Stress, Mindfulness and My Story

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Introduction

Over the last few weeks, people have asked me to recount my own road to mindfulness and what impact it has had on my life. I was fine telling my story to individuals. But, the thought of putting it down in black and white was very scary. The thought had my heart begin to race and tension build in my jaw and shoulders. I am fortunate that I recognised the anxiety quickly, breathed deeply and did a quick meditation followed by reflecting on the reasons this caused me anxiety.

I came to the conclusion that I have grown up in a society that can sometimes see the admission of the effects of stress as a weakness. Did I actually want people to see me weak in any way? In my role as a headteacher/principal, I felt I needed to be the strong foundation supporting others so they can do the best that they could for the children they taught. I then realised that to be that strong foundation, I must also be a good model and sharing my story may also lead others in the education profession to seeking better ways of dealing with the relentless stress we are under everyday.

So, here is my story!

Before

I have always been an intense person; striving to be the very best I could be and applying myself with relentless pressure to do better and improve. I remember with great clarity getting my first stomach ulcer at 11 years old in the run up to the state standardised end of year tests. So, how I dealt with stress has been very ingrained.

Before Mindfulness:
– I did not sleep well at night. Waking at 2 am was the norm. The thoughts would swirl in my head on long, endless loops. They would force me out of bed and I would send and answer emails at this crazy hour in the hopes that by putting them into words they would leave me alone. All I ever got was new swirling thoughts to take their place!

– I was on a constant adrenaline high! I was on constant high alert; reacting to the smallest things or the biggest things with equal passion. I began to read into things when there was nothing to read. I became paranoid! Everything was about me and it all was not good. I took even the challenges in education as a personal attack on me!

– I had developed high blood pressure. That adrenaline high was keeping my BP at a constant high level risking my health and damaging my immune system.

– I was having panic attacks nearly on a daily basis and many times it was happening several times a day. My self confidence was plummeting.

– I replayed difficult conversations over and over in my head. I analysed it for hours or days. I dwelled in the emotions of the conversations that seemed to get bigger and bigger with each rehashing!

– I cried A LOT! I cried driving to work. I cried going home. I cried when I was upset. I cried when I was happy. I cried when I was scared. I cried and didn’t even know why I was crying! I had begun to laugh less. The world was turning grey.

– About a year ago, I took an online stress test. I scored 35/40.

You see, after seven years of headship/principalship, the pressures were interfering with my own mental health and well being. Stress is part of the job when you are in leadership and I think, in some ways, I thrive on that stress. I enjoy solving problems and seeing things differently. I am also passionate about education and have a deep ethos in educating the whole child.

However, in the current ever changing education climate, it was becoming harder and harder to keep the wave of stress overwhelming my own mental health. The never ending  “To Do” list had me on, what felt like, a never ending roller coaster at warp speed.

After

So, as you can see, I needed to do SOMETHING! I just wanted to stop the millions of thoughts flying through my every waking moment!

I started with guided meditations and, as I began to see the positive impact that it was having on me, I did more research into WHY it was working and I found and began practicing many other strategies. As the time has gone on, I have realised the mindfulness is just part and parcel of my daily life and it has made a HUGE difference; enough for people who haven’t seen me for a while to make comment on the changes.

What has changed?

– I sleep! Waking up at 2 am is a thing of the past! I still wake up earlier than most people, 5 am, but I don’t wake up with swirling thoughts. This is only an hour before the time I need to get up. Instead of filling the time with emails, I fill it with meditation and reading research on mental health and how mindfulness works.

– The constant adrenaline rush has ceased! The peacefulness of a resting body and mind wraps me like a warm blanket. I am content. Then, when an adrenaline rush does occur as it should from time to time, my reactions are appropriate, proportionate and clear.

– I went to the doctor last week and my BP was perfect! Enough said.

– I remember the last panic attack I had. It was back in September. Over a few months they had become less and less. But, this one I remember clearly. I wear it like a badge of honour as I was able to take control of it completely. Now, I recognise the warning signs and take immediate mindful action. In the beginning, I had to do at least 30 minute meditations. Now, I usually only takes a few deep breathes. I feel confident and happy about life!

– I stopped dwelling on those difficult conversations. I will repeat them if required to inform others. But, I don’t dwell in the emotions. I allow them to drift out of my thoughts like a cloud floating in the sky.

