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Monthly Archives: September 2020

When Teachers Experience Empathic Distress

An excerpt from When Teachers Experience Empathic Distress by Rebecca Alber​​

In my years teaching in urban public schools, I saw many students experience extreme stress from living in poverty and also in gang-affiliated neighborhoods. The children I taught had frequent food and housing insecurity, and were exposed to multiple forms of violence—on the streets, at school, and in their homes. As The Atlantic reports, location, income level, and race can determine how often children experience crisis and violence.

Teachers, particularly those working in schools located in communities with high poverty, often find themselves overburdened and under-resourced to help their students (and their students’ families) who are experiencing routine and extreme trauma.

DEFINING EMPATHIC DISTRESS
I first heard the term empathic distress from Dr. Joan Halifax, an anthropologist, educator, and pioneer in the field of end-of-life care. 

She uses the term to describe what happens when someone is exposed repeatedly to the trauma of others.

In terms of those who work in service professions like emergency medicine, teaching, and hospice care, Halifax finds it more accurate than compassion fatigue. And I agree—the term struck a deep chord in me when I first heard it. “Yes,” I remember thinking, “that’s it.”

Most weekends I was able to put all that I knew about my students’ lives on hold, be with friends and family, and relax. But then there were Saturdays that would go into Sundays when I couldn’t shake a foreboding, nagging feeling of despair. I couldn’t stop thinking, for instance, about the 16-year-old student in my fifth period class who shared with me that she was by far in the best group home she’d been in but that her belongings were constantly being stolen by other girls.

For teachers, that feeling of deep empathy for a student, coupled with knowing that you’ve done all you can do—and the child is still perhaps still suffering—can cause considerable distress.

First and foremost, we need to come to an understanding and a place of acceptance that we have a limited area of influence and reach when it comes to the healing journey of our students who have trauma. We can’t save anyone but ourselves. We know this. But that helplessness that teachers feel, that is not a sort of fatigue—it’s distress. So how do we address that distress?


THE PRACTICE OF COMPASSION
The goal of the practice of compassion is to nurture kindness, compassion, and love, for oneself and for others. Cultivating this compassion and good will in our lives can serve as a salve for feelings such as empathic distress.

What does compassion practice look like? Similar to mindfulness, you can be seated, standing (eyes opened softly or closed), or walking slowly, and then one way you can practice it is by repeating to yourself (how many times, and for how minutes is up to you) the phrase, “May I be safe, may I be healthy, may I be happy, may I be at ease.”

You can simply stay with just the phrase for yourself, or you can move to the next phrase, imagining someone you would like to wish well who is struggling or in pain—a student, a family member, a colleague. Then repeat the following phrase, “May you be safe, may you be healthy, may you be happy, may you be at ease.”

Next, move to thinking about a group whom you are connected with—a classroom full of your students or your family—and repeat the phrase, ​



“May we be safe, may we be healthy, may we be happy, may we be at ease.”

In a study, those who engaged in the practice of compassion for seven weeks reported a noticeable difference emotionally—an increase in gratitude, contentment, hope, and joy, and a decrease in anxiety and stress. (You can also try an audio-guided practice for compassion.)

PERCEPTION SHIFT
As teachers working in difficult and challenging settings, the way to survive and thrive isn’t just about taking action for ourselves (going to an exercise class, say) or our students (staying after school to listen and comfort, or advocating for additional counseling services). I propose that it also requires we spend time routinely going within and tending to our own distress with intentional care and compassion.

Full Article:


When Teachers Experience Empathic Distress


 BY Rebecca Alber


Alber, Rebecca. “When Teachers Experience Empathic Distress.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, 18 Apr. 2018, www.edutopia.org/article/when-teachers-experience-empathic-distress.

Account Associate

Rachel Wixey & Associates

[emily]

I chose this article because it is important to understand that everything going on in students' lives not only affects them, but their teachers as well. Teachers are caring people who have a heart for their students, so knowing that some students are still suffering after a teacher has done everything in their power to prevent it can be draining. With everything students face on a daily basis, it is crucial to be empathetic while taking care of your own mental health. 

Translating Mindfulness to Distance Learning

An article from Edutopia by Michael Ray

The many challenges of this year have required people to cope with a range of external stressors. The United States is still navigating community response to George Floyd’s killing and racial inequities. Many are physically distancing and trying to survive economic fallout from the pandemic. As an adult, I find it hard to take things one day at a time, focus on my breath, and move forward with purpose and gratitude. Young people are looking for ways to cope and heal as well.

