tested children born in 1972 and 1973 regularly for eight years, measuring their ability to pay attention and to ignore distractions. Then, when those same children were adults age 32, they looked at how faired in life. The ability to concentrate, which requires well-being and self-regulation, was the strongest predictor of success.
The message here is that, as early childhood educators, our job is not to manage children but to support them to learning how to manage themselves through the activities and curriculum we choose. Given this evidence, the question is what can we do differently or better to do that? Are we using stories effectively? Are we cultivating empathy? Are we integrating movement and mindfulness to support executive function and well-being? What are best practices? How can we educate and support ourselves in implementing them?
During my tenure as Program Director of Yoga Ed. at The Accelerated School (TAS) in Los Angeles, I wrote and implemented a professional development training called: Tools for Teachers. Based on our initial success at TAS and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Intern Program , we received a 3-year PEP Grant to train other classroom and PE teachers in using yoga tools in their classrooms with kids.
With rising health issues among children and adolescents such as obesity and diabetes, getting physically active is ever more important. Yoga as an ancient system of exercise has a great potential to teach children to be mindful and improve their total well-being. The purpose of this study was to examine the perceived benefits of incorporating yoga-based activities into classroom teaching as a result of implementing the Yoga Ed. Tools for Teachers program.
One hundred and three physical education and classroom teachers were trained by certified Yoga Ed instructors for two days. They implemented the yoga-based activities 5-15 minutes daily for a year. At the completion of this period, questionnaires from 550 parents and 661 students were submitted and analyzed. Triangulation of data provided solid evidence suggesting that yoga-based activities produced perceived benefits in:
The results from this study indicate that simple yoga practices improved emotional health by improving self-confidence, joy, and self-esteem. These emotional indicators suggest that students who practice yoga often feel less stress and more resilient. This finding also confirms previous studies suggesting the benefits of yoga in reducing anxiety and enhancing positive affect (e.g., Gloeckner & Stück, 2005; Platania-Solazzo et al., 1992). Considering the stress children and adolescents are faced with at school on a daily basis (Kottler & Chen, 2011), yoga can serve as an effective remedy for reducing negative affect and distress.
The current study also suggests that yoga practices contribute to improved physical well-being and can offer early preventative measures for growing health issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Data from three sources support the claim that yoga practice facilitated knowledge of human body, eating awareness, and body posture.
The meaning of the study is wide spread for three main reasons:
1) Teachers with minimum training in yoga can produce large, positive effects on students.
2) Students who get support from parents can produce positive changes in their lives.
3) It is important to have a structure and activities in which students are exposed to and can practice a healthy way of living.
A recent article in Developmental Psychology and Committee for Children reports that children with higher levels of self-regulation achieve higher scores in reading, vocabulary and math. As any therapist, teacher or parent, who has knowledge of sensory integration issues, knows – deficits in self- regulation affect everything else – behaviors, social skills and motor responses. With pre-kindergarten and kindergarten curriculum changing its focus to reading, writing and math skills, young children who need time to play, explore and practice self-regulation during these early formative years are falling behind with “behavior problems”. This study provides significant evidence that they are actually a symptom of a developmentally inappropriate focus on academics.
In early childhood, the primary developmental task is to fully inhabit one’s body and senses. It is through movement and playful sensory exploration that children grow their brains and healthy sense of self. Movement builds brain cells and grows the optimal functioning of every system in the body. As a child’s muscles and coordination grow, so does the density of the brain and its executive function, which is the source of higher level thinking and self-awareness.
As a teacher and parent who has spent years teaching children self-regulation, I can tell you that it happens in the body. Intentional movement, such as yoga, has such profound effects on children’s ability to focus, calm themselves, and filter sensory information. Yoga has become increasingly popular because it is a perfect playground for active fun that develops motor skills and fitness along with social-emotional awareness and self-regulation tools. As educators, we know from experience, that when children feel in control of their own bodies and can navigate their own stress and frustration from the inside out in a healthy way, they are learning able because they can sustain their own emotional stability through self-regulation.
Researchers in ECE, Megan McClelland, Ph.D., Associate Professor Human Development and Family Sciences, and her student, ShaunaTominey, have designed games to help children practice paying attention, following directions, remembering rules, and demonstrating self-control. Games and movement practices, combined with appropriate mirroring, are what children need to develop self-awareness, emotional intelligence and self-control.
The lack of playful SEL curriculum activities is what inspired me to produce the Move with Me ™ resources that teach health and self-regulation skills to pre-K & K. Our video classes are designed to involve the whole child in social-emotional learning through stories and pretend play. In the process of acting out a narrative through movement, children have the fun of “being” everything in the story – the lion, the rocket, the tree. So, while they are having fun building fitness, focus, stamina and coordination, they are also improving early literacy and learning social-emotional skills, which are embedded into the action and called Adventure Skills. These simple exercises, with cool names such as Monkey Wisdom and Ocean Breath, empower kids to calm, center and redirect themselves when upset, angry, frustrated, sad, scared or over-whelmed. They give both care-giver and child a common vocabulary and a set of tools for SEL that can transform meltdowns into mindfulness and acting out to self-control.
By Rick Nauert PHD
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on January 24, 2009
“As increasing numbers of children are diagnosed with anxiety, researchers have discovered that the link between balance and anxiety can be assessed at an early age and that something can be done about it before it becomes a problem.”
In 2005 Jennifer Dustow conducted her doctorial thesis on specific intentional movement in a special needs pre-school classroom. Nine special-needs students attending a public elementary school participated and all showed a significant decrease in off-task behaviors on the days 5 minutes of bilateral exercises were conducted vs the days they were not.
The study was repeated with 20 public preschool classrooms in March/April of 2007. A total of 88 students participated; all diagnosed in the Autism Spectrum. Off task behaviors include: aggression; eloping; flopping; inappropriate talking; non-focus; and noncompliance. A strong statistical significance in the decrease of off task behaviors was found for all six hypotheses with 5 minutes of bilateral Brain Gym exercises.
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“Your training always took us back to self-regulation and coherence in ourselves, which enabled me to feel both personally inspired and professionally confident to share the Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum program with children!"-Erin McFarland, Teacher, CA