Last week I spent three days in San Francisco at the 31st Learning and the Brain Conference. I had the privilege of listening to powerful presentations from Dr. Dan Siegel, Susan Kaiser Greenland, and Michael Posner, among several other researchers and authors in the field of neuroscience and education . A common theme throughout the conference centered on attention, self control, and mindfulness. In fact, I had the good fortune to be there at the same time that Jon Kabat-Zinn was speaking at a benefit for Mindful Schools, and enjoyed an evening at Berkeley gleaning a stronger understanding of the need for mindfulness education in our schools.
Seventeen hours packed full of statistics, graphs, anecdotes, research, and practical application is a lot to try to synthesize back into one cohesive framework to take back to the classroom, so last night I was tossing and turning while visions of attentive, well-rounded children danced in my head. I came up with a couple ideas on how to use simple methods to begin teaching my class the benefit of executive function and mindfulness.
First, a quick definition: executive function sounds super fancy, but it is really a simple concept -- think about a game of Simon Says. When playing Simon Says, a child must suppress the urge to perform the action they hear when the speaker leaves out the trigger words "Simon says..." Executive function is all about impulse control, attentiveness, and self-regulation. Mindfulness in a school setting is used to help students learn to focus attention and concentration, build their social-emotional skills, and reduce stress.
My class this year has struggled with self-control, social cues, and boundaries. I wanted desperately to find a way to use all these new tools to help my kiddos learn to bring some balance to their life.
And suddenly, it came to me.
This morning I gave each student in my class a hula hoop. We held our hoops around our bodies and I instructed each of them to drop their hoops. I asked them if they had enough space to sit, stand, hop, do jumping jacks, and numerous other stunts. Laughing, they all agreed they had plenty of room to do just about everything they needed to do, and could still talk to each other without difficulty.
We held our hoops again and held them up above our heads. I told them to look up through the hoop at the sky and imagine that the space around their hoop extended all the way up to the clouds and beyond. This was their space. This was the area that they could control. I asked them if it was possible for them to control anyone else's hoops while they were focused on holding up their own. They decided quickly that they could only focus on their hoop. I demonstrated walking around them without touching their hoops, without overlapping or bumping into anyone and asked if they thought it would be easy or difficult. Naturally, they all replied that it would be easy. So I gave them a few minutes to jump, run, skip, and hop around each other -- but the one rule was that their hoop needed to touch only their hands and not run into anyone else's space. Afterward, we regrouped and they reported back it was as simple as they thought it would be.
Next, I asked them to form a big circle around me with their hoops. Immediately they began telling each other what to do. A loud chorus of, "Hey, you need to move! No, go there!" and many other comments were exchanged. A completely ill-formed shape spread out around me, resembling something more akin to the blob than a circle. I reminded them that they had all agreed earlier that they could only control their own hoops, so to form the circle they needed to focus on just their hoop and let everyone else do the same. Very quickly an almost perfect circle had surrounded me.
"Wow!" I practically shouted, "That was fast! Why do you think it worked so well?"
Everyone was bubbling with answers about how much easier it was to work together when they focused on what they needed to do, rather than telling other people how to do the job.
So of course, I walked around the circle and removed every other hoop. I asked each hoopless child to step into a hoop with another person. I asked them to do everything they had done before -- still not touching the person next to them. They tried to sit, stand, hop, and even do jumping jacks. They were not happy. I asked them to pick up their shared hoop and walk, run, skip, and hop around the playground. This resulted in at least one group tumbling to the ground and a few arguments. I asked them to come back to make a new, smaller circle. This almost never happened.
I asked what happened. Why did they seem to have so many problems this time?
Unanimously they decided it was much easier to take care of their own needs when they were in complete control of their own space.
We put the hula hoops away, went back to class and talked for a few minutes about what we noticed, and then I asked them to write without stopping for ten minutes about their experience with the hoops, what they thought it meant about self-control, and how they could keep the hula hoop image in their mind to help them think about coming back to their own space and making thoughtful choices.
I was amazed at their insight, the lessons they learned that I hadn't even anticipated, and the way it changed their mindset for the rest of the day.
This is just the first step, the introduction, the tiniest spark to get them rolling in a direction that I hope will serve to set them on a course of mindful awareness that will last their lifetime.
And all it took was a hula hoop.
Not bad for a Monday.