– I stopped crying! I can’t remember a time in my entire life that crying hasn’t been a sign of ANY of my emotions. For me, this is significant! Now, I laugh and laugh and laugh some more!

– I took an online stress test today. I scored 7/40!

What do I do on a day to day basis?

– I do at least 10 minutes of guided meditations most days. I miss it on the days I don’t do them. I call them my mini-holidays/vacations. They are varied from visualisations to body scans, muscle relaxations, claiming, etc.

– On days that I am finding particularly more challenging, I do longer guided meditations; particularly in the evenings to ensure I sleep well.

– At various points in the day, I just do a quick scan over my body to notice any tension and do deep breathing exercises like a One Minute meditation or practice STOP. I practice all of the things I outline in the A Teacher’s Mindfulness series and in the Mindful Leadership posts.

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– I practice gratitude! I identify all of the positives in the day and ensure that on my way home I list these in my mind. Every day has a positive. So, I dwell on that!

-I take the time to notice small things; like the colours of the sunset or of a flower, the smell of the air after it rains or the taste of the chocolate I am eating. I just NOTICE the moment.

– I do a lot of Mindful Doodling. I love it!

– I have meditation music playing in the background while I am working.

– I research, write about and talk about mindfulness! I share my knowledge and experience.

There! You have it! This is my story. I will be forever grateful for finding Mindfulness. It hasn’t stopped the thinking. But, I have found a way of controlling the thoughts rather than the thoughts controlling me.

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Mindfulness in the Classroom- It Can Make a Difference!

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This week has been a good week! My passion is teaching and as a Principal/Headteacher, the opportunities for me to teach have become fewer and fewer. So, when I get the opportunity to stand in front of a group of people and facilitate their learning of something new, I feel happy.

This week I put on a two hour training for teachers from four different schools on Mindfulness in the Classroom. If you have been following my blog and the Mindfulness in the Classroom series, you would have read about the strategies I shared. Add my passion and enthusiasm for mindfulness and my ever growing understanding of mindfulness and I was a bundle of bubbling energy sharing research of others and my own research and modelling the strategies.

There is no denying the impact that mindfulness has had on the children in the trial classes across my academy. Here is a sample of the impact on the number of times the children got angry/upset in a week and the points gained on a happiness scale. A total of 150 children took part in the trial and 47 children were surveyed before the mindfulness strategies were employed.  Children’s ages ranged from 5 years old to 11 years old. This short study was over a period of 10 weeks.

Class # of times per week child gets angry/upset Pre # of times per week child gets angry/upset Post Reduction of # of times per week child gets angry/upset Happiness Points Gained/child Amount of time per week spent on mindfulness
Class A 16.5 10.75 -0.64 +0.28 20 min/wk
Class B 35 9.75 -2.8 +1.44 35 min/wk
Class C 17 10.25 -0.68 +2 35 min/wk
Class D 60.5 22.5 -3.8 +1.5 30 min/wk
Class E 35.25 17 -2.03 +1 15 min/wk
Total 164.25 70.25 -2 +1.27 Average 27 min/wk

The trial teachers were given approximately 2 ½ hours of training on mindfulness strategies and encouraged to use whichever strategies they felt most comfortable with and were appropriate for their classroom.

All teachers recorded an increase in their own personal mindfulness. Those teachers who did show the greatest growth in their mindfulness development tended to have the classes that showed the greatest progress in the reduction of angry/upset incidences and an increase in their happiness scores.

One real success was a Year 1 child who scored his happiness at school as a 1/10. He expressed his displeasure at being at school and could recount very quickly how other children annoyed him, made him angry and disturbed him in and out of class. After 10 weeks, he scored his happiness at school as 9/10 and said he very seldom got angry or upset and when he did he used a combination of mindfulness strategies. The class teacher confirmed that the dramatic change in attitude seen in this child was significant and he was beginning to make excellent progress across all areas of learning.

But, don’t just take my word for it, here is what some of the children had to say about what they have learned.

The training was on Wednesday after school.  By Thursday afternoon, teachers were already reporting the impact of implementing the strategies the very next day!

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The entire Mindfulness in the Classroom series can be found at https://educationsvoice.wordpress.com/category/mindfulness-in-the-classroom/

Once you have tried a few strategies, please take a moment to comment and feedback on the effectiveness of those strategies.

