By Athea Davis

Many students come to school with so much emotional baggage, classroom engagement often looks like emotional storms.

And, if an educator in the classroom or leader on campus isn’t tending to these emotional storms, they are re-directing multiple students’ attention.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are tons of educators doing a fabulous job providing a safe, calm, and fun learning environment for a diverse range of students.

And, emotional storms and lack of student focus is a very real, and often times challenging reality for many educators as well.

The culprits here: untrained thoughts and emotions.

Added to this oftentimes acidic mix, the thousands of thoughts and choices running through an educator’s mind contribute to mental taxation. The emotional exhaustion of this type of work, and for many educators, our own unkempt emotional terrain, ends up coming with us to school whether we mean to take this with us or not.

Teaching is beautiful work fueled by the heart and made messy by the mind.

We all kind of get in our own way sometimes—students and teachers alike.

With the accelerated pace of the techno-AI future driven world with results to almost anything at the tip of our fingertips, or a voice command looming larger by each day, many of us often feel overwhelmed by the amount of information coming our way. Add to it the sheer pace of change, and coping can seem like just getting through another day.

We can, however, get out of this mental and emotional funk inside and outside our classrooms. We can help our students, and all those we teach, lead, and serve, including ourselves, to thrive in a demanding, hyper-connected, wonder-filled world.

I recently wrote about focus being the future, meaning that our ability to give focused attention to things in an increasingly distracting world is a must-have skill to thrive and develop into our best and brightest selves.

It’s also one that the job market is increasingly requiring you to have.

But how do we get there? And, how do we do it practically and not feeling like it’s another thing to do on our never-ending to-do list?

Mind training.

First, we have to shift our mindset about it and see mind training as foundational to everything we want to be and do in our life—for ourselves and our students.

I’m sharing three very practical tips you can do for yourself, and with your students, in order to show up with more focused energy and joy in the classroom.

Breathe to Relieve
Breathing with intention is hard because our mind immediately says, “Boring!” We have so much to do so how can we possibly slow down and do what our body does naturally? I was there once, so I get that perspective. When we feel the difference it makes in our mind, our body, and in our heart, we will go for more of it every time.

Practice Tip: Place your hands on your heart and sit up tall. The slight compression will also help your mind and body calm down. With your hands on your heart, gently press them into the chest and take a long, slow, deep breath in through the nose to the point where you feel your chest rise and then gently exhale out of your nose or mouth with a long, slow deep exhale feeling your chest contract. Make your exhale slightly longer. Do this for several breaths as you also push your feet into the floor. These small movements will get you out of your mind and into your body to experience presence, and this will build more awareness to your internal state.

Move to Motivate
Our bodies are made to move. Students will be more focused and engaged with movement incorporated into the classroom each day. 30 second stretch breaks every hour aren’t enough! Try to incorporate some standing movement every 20 minutes. You can incorporate easy yoga moves that increase energy and focus, and can boost confidence by opening the body in ways that signal to the brain, “You’ve got this!”

Have students stand by their desk and stand in mountain pose. It’s an active standing position where you push your feet into the ground and reach your fingertips to the floor. This one small cue helps all of us get out of our head and into our body, giving our brains a break from the constant thinking, and perhaps unconscious ruminating. Inhale raising hands up as if stretching toward the ceiling, then exhale and fold the body like you are trying to touch your toes. Inhale back to standing mountain. Do that a few times every 20 minutes (and add some music for a little funky fun). This doesn’t take precious time from instruction. Give yourself about one minute and repeat as often as you, and the students need it.

Say It to Succeed
Teachers are some of the most positive people I know. You are likely already doing this, but are you doing it consistently? Make affirmation a practice in your classroom. This primes the brain to navigate challenging content with more ease and wherewithal, and sets the student up for success.

Try it as part of your morning routine with your class, use inspiring quotes or “I am….” affirmations. Have students write it down and say it together, use them before tests or challenging content, and finally, close the day with positive words. Sometimes we must say it many times to believe it.

Saying affirmations also helps calm the mind and body. By silently repeating positive short phrases and words, it gives the mind something to focus on during moments of stress and mental discomfort. Coach your students through using this tool, for example, if they get called on and feel embarrassed if they don’t know the answer. Remind them to use their affirmation, that they are in good learning company, and “They’ve got this!” as you also model it for them during this process.

Mind training isn’t another thing to do.

It’s a set of practices that help us and our students do all the things we do in the classroom—from math, reading, science, writing, and all the other zillion academic, cultural, and social emotional aspects—each day at school with focused energy, purpose and joy.

Athea Davis is a mindfulness educator at KIPP Texas Public Schools. She’s the author of “Today’s Gonna Be Awesomesauce: Daily Meditations for Youth, Parents, and Families” and the creator of the educational resource, Today’s Gonna Be Awesomesauce: affirmation + art card deck for youth, parents, and educators. She is the host of the educational podcast, Mindful Living with Athea Davis.

TEPSA News, May/June 2020, Vol 77, No 3

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The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 5,900 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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