I lead professional development workshops for educators, all over the country. I always ask teachers, “What is the most challenging part of your day?” If I asked them all to call out their response in unison, you would hear a resounding, TRANSITIONS, reverberating in the room. The workshops I teach are all related to helping students build social-emotional competencies, develop focusing skills and cultivate self-regulation skills. My secret sauce to accomplishing all of this in every grade, culture, community and demographic is incorporating yoga and mindfulness into the classroom.
In the big picture, yoga and mindfulness help us to become more aware of our thoughts, feelings and actions so that we may observe ourselves and others without judgment and respond with kindness, compassion and purpose, rather than react in habitual, reflexive patterns.
Now let’s see how this may help a teacher manage transitions. Let’s begin by defining a transition. A transition is ”the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.”
When do these transitions take place during a school day? Here are a few examples:
• finishing any lesson and moving on to something else,
• leaving the classroom to go to a special activity…and then back to the classroom,
• students reading at their desk, then going to the carpet to read with a peer,
• lunch, recess, back to the classroom…
The number of transitions that occur during any school day are endless. So when teachers share that transitions are the most challenging time of the day, I can understand why their stress level is so high.
Why are Transitions so Challenging?
It is the time when students are moving from a block of time that is highly structured, to very little structure at all. Even though the structured time can be 30 or 40 minutes and the unstructured time may only be 1-2 minutes, that is all it takes for a room full of students to express their need to move, talk, interact and find a bit of autonomy.
Now, if I were running the show in educational policy, I would put more of this “free time” into every day. It is important for so many social, emotional and psychological reasons. However, I understand that we have a system that we need to work with, so my strategy when working with schools is to work with what we have and help every individual and environment be more peaceful, joyful and productive.
Scenario of Transitions
Imagine this scenario. The teacher just completes an algebra lesson, which required a great deal of focus and concentration. At the end of the 40 minutes, she announces that they will be reading a short story, but to give them a break from deskwork, they will sit on the carpet. No sooner are the math books put away, the room becomes consumed with the sound of chairs moving, feet tapping and mouths moving. Don’t get me wrong, all of this is as it should be. All of this is normal. All of this is good and appropriate behavior at every age.
The problem most educators have with transitions is, reeling students in for the next lesson. It’s often 20 voices and desires against 1. The teacher’s stress level begins to rise as does his/her voice. The instructor may also attempt to get students’ attention by clapping their hands, waving their arms or ringing a bell. At this point, the teacher is frustrated, the students get embarrassed and everyone is in a less than desirable emotional state to begin a learning session.
Yoga and Mindfulness to the Rescue
Here is where yoga and mindfulness come in to save the day (over and over again). In our EDUCATE 2B program, we teach simple, evidence-based, breath, movement and mindfulness tools that can be integrated throughout the day as short, 2 minute breaks. Using several of these tools during periods of transition not only creates a calmer and more peaceful environment, it also honors students and teachers for who they are and what they need in the moment.
Here are a few examples of short activities you can use for up to 2 minutes during these transitions times to virtually eliminate the stress and create more harmony in the process. Along with the specific activities, I will also give you suggestions of what types of transitions these tools are most useful for.
Transitions: Moving from One Lesson to Another
When you need to move from one instructional lesson to another and the students have already been sitting for a while and will have to sit again for the next lesson:
Standing next to your desk, inhale through your nose and reach your arms up towards the ceiling. Try to really fill yourself up with air. As you exhale, fold forward and let your hands reach for the floor. It is fine if they don’t touch the floor. This is only the direction you are moving. Inhale and reach up again. Exhale and fold. Repeat this pattern 10 times, making sure you are inhaling as you reach up and exhaling as you fold forward.
