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Friday, February 28, 2020

Mindfulness Tips from a First-Grade Teacher and Children's Author

Kathy Marvel is a first grade teacher in Arvada, Colorado who teaches mindfulness to adults and kids. She is co-author, with Dr. Kristen Race, of And She Said Breathe, the story of a six-year-old girl who uses different types of breathing to face challenges throughout her day. Kathy offers a popular workshop on Children’s Mindfulness, which includes the breathing strategies in And She Said Breathe and a make-and-take ‘sparkle jar.’

In this Q+A, Kathy discusses how she teaches mindfulness and self-care to the kids in her class, and how she makes time to practice what she preaches.

You’ve been an elementary school teacher for twenty-five years. What’s changed, and what’s stayed the same, since you first began teaching?

The thing that never changes is the kids and their excitement for learning! Those cute little faces looking at you ready to learn, ready to discover, and ready to soak up all that you have to give them. 

The thing that has changed is the ability to focus for longer than 15 seconds. With the technology boom in recent years, I’ve noticed the ability to focus among our young children has diminished. We’ve got kids and adults alike addicted to technology at epidemic levels. 

When you put every source of screen media together, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that children ages 8 to 10 spend an average of 6 hours per day in front of a screen. 

Effects of this are multi-faceted and honestly – it doesn’t look good. Obesity, poor relationships, poor sleep, increased depression, need for instant gratification, inability to focus, addiction to that “hit” of dopamine that is released with every text, like, and message. All at a time when children’s brains aren’t even fully developed!

This all sounds depressing, and it is. However, I choose to make an impact where I can, and that is in my classroom. I’ve found ways to incorporate mindfulness in my classes to combat that lack of focus. 

We strive to always focus on one thing at a time – whether that is: 

  • breathing, 
  • focus poses (yoga), 
  • thinking or not thinking (meditation), 
  • listening (hopefully to lessons), 
  • seeing, 
  • reading, 
  • writing, or
  • playing.

Whatever it is, we focus on one thing. Using our mind to help focus our body is an essential skill I strive to teach my kids each and every day in whatever they are doing. The breathing techniques in And She Said Breathe are the same ones that I teach throughout the year and we use daily for different purposes – whether that is to calm down, relax, gain energy, or just plain release some energy.

What are your favorite breathing/mindfulness practices to do with the kids in your class?

I love doing the Sundance with the kids, which is a series of focus poses and breaths in a certain sequence that promotes mind and body interaction. Then, the kids make up their own Sundance. (They may choose to name it something different.) They choreograph it, practice it, and eventually get to teach it to a partner.  

I also love promoting gratitude and kindness during our circle time. We pass kindness, gratitude, happiness, etc. to our neighbors all the way around the circle – it just gives you all the 'feels' and a classroom full of joy after a few rounds of passing kind/happy/gracious words to your friends.

Some kids resist doing breathing exercises or other types of mindfulness activities, and it isn’t always obvious whether this is a protective response to trauma. 

What kinds of signals do you look for to know whether to gently persuade them or whether to let them opt out?

We have one rule for our mindfulness times:
You don’t have to participate. However, you can’t make it so that someone else can’t participate. You can’t take away from anyone’s mindfulness other than your own. 

There are definitely kids that don’t want to, or have days when it is hard for them to participate. Even though those kids probably need it the most, I don’t force it. I offer them leadership roles in choosing our breaths/poses/lesson for the day or just allow them to sit quietly (which is mindful in it’s own realm). 

When you have a classroom full of 26 kids, you have to teach for the good of the group. So often times, when I have someone struggling with participation, I talk with them at a different time of day to try to figure out the reason and help them to better focus for the next day.

One of your students made a t-shirt for show-and-tell that said “100 days of pushing Mrs. Marvel’s buttons.” I think we’ve all had students like that—although without such a great sense of humor! 

Do you have a favorite breathing practice or other mindfulness strategy that helps you respond calmly in those button-pushing moments?  

First, let me start by saying, that kiddo with the 100 Buttons shirt, he is actually one that never pushes any of my buttons – just had a super cute idea for his 100’s Day project. 

But… there are definitely moments in teaching when my buttons do get pushed. In those cases, I try to treat every child as if they were my own. 

There is always an underlying reason for behaviors and getting to the bottom of that is sometimes quite a challenge. Are they hungry, are they sad, do they lack friends??? 

The reasons are countless; however, in my classroom, those are reasons but not excuses. We own our behaviors whether they are good or bad. When kiddos end up making a bad choice, we focus on the solution. 

Mistakes are part of learning… if you learn from them. When we cause a problem for someone whether it is the teacher, another adult, or another child, we work to fix it. 

More than anything, I love them first and they all know that. 

For me, I am always honest with the kids when I need to use a calm down strategy and I tell them outright, what I am doing and why – model the behaviors I want them to emulate.  My favorites are:

  • the flubby lip (like a loud air raspberry), 
  • taking a minute with a sand timer (we use sand timers a bunch), 
  • practicing a breath for calming down like snake or bear breath 
  • (or any) from the book, or 
  • I even using a timer to breathe in essential oils like lavender for calming down or watching the “Sparkle Jar”. 

How do you balance your roles as teacher, mom, and author? Do you have any tips for other educators who are trying to juggle multiple roles?

As a teacher, I give the kids and my school 100% all day but when I leave, I leave. I don’t bring work home. My car ride home is my transition time and I use breathing and calming strategies during that time to shift my thinking from teacher to mom mode. 

Sometimes, when I’ve had an emotional day at school for some reason or just a hard day, I’ll burn sage when I get home and continue some breathing to help me get in a better place. 

Then… when I’m home, I’m home being the wife and mommy (as much as possible – but I am a teacher and sometimes those kiddos pull your heartstrings away from school). 

I try to be present in all that I do. TRY is the key word. I consciously try to be fully present for my kids at school all day and then consciously try to be fully present at home with my family. It doesn’t always work but then… I just try to make tomorrow better than today and give myself grace. 

Honestly, I just try to squeeze writing in whenever I have a chance: 

  • When my boys were little, it was nap time. 
  • Being a teacher means my summers are full of writing. My breaks are full of writing. 
  • I wake up early every morning to have some time for myself and that means reading or writing (mostly journaling and starting the day with gratitude). 
  • Weekends are for family but I try to fit in my passion for reading and writing on weekend days as well (I still get up early on the weekends so that makes it easier). 

Even if I only write one sentence a day, that’s 365 sentences a year!  As Henry Ford said, "Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right." Whatever your goal may be, each step, no matter how small, is getting you closer to meeting that goal. 


related posts: 

Breath-Based Practices for Mindfulness or Stress Reduction

Activities for Exploring the Five Senses

Mindfulness and Yoga for Young Children: Tips, Books, Apps, and Activities

Integrating Academics with Mindfulness and SEL

5 Tips for Successfully Integrating a Mindfulness Program at Your School