At our middle school in inner-city Oakland, we started incorporating mindfulness into our daily announcements and homeroom time. Mindfulness is intentionally focusing awareness on the present moment without judgment. Many people have a mindfulness practice even if they do not call it mindfulness explicitly. Research shows that taking moments to practice and discuss mindfulness helps students thrive emotionally and academically by increasing focus and memory and reducing stress and anxiety. Distance learning creates a different context for mindfulness practice. Some simple strategies can help integrate mindfulness practice in distance learning.

Set the Groundwork

Begin by explaining how the brain works. Sometimes, knowing the science behind mindfulness can be just as important for a new practitioner as knowing what meditation is or how to do it. Explain to students the relationship between their amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Students should know that an “amygdala hijack” is a physiological response to stress that makes it harder for them to think, learn, or remember. While it is not their fault, it is something that they can learn how to control through mindfulness practices.

Modeling mindfulness can show students how the process works. Do you start your day with a quiet cup of coffee or an inspirational quote? Talking about a ritual and why it excites you may add to a child’s bank of experiences even if they choose not to do the practice on their own. Modeling a mindfulness practice in online learning shows students that it can be a simple, quick, and accessible activity.

Offering choice is a way to show students the accessibility of a mindfulness practice. Allow students to pick an activity or exercise and do it with them. Apps and videos may be useful. My students and I love the guided meditations and mindful hip-hop from the Mindful Life Project app. Let the students guide which practice to do and when to use it. Ask for their suggestions about mindfulness in the daily school routine.



Incorporate Mindfulness in Daily Activities


Practice and talk about everyday mindfulness activities like mindful eating, mindful walking, or mindful cleaning. My grandfather instructed me to chew my food exactly 32 times before swallowing, which allowed me to focus on the full experience of the food. What are other daily activities that might benefit from nonjudgmental awareness? Ask students to brainstorm daily life occurrences and ways to bring mindfulness to them.

The act of remembering and sharing daily gratitude has been shown to have positive impacts on both cognitive and emotional well-being. Encourage students to practice acts of gratitude by creating a gratitude tree. It can be a drawing or wire frame of the trunk, limbs, and branches of a tree. Each day, students write one thing they are grateful for on a paper “leaf” and attach it to the tree. The leaves can be anonymous, or students can share their gratitude with the class. Students can add to the tree as part of the daily routine.

Another option is to ask students to make and decorate a jar of inspirational quotes and take turns pulling one out and reading it aloud. This is an activity that translates easily to online instruction, bringing mindful reflection to virtual learning.


Demonstrate Mindfulness in Motion


Mindfulness activities do not have to be in stillness. Find a recipe for kinetic sand, slime, or oobleck. Because sometimes, mindfulness has to be a little messy. My teenage sister and I learned how to make aromatherapy play dough.

Settling one’s thoughts can be difficult. A glitter focus jar helped some of my students with ADHD and ASD learn ways to calm their minds. Fill up a mason jar halfway with water, and then add some glitter glue and glitter of various sizes. Glue on the top so students can shake the jar and watch the glitter swirl around before settling slowly back to the bottom. The settling of the glitter mirrors the settling of our thoughts, something that can be hard for many of us to do without help.

Mandala coloring pages are made up of repetitive shapes and patterns that students can take their time to color as they choose because there is no right or wrong way to complete the designs. I find this especially useful for students who prefer to process their thoughts silently.

Use Written Reflection


Mindful writing can become an important part of a daily routine. Whether through daily journal prompts or written reflections after discussions, the act of putting your thoughts on paper brings about a similar kind of metacognition and awareness as meditating. Reflecting on earlier writing can show students how perspectives change.

The practice is useful for academic writing tasks, asking, “How has your opinion on this topic changed after reading and discussing this text?” as well as social and emotional understanding, asking, “What did you think/feel after witnessing or hearing about the fight that happened today?” Writing and reflection may be intimidating at first, so remind students that their ideas do not have to be fully formed.

Full Article:


Translating Mindfulness to Distance Learning


 BY Michael Ray


Ray, Michael. “Translating Mindfulness to Distance Learning.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, 17 July 2020, www.edutopia.org/article/translating-mindfulness-distance-learning.