Remember, breathe deeply and be mindful of the moment!

Mindfulness in the Classroom- Mindful Laughter

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About ten years ago I was appointed as a Deputy Head Teacher of a school that was in the mist of massive and constant change. The school had persistent and changing challenges which generated a great amount of stress. During that time, I did learned a lot. It shaped my leadership style in ways that a less challenging school would never have done.

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 I was lucky enough to have an amazing Acting Head Teacher (AHT) at the time and together we tackled more obstacles in one day than most schools tackled in a week or even a month. The work was exhausting! But, the AHT and I had an interesting way of relieving the stress and not letting the challenges get to us, we LAUGHED!

I never laughed so hard than I did on some of the hardest days at this school. It wasn’t those soft little giggles. It was full on, wet your pants, coming deep from the belly and not letting you catch your breath kind of laughs. I am sure those laughs rang through the corridors, much to the disturbance of some of the staff.

On one occasion, a teacher at the end of his career and fed up with the changes happening around him, told the two of us off during a staff meeting for our laughter. He couldn’t understand what we had to laugh about. We quickly told him that we HAD to laugh because, if we didn’t, we would cry. This, of course, was proceeded by our loud laughter ahd his stern look!

Laughter was a lesson I happily took with me to my headship a year later. I was determined that our school would be a school filled with laughter as I knew that laughter brought more laughter and with that a happy attitude can be born even in the most dire times.

So, you can imagine my immense joy when I came across the amazing act of Laughter Yoga!

The website http://laughteryoga.org/english/home states, “It intends to generate mindfulness wherein people become aware of others and become more considerate and selfless. The laughter exercises are in fact less physical in nature and more of a social benefit as engaging with people is an enjoyable thing and leads to a network of sharing and caring people.”  

Laughter Yoga itself is simple, it encompasses clapping, playful exercises, deep breathing and, of course, laughter. The creator, Dr Madan Katari, explains the basic exercise along with variations in this video:

He has identified the benefits of laughter through scientific research as:

-Good Mood and More Laughter: Endorphins are release almost immediately upon the commencement of laughter.

-Healthy Exercise to Beat Stress: Laughter Yoga is like an aerobic exercise.

-Health Benefits: Reduces the stress and strengthens the immune system.

-Quality of Life: Laughter is a positive energy which helps people to connect with other people quickly and improves relationships.

-Positive Attitude in Challenging Times : Laughter helps to create a positive mental state to deal with negative situations and negative people. It gives hope and optimism to cope with difficult times.

People who have tried the exercises say that the fake laughter quickly turns into real laughter. The infectious quality of the ring of laughter begets more laughter. Once again, positivity begets positivity.

Somehow, my AHT and I instinctively knew that, in order to survive the challenges we faced, we HAD to laugh. We had cultivated a strong mindfulness strategy that still rings through the corridors of my school today.

This is a wonderfully fun way to develop mindfulness in your classroom, your school and in your life!

So, what are you waiting for? Let the laughter ring!

Press Play

“You can’t stop the future
You can’t rewind the past
The only way to learn the secret
…is to press play.”
― Jay Asher

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I remember my first day of school. I was a five year old with hair pulled into pigtails on either side of my head. I was so excited as I carried my “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” snack box to my classroom. It was in the basement of an old three story school. The classroom was filled with wondrous things.

There was a long chalkboard on one side of the room with a long row of tables and a record player in the corner. The air smelled of damp chalk mixed with the fragrance of old kool-aid and oatmeal pies. Mrs Miller stood in the front of the class of eager eyed children and so my life in education began.

As I think about that classroom and look at the classrooms of my school, I note some of the similarities. There are no chalkboards. However, there are white marker boards. That smell of chalk dust is gone and it is replaces with the chemical smell of the erasable markers. The tables are still there. But, I notice that they are set up differently. There is a more collaborative feel to the environment. The record player is gone as well. There MIGHT be a CD player.

This is where the changes really begin. I notice the interactive boards in the front of class attached to the teacher’s laptop. On several tables I also see children working in collaboration on projects or research. There is an Ipad or two floating around the class and the class have their attention drawn to the board and the teacher from the next class over pops up on the screen. He begins to teach the children how to create their own animated video; encouraging them to have a go. The class teacher facilitates the learning, pausing the video and asking thought provoking questions. The children respond, make progress and collaborate in a way that would make Steve Jobs or Bill Gates proud!

