TNCS Teachers Get Mindful!

Last week Immersed featured guest blogger Carisa Perry-Parrish writing about her presentation to The New Century School staff on how to bring mindfulness principles into the classroom in Stop and Smell the Roses. This week, we’ll hear from some of the TNCS attendees about what they took away from the presentation.

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Courtesy of Dr. Carisa Perry-Parrish

TNCS Head of School Alicia Danyali organized this staff development initiative after hearing from several staff members that Dr. Perry-Parrish’s mindfulness workshop for parents inspired them to want to learn more about the topic and how to use it to help them better relate to their students. This meshed very well with Mrs. Danyali’s own overall approach. “My mom always reminds me that when you are on an airplane and the oxygen masks drop, you are instructed to care for self before assisting others. What this translates to for me personally is, the more we take care of self, incorporate deliberate choices to model appropriate behaviors when it comes to support, the more others around us benefit,” she said. Thus, for Mrs. Danyali, practicing mindfulness is an important part of personal and social health.

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Courtesy of Carisa Perry-Parrish.

Although practicing mindfulness is arguably beneficial everywhere, all the time, for educators it has a particular resonance. A central tenet of mindfulness is regulation of emotion, the ability to make a considered response rather than reflexively react, as Dr. Perry-Parrish’s slide at right illustrates. This idea reverberates in many ways inside the classroom, where teachers continuously interact with children who are still in varying stages of development. Teachers must find ways to bridge the cognitive, emotional, and social gaps this interaction entails as well as model for their students the right way to handle various challenges.

Says Mrs. Danyali: “The role teachers play in a student’s life is defined in part by cultural expectations, social norms, and organizational rules that usually operate outside the classroom. Mindfulness is one more ‘tool’ in a teacher’s toolbox to help their students think things through for themselves, take accountability, and make choices that tune into their emotional needs. On the social aspects of teaching, mindful practices encourage students to feel important and cared about, as well as gain confidence in their own abilities. To acquire a personal sense of respect and responsibility for themselves and others is the focus.”
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Courtesy of Dr. Carisa Perry-Parrish

This seminar was a very natural fit for the primary teachers, who implement a classic Montessori curriculum in their classrooms. Maria Montessori was a proponent of what would evolve as what we know today as mindfulness practice. Let’s hear from a TNCS teachers who asked for, attended, and learned from this seminar.

TNCS primary teacher Maria Mosby: “It was great to get a more in-depth understanding of mindfulness and its many benefits for adults and children alike. Several teachers that I talked to were excited to read and learn more, and begin incorporating mindfulness into their lives and classrooms. I would definitely like to begin a practice of mindfulness meditation before each school day begins, to help prepare myself for being more present with the children and other teachers. It was interesting to learn how the practice has helped so many others in many different professions and walks of life. Though we occasionally do a group meditation in class (such as the flower and candle breathing exercise), I think it would be a great way to begin every day, as opposed to the typical circle time. When the children are sitting in the peace corner alone or as a group sitting on the rug, you can see them begin to try to quiet their bodies and minds and prepare for the day. It’s a practice we can all benefit from- tugging at the leash, and getting the easily distracted little puppy dog in our minds to focus on the path in front of us. Everyone needs time to breathe between tasks and have a moment to themselves.

The children who have a teacher who is present and is calm, not reacting based on his or her instinctive thoughts in a given situation, are likely to learn better coping and social skills themselves. They will also have more focus and joy in the classroom environment. Integrating mindfulness into any classroom can help everyone to become more focused on each individual task, and improve student-teacher and student-student relations, thus enhancing the experience for the entire class.”

Other non-Montessori TNCS teachers also benefited in multiple and sometimes surprising ways, as well. The elementary teachers, for example, face daily challenges that are different from what teachers of 3 to 5-year-olds might face, but these challenges are no less real and no less vital to handle in the best way for the child.