Marketing and Design Coordinator

Rachel Wixey & Associates

[Emily]

I chose this article because it has a lot of wonderful mindfulness challenges to do with students who are currently adjusting to distance learning. Some of these, such as mindful eating, is something I plan to incorporate into my daily life, as I think it is important to take the time to be in the moment and enjoy the small pleasures in life. 

How Mindfulness Helps Students in Brooklyn School Cope With Pandemic And Social Justice Issues

An article from Byklyner. by Meghan Leborious

Students may be drawn first to the calming impacts of mindfulness, but mindfulness can also be seen as empowerment – a way to eliminate the internal obstacles that stop them from stepping fully into their power, dignity, and creativity – essential tools on the path to racial justice, and essential tools on the path to real freedom and equality.

Over the four years since I started a mindfulness program at Cobble Hill High School in Brooklyn where I teach, I’ve watched student after student find their power by turning inside, where it was waiting all along. In the process, students learn to be strong advocates for themselves and for their communities.

During the Spring 2020 semester, more than one student wrote, Mindfulness doesn’t mean you always have to be peaceful.

Unite NY Rally on Juneteenth 2020. Adrian Childress/Bklyner

Several students shared how mindfulness has helped them cope with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, and also with the ongoing pandemic.

“What stood out was how much more this was affecting me than I realized, until I actually sat and broke down what I was really scared and worried about,” shared one student. Another wrote, “You have the right to be completely angry or sad, but mindfulness helps you break away and meditate to calm down.”

Students had a full semester of mindfulness before the pandemic, but I had no idea how it would play out once they were in remote learning and almost totally on their own. We started using a popular mindfulness app to support us, and many students dove deep, some understanding the benefits of mindfulness for the first time. One student shared that while every member of his household was sick with COVID, he would practice daily on his balcony to stay sane.

Teachers have been independently bringing mindfulness to NYC students for twenty years or more, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the New York City Department of Education placed their official stamp of approval on mindfulness instruction as a valid option for meeting the social and emotional needs of students, appointing Barnaby Spring as the first-ever Director of Mindfulness.

Mindfulness in Schools for Student Wellness & Equity


Mindfulness is learning to pay attention in a certain way. In the words of mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat Zinn, “Mindfulness meditation is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness training involves choosing a focus such as the breath, then calmly noticing whenever the attention shifts, and gently returning it. In this way, students build up the ability to concentrate and remain present with their experiences. 


Mindfulness instruction has implications for helping students develop healthy relationships, resilience, empathy, motivation, the ability to make responsible decisions, and the ability to effectively regulate emotions.


These are important benefits for all students, but may be particularly important for students of color. Resulting from centuries of oppression, Black and Brown students disproportionately suffer from poverty and loss. Having to cope with racism on a daily basis also takes its toll.  According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience mental health problems than White Americans. In addition, there are multiple barriers for Black and Brown people when it comes to receiving adequate mental health services despite the likely added stressors that many face. 

“Mindfulness supports students in confronting internalized stereotypes and processing painful experiences when they have been marginalized, judged, or accused.”

Mindfulness training in schools can help to fill this urgent gap.

Mindfulness supports students in confronting internalized stereotypes and processing painful experiences when they have been marginalized, judged, or accused. In the words of a 9th grade student, “Mindfulness is beneficial because it relieves stress and anxiety and lowers chaos in your emotions.”

Dr. Donald Fennoy, superintendent of schools in Palm Beach County, Florida, created a division for Student Wellness & Equity after the start of the protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Fennoy is not the only school leader to connect wellness and equity.

In a 2019 interview, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams stated, 

“We put a greater level of emphasis on the academic stability of a child, and not the emotional stability, and that’s a big mistake.”

Adams, himself a disciplined meditation practitioner, argued that teaching students mindfulness, a priority for Brooklyn schools, allows students to “become their own healers,” and begin to address PTSD, grief, the impacts of racism, and the stressors of daily life.

“The overwhelming number of our million plus children are living with trauma every day. We have become extremely successful at masking trauma and normalizing it. It’s not a black eye, it’s not a broken arm,” Adams shared. Rather, trauma and PTSD are internal, invisible injuries.

I asked, “Do you think that students of color might stand to benefit in particular from mindfulness because of the added burden of having to deal with racism?”

Adams responded, “The first step forward is to acknowledge the fact that we treat people differently based on how we see them because of our predispositions. Black and Brown students are dealing with an obstacle that’s larger than their White counterparts. And acknowledging that doesn’t mean their White counterparts are racist, it just acknowledges the fact that we come from a country with a history.”