This makes me think about how education has changed. The way I learned is a far cry from how children today learn. However, how I grew up is a far cry to how children are currently growing up.

For example, technology in my house while growing up consisted of the Clapper lamp that you clapped two times to turn off a light that was two inches from you and the child remote control which consisted of me standing next to the tv while my father called out, “Turn!”, so that I would turn the dial to the next channel, all ten of them! There were no mobile phones; we actually were on a party line! Who remembers them?! Digital clocks consisted of little plates flipping over to tell the time.

I could go on. I think you get the picture. So, because of this technology, our brains have been wired in a certain way and learning is a particular process not all that dissimilar from our own parent’s learning.

Fast forward to today. As soon as a child can sit up, they are learning how to manipulate technology! Within minutes, they learn how to make things happen on an iphone or ipad! I have seen two year old happily ‘reading’ a book, changing pages with the flick of a finger! How about the five year old creating a virtual world in Mindcraft? They know how to change channels on the tv with a remote control, flip through the 200+ channels, record a programme they like and pause to go to the toilet! Again, I could go on and on!

So, because of this technology, their brains ARE wired differently and the learning process IS different!

We can’t lament the change in the learning process. We can’t go back in time and MAKE children learn the way we did. It won’t happen! Should we even want to go back to the time of children sitting in rows while a teacher drones on about facts, telling off children for talking about their learning and insisting on only one way to do things ‘properly’!

We have children who are far more advanced in their learning than ever before. They ARE active learners. They know how to collaborate, discuss, imagine and create.

Our teachers have been reflective on this change and have been flexible in their own practice to support this change. They are becoming facilitators of this process and I have never been prouder of my profession Who have bravely and boldly held true to the needs of the children. It hasn’t been an easy job lately. However, our ethos supports our drive to stand up for our children.

Life is different. Our children are different. The future is an unwritten text that THEY have the responsibility to write. We can’t press the rewind button. It doesn’t exist! All we can do is be flexible to the change and press PLAY!

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
― Albert Einstein

A Teacher’s Mindfulness- I Can’t Stop Thinking!

 

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Over the last few weeks I have had a lot if time to reflect on my mental health and well-being. I have taken time to relax and recharge and become firmer in my belief that practicing mindfulness is changing my life for the positive.

During this time, I have realised that we have to make a concerted effort to bring happiness, joy and positivity into our lives. Mindfulness takes an effort and commitment. It is medicine for the soul.

On many occasions I have had people say they have tried mindfulness a time or two and they just can’t do it, particularly formal or guided meditation. They say that they can’t stop themselves from thinking. Thoughts keep flooding the silence , they get frustrated with themselves and they give up.

Well, of course your mind will flood with thoughts. That is what brains do, they think! On top of this, we have formed habits of always thinking. We multitask because that has been seen in modern society as a sign of a successful person. We worry that if we don’t deal wth the thoughts immediately we will lose something important. We think about the past, replaying conversations we have had or things we have done. We plan for the future; racing ahead to what we will do tomorrow, next week, next year. It is a habit; a well worn path we default to at any extra moment we have. It literally takes up hours of our day and is like a comfort blanket; predictable and comfortable.

If, for a moment, you allow yourself to have a thought during meditation, you tell yourself off; punishing yourself! You get frustrated and give up. That is the opposite of mindfulness!

So, how can you break those bad habits and create new neurological pathways that allow you to develop your own mindfulness and reap the benefits?

You don’t get better at anything unless you practice and exercise. So, here is an exercise to do to start building new neuropathways and creating a new habit- mindfulness.

1- Find a quiet place to sit comfortably and set the timer or stop watch on your phone for two minutes.

2- Start the timer, close your eyes and take 15 deep breaths- breathe in deeply, hold for a second and then exhale completely. (This will take about a minute.)

3- Then, breathe normally. At this point count your thoughts. As a thought comes to mind, count it, accept it and then let it float away on a cloud knowing that if it is important, it will come again at a more acceptable time to deal with it appropriately.

4- When the alarm rings, stop and make a note of how many thoughts you have had. It really does not matter how many thoughts you have. You are mindfully recognising you are having the thought. The key is that you accept you have thoughts and that they are just that, thoughts.

5- Do this a few times each day for a week. You should start to notice fewer thoughts over time.