Sitting on the floor with your legs crossed or in a chair with your feet on the floor, straighten your spine and stretch your arms out to the side (shoulder height and parallel with the floor). Place your hands on your shoulders with the fingers in front, thumbs in back. Keep your elbows lifted to the height of your shoulders. You will be twisting/rotating your trunk from side to side. As you do, keep your elbows out to the side. Inhale as you twist to the left. Exhale as you twist to the right. Continue this pattern of moving and breathing, and pick up the pace, inhaling and exhaling vigorously. Repeat this for about a minute. Come to the center, inhale deeply, hold the breath for a count of 3. Exhale and relax. Sit perfectly still and notice how you feel.
Why are these Breaks Helpful?
When students are seated for 20 minutes or more, and not moving their body, the vestibular system stops receiving information and in turn, the attention centers of the brain begin to turn off. Our vestibular system plays a role in self-regulation and attention. When we are actively moving, our vestibular system is continually sending information to the higher center of our brain telling it to stay alert and focus, because you are moving.
The physical patterns of the waterfall and washing machine, highly activate the vestibular system and wakes up the brain and body. Using the breath with the movement enhances the effects of the movements as well as fills the blood with rich, oxygenated blood, which is fuel for the brain.
Transitions: From a Structured to a Creative Activity
Students often get “stuck” with this transition and it causes some panic to set in. When our brain gets in the mode of listening and receiving information and then we are asked to create, open up and explore, some students have a hard time making that shift. Here is when talking, distraction and avoidance often ensue.
Seated either on the floor with legs crossed or in the chair with feet on the floor. Place one hand on your belly and one on your heart. Gently close your eyes and begin to feel your breath moving in and out of your body through your nose. Imagine a ball of light circling around your heart. It can be any color you choose. As you inhale, the ball of light gets bigger and bigger. Your exhale sends the light floating to all the parts of your body. Keep focusing on using your breath to grow the light and send the light. Any head thoughts that creep in, let them sink down into your heart and just become part of the heart light. Eventually the light is so bright in your body, that it seeps through your skin and the light surrounds you. See this heart energy glowing all around you. Coming to a comfortable soft breath, sit quietly and simply listen to your heart. When you are ready, gently open your eyes.
How Does this Activity Help Students?
This focused breathing, directs attention away from anxious thoughts and helps the nervous system to calm and relax. When stress is reduced, the thinking part of your brain can easily engage while turning off the reactive, primitive lower brain structures, which perpetuate a stress response. In this particular activity, attention is placed on the heart. Science has been proving that the heart is an intuitive, thinking organ, which communicates with the brain. It has the power to influence the processing of information and perceptions which all play a role in learning.
Transitions: Any Classroom Work to New Activity
Transitioning from any classroom work to a new activity, which requires students to be quiet (such as having to walk down the hallway).
Seated in your chair, or standing, arms are resting by your sides. As you inhale through your nose, slowly raise your arms out to the sides and overhead, forming the shape of a sun over your head. Hold that inhale (and the shape of the sun) for a count of 3. When you are ready to exhale, slowly open your arm out the side and rest them again by the side of your body. Repeat 3-4 times, moving your arms up with the inhale and down with the exhale.
How Does this Help a Transitional Moment?
When transitions occur, students can quickly get caught up in their own agenda of thought and activity. The room gets loud almost instantly. Educators often attempt to quiet the room by screaming a few decibels over the chatter. As I stated before, no one likes to scream and no one likes to be screamed at. In order to effectively use this tool, teach it before you need it (so students know how to do a SUN breath) and simply begin to DO IT yourself. Students will catch on and see what you are doing and begin to join in. The beautiful thing is, if you are breathing in this pattern, you cannot be talking at the same time. The room gets so quiet, you can hear a pin drop. The other advantage is, you are activating a relaxation response and everyone gets very calm, attentive and peaceful. That translates to a very easeful transition down the hall.
As you can see, a few simple yoga and mindfulness breaks can go a long way in supporting classroom children through various transitions. Teachers and students fluidly move through each transition creating a calm environment for the children to learn and the teachers to teach.