Studies published between 2009-2020 in Psychological Bulletin, School Psychology Quarterly, and other journals indicate that students who receive mindfulness instruction tend to have better focus, more ability to self-regulate, less stress, healthier relationships, and less incidents that lead to disciplinary consequences, which is of particular significance since Black and Brown students tend to receive harsher punishments both in schools and the judicial system.

Unite NY Rally. Adrian Childress/Bklyner

Mindfulness Helps In Teaching, Too


Mindfulness can also positively impact the adults in school communities.

The first layer of mindfulness, decreased stress and improved mood, can support teachers in meeting students with patience and understanding.

Another layer, when practitioners naturally begin to examine the workings of their minds, has other implications. Practitioners begin to note self-talk and repetitive thoughts, to monitor the body’s feedback, and to examine underlying stories. For many, this leads to a decrease in the impacts of implicit bias.

Committed mindfulness practice leads to a key insight: that we are profoundly interconnected. The small-minded categories and distinctions we make crumble when subject to intense scrutiny. This realization leads to increased empathy and the knowledge that injustice anywhere affects every one of us – a counteragent to individual racism that can lead to systemic impacts.

In addition, when school leaders and teachers develop the ability to stay present with discomfort, a key component of mindfulness training, it may be easier to ponder difficult personal and systemic questions, and lead to greater transparency and accountability – important attributes for systems that are working toward anti-racist goals.

No one knows what the coming school year will look like, but even in the best case scenario, we will have to cope with stress, uncertainty, and powerful emotions. Mindfulness is an important ally as we weather these storms, and work toward a brighter future.

Full Article:


How Mindfulness Helps Students in Brooklyn School Cope With Pandemic And Social Justice Issues


 BY MEGHAN LEBORIOUS


Leborious, Meghan. “How Mindfulness Helps Students in Brooklyn School Cope With Pandemic And Social Justice Issues.” BKLYNER, 16 Sept. 2020, bklyner.com/p-s-139-shuts-down-for-24-hours-after-second-confirmed-coronavirus-case/.

President

Rachel Wixey & Associates

[emily]

I love that this article starts off acknowledging that a mindfulness practice is empowering. My practice has enabled me to become more clear in many aspects of life, relationships and issues, both small and big. It has been the best preparation I can prioritize to be more aware of and engaged in what social issues entail in our world. I think everyone can use tools that lead to more clarity and understanding as we look to create change in a noble way.

How Mindfulness Can Help Kids (and Parents!) Weather Emotional Storms

An article from PBS Kids for Parents by Deborah Farmer Kris​​

A couple of weeks ago, I let my five-year-old son stay up late to watch a big game on TV with the family. Sometime around 8pm, the mixture of excitement and exhaustion overwhelmed his system. He lost it.

Often, he can dial down these emotional storms without much help. This was not one of those times, so I took him to the stairs for a time in. As he sat shaking on my lap, his breathing sounded like panicked panting.

“Can you breathe with me?” I asked. “It’s too hard!” he wailed. In stops and starts, we inhaled and exhaled, using belly breathing techniques we’ve practiced together during calmer moments.

As I wrote in an earlier post, teaching kids basic principles of mindfulness has been found to have a lot of benefits, including improvements in flexible thinking, emotional management, attention and academic performance.

Mindfulness tools won’t prevent emotional storms. Sometimes, that’s just what it means to be a kid (and an adult!). Yet being aware of our thoughts, our emotions, our surroundings and our breathing can help us remain anchored while we wait for the clouds to pass.

Settle the Glitter


All children have times when they become overwhelmed, overloaded or overstimulated. In her new book Under Pressure, psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour shares the helpful phrase, “Let’s settle your glitter.” Imagine a bottle filled with water and glitter. Now shake it vigorously: that’s a child’s brain during an emotional meltdown.

When kids are overwhelmed by emotions, they don’t respond too well to reasoning. In the height of a tantrum in a grocery store, our words — however warm and wise — get lost in their neurological glitter storm. But as Damour told me recently, “You have to wait it out. These storms do pass.” The emotional meltdown will subside. The glitter will settle.