This, in itself, is mindfulness. Accepting you have thoughts and that it is OK starts you on the road of being mindful of the moment and give yourself permission to relax. New pathways in your brain begin to form and a breaking of a habit starts to take place.

Once you notice a reduction in thoughts, start to try short guided meditations that can be found for free on YouTube. Slowly increase the length of time over the weeks. In time you will realise you are having a thought, but it quickly disappears and you won’t remember them for the most part. (Don’t worry. If it is an important thought, you will have it again later!)

Some recommendations for guided meditations can be found in the post:  Mindfulness in the Classroom- A Teacher’s Mindfulness.

Remember, you are not your thoughts.

Your thoughts are not reality.

You, here and now, are reality.

Take some time today to start creating more positive habits. It is worth the effort to a more relaxed and happier you.

#PositivePostItDay – A Growing Mindfulness

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I want to thank you right now. I want to thank you because you have taken this moment in time to read this post and, that alone, makes me happy and if you do not read even one more word, I still will feel deep gratitude.

Do you really know what gratitude is? Have you ever pondered the idea?

Gratitude is an emotional state of mind. To be gracious means to have an attitude towards life that gives us, as humans, a sense of rational and personal well-being. It is a strong feel good emotion that releases endorphins that relaxes the body and makes us feel happy. That is why positivity begets positivity! It is ADDICTIVE!

On Tuesday, people around the world celebrated #PositivePostItDay. The day began a few years ago by a young lady in Canada called Caitlin Haacke. After being bullied herself, she decided to take a stand against bullying. She single handily started the movement of positivity that is sweeping the world. Her belief that positivity begets positivity that began as an anti-bullying campaign, has led to children and adults alike considering their words carefully and filling the world with kindness, love and appreciation.

Gratitude is a fundamental component of mindfulness. Teaching children (and adults) to be thankful for the abundance in their lives as opposed to focusing on the actual material objects refocuses on emotions and feelings that raises self-confidence.

As Tuesday unfolded, I was filled with happiness seeing thousands and thousands of children and adults showing gratitude for each other and for themselves! The power of words has never been stronger.

@ecsaibel from Marin, CA, USA

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The children showed a depth of perception that went beyond the simple, “Thank you!”.

@LeeAraoz from Broadway Campus in Long Island, New York, USA

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People became creative and symbolic in their notes. Love and compassion were at the heart of what was happening across the schools.

@SaccoEric and @CCGSMS from Clifton-Clyde Grade and Middle School in Kansas, USA

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The emphasis was on building, not just a positive day, but a positive culture. A positive culture is not a one day wonder. It needs to be repeated over and over again.

@principalkubiak from Cordelia Hills Elementary School in Sonoma, CA, USA

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The magnitude of the number of positive notes began to get mind boggling! Children were not happy with writing just one note, they had to write several notes. It was snow balling; leaving everyone in its wake on a wave of happiness!

@tsschmidty and @HarborViewElem from Harbor View Elementary in Corona del Mar, CA

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 Everyone left these schools feeling valued, loved, cared for and worthy of being a part of the community.

 @Ed_Tmprince and @Green_Lane_PA from Green Lane Primary Academy in Garforth, England

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Over and over, the power of the words the children had for each other was overwhelming and powerful!

The effects began to spread past the school gates. Green Lane Primary Academy received one to two written compliments from parents nearly every day this week!

So, what now? We can’t have #PositivePostItDay every day, right? Or… can we?

OF COURSE WE CAN!

One child asked his mother on Wednesday if we could be positive that day as well.

It is important that we are teaching the children and ourselves that we need to be mindful of our gratitude. We need to remind ourselves how it felt on #PositivePostItDay and remember that WE made that happen with our own attitude. The attitude is what made the difference on that day!

As stated before, gratitude is a fundamental component of mindfulness. It is a perfect way to either start the journey of teaching children the lifelong skill in being mindful or to enhance mindfulness already being developed.

If you want to find out more about #PositivePostItDay read #PositivePostItDay. It really can be done on ANY day you want it to happen. Get other schools to join you and MAKE it happen!

If you want some simple ideas on how to keep that snowball rolling in the development of gratitude, read Mindfulness in the Classroom- Gratitude.

In the meantime, share your ideas in the comments section. I would love to hear about the impact showing gratitude has had on your school or your own lives.