After talking with Damour, I pulled out a sensory glitter jar that my kids like to play with. “Remember last week when you got really mad and sad during the football game?” I asked my five-year-old. “Remember how you said it was hard to breathe slowly? Let’s pretend this bottle is your body. When you got upset, it looked kind of like this.” I shook up the jar. “It’s so busy and stormy in there!”

We watched as the glitter begin to drift back to the bottom. “And remember how we snuggled on the stairs and breathed together,” I said, “and then you bounced on your little trampoline for a while. Those strategies helped your glitter calm down.”

“And then I felt better!” he announced.

This is a helpful mental model for parents. Sometimes, we need to patiently wait for the height of the storm to pass (while keeping kids from hurting themselves and others, of course, as some little ones are prone to do when their bodies feel overwhelmed!). When children are a bit calmer, we can continue to work on strategies that will — with time and practice — strengthen their emotional self-regulation.



Take a Deep Breath


My favorite technique — with preschools and adults — is mindful breathing. When we are anxious or upset, our breathing often becomes rapid and shallow. It’s a normal biological response to stress. When we take deep breaths, we send a message back to the brain: It’s okay to calm down.

In moments of peace, teach your kids to notice their breathing and to take deep breaths. This can be as simple as pretending your fingers are birthday candles and blowing them out one by one. Or maybe your child will respond to a “breathing buddy”: Lay on your back, put a favorite stuffed animal on your tummy, and watch that animal slowly move up and down as you inhale and exhale. You could also watch this episode of Daniel Tiger together, and then use the strategy song, “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.”



Model Mindful Responses


Dr. Sharon Saline, child psychologist and author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew recently told me that one of the most important things parents can do for kids is to model self-control. A core message kids have for parents — even if they can’t put it into words — is this, said Saline: “The first thing I need you to do is manage yourself the best you can in face of my eruption and distress so you can assist me. If you are upset by my upset, there is no hope for me to learn self-control.”

Some days this will be easier than others. Lately, I have tried to talk out loud how I work through my feelings, so that my kids can hear the self-talk in my head.

Here are a few things I have found myself saying:

  • I am feeling a little frustrated. I am going to take a walk around the block because fresh air and exercise always help me feel good inside.
  • I am tired right now and that makes it harder to be patient. Do you ever get upset when you feel tired? I think I will go to bed a little earlier tonight.
  • Looks like everyone’s a little upset. Maybe we need a snack. Sometimes a healthy snack helps me feel better.
  • When I was driving in the snowstorm, I was nervous. I started breathing fast — just like you do when you are upset! So I did some belly breathing to help me stay calm.

Like so many moments in this parenting journey, when I work to help my kids, I am also helping myself. I am becoming more mindful how I respond to daily stressors and how I can respond with a little more courage, patience and self-compassion.

Full Article:


How Mindfulness Can Help Kids (and Parents!) Weather Emotional Storms


 BY Deborah Farmer Kris


Kris, Deborah Farmer. “How Mindfulness Can Help Kids (and Parents!) Weather Emotional Storms.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 8 Sept. 2020, www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/how-mindfulness-can-help-kids-and-parents-weather-emotional-storms?utm_campaign.

Communications Director

Rachel Wixey & Associates

[nekiesha]

Since the quarantine, I’ve noticed my own children seem more anxious and unsettled. They have had quite a few “emotional storms” and I continue to seek resources, tips and tactics to help them through it. Mostly, I’m seeking ways to help them understand the power they have within themselves to redirect their emotions and calm their mind. This article provided a few new ways to do that.

Emotion, Stress, and Health: Crash Course Psychology

In this episode of Crash Course Psychology, Hank discusses stress, emotions, and their overall impact on our health. 

Table of Contents: 

  • How Emotions Work 00:00
  • Two-Dimensional Model of Emotional Experience 03:29
  • How Anger, Happiness, and Depression Affect Health 4:52
  • Stress, the Nervous System, and Chronic Stress 6:36

The Crash Course team has produced more than 32 courses on a wide variety of subjects, including organic chemistry, literature, world history, biology, philosophy, theater, ecology, and many more! 

Yale, Kathleen. Emotion, Stress, and Health: Crash Course Psychology #26. Performance by Hank Green, Youtube, 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KbSRXP0wik&t=28s.

Marketing and Design Coordinator

Rachel Wixey & Associates

[emily]

I chose this video because the creators of this channel have a great way of using examples, graphics, and charisma to explain difficult topics in a digestible way. It is incredibly important to understand how the science of stress affects the way we feel and act towards others.

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