TNCS upper elementary STEM teacher Dan McGonigal: “My take-away from this presentation was really simple but something I need to remind myself of is that our students are not adults and they aren’t going to behave that way. After this presentation I have tried to take a step back and just teach in the moment and be present for that moment and not think about past or future difficulties. I try to remind myself of what was important to me when I was 7–11 years’ old. This has helped me better relate to some of the decisions students make on a daily basis. I try to better appreciate the student’s perspective of things, especially those that may have a learning disability or behavioral challenges. Teaching can be difficult because you are constantly looking for progress and, at times times, their progress may appear invisible. But students often need time, numerous examples, and development to start making progress.”
That’s a clear benefit of employing mindfulness as a teacher, and here is another perspective on the importance of teaching mindfulness.
TNCS upper elementary Language Arts and Global Studies teacher Kiley Stasch: “I thoroughly enjoyed the mindfulness presentation, not only from the perspective of a teacher but also for myself. As a teacher, it has helped me to take a step back and understand that teaching these skills explicitly is important and essential to do. We often assume these students have learned how to best manage their own emotions, but even older students have not necessarily had someone to help them through the steps they should be taking. Breaking it down for the students and helping them to understand where their emotions are stemming from helps them to reduce a poor reaction at that moment as well as in similar instances that will come up in the future.”
As for future staff mindfulness initiatives, Mrs. Danyali says, “The hopes are that this training was a nice reminder or a validation of current approaches, but also encouragement for implementing new strategies that will not only benefit one or two students, but the class as a whole.” Dr. Perry-Parrish also provided three models for continued development in this arena: CARE, SMART, and MWBE, detailed in the slides below.

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These final words from Ms. Mosby might best encapsulate the experience for TNCS teachers and perhaps all teachers, worldwide: “Mindfulness is an experience we all can and should offer our students each day. It’s easy to become so focused on the specific learning goals and daily tasks of teaching that one doesn’t always stop to slow down and truly listen, observe, and enjoy the children. There are so many wonderful moments that we miss out on this way.”

Anyone reading this post has already hit pause on the day to stop and be in a moment. We recognize that, and we thank you. The kids around you will thank you, too, both for knowing how to be truly present with them now and for showing them how to grow up to be adults who embody this critical awareness in their future lives.

Guest Blog: Stop and Smell the Roses!

This Immersed post comes to you from guest blogger Dr. Carisa Perry-Parrish, who recently presented a workshop on mindfulness practices to The New Century School staff and writes about this experience. Dr. Perry-Parrish is Director of Training, Child Clinical & Pediatric Psychology Postdoctoral Fellowship and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins as well as a TNCS parent. As part of Johns Hopkins Expert Team in Pediatric Medical Psychology, “[she] specializes in improving emotion regulation in children and adolescents. Her clinical interests emphasize practicing and promoting evidence-based care, including parent management training for childhood noncompliance and ADHD, cognitive-behavioral therapy for youth anxiety/depression, and acceptance and mindfulness-based interventions to improve self-regulation.”

Stop and Smell the Roses!

Last spring, I was asked to give a parent workshop on mindfulness in parenting. A great group of parents attended and it was a good experience. Several teachers were interested in the topic as well, and this year I was invited back to provide a teacher workshop on mindfulness. Our teachers and staff were another lovely group, very engaged in learning about meditation and mindfulness.

It was Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, so I shared one of my favorite pictures of Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh (mindfulness author and monk), engaged at a conference back in the 1960s. Gauging from how many recognized this favorite author of mine, it was clear that several in the group were already engaged in mindfulness in various forms. So what is mindfulness?

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Mindfulness has been described as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). As L.A. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson put it, “when [basketball] players practice what is known as mindfulness…not only do they play better and win more, they also become more attuned to each other.” In essence, mindfulness is the complete awareness in what is happening right now. Therefore, mindfulness instruction is intended to enhance an individual’s innate ability to be aware.

Formal mindfulness instruction entails a range of techniques that help foster an intentional focusing of attention on one’s present-moment experience while letting go of negative, self-critical judgments. As detailed explicitly in many mindfulness programs, this type of training aims to help individuals accept unpleasant and painful experiences without reactively attempting to change the experience. However, as most of us would prefer to reduce or eliminate pain and discomfort as much as possible, some mindfulness-based programs additionally adopt a dialectical position of balancing desire for change alongside intentional acceptance of the inevitability of suffering. As moment-to-moment awareness through the day is the ultimate goal of mindfulness programs, there is also instruction of informal techniques that can be used at any time.

The recent teacher workshop provided an introduction to mindfulness and some suggestions for how to weave contemplative practices to support our children’s development of focused attention. Given the range of daily hassles and life stress we all experience, activities that foster our children’s focused attention are theorized to help them regulate their emotional reactions.

For those of you who have observed in our children’s classrooms, you have probably seen several teachers engage in mindfulness activities—whether or not the teacher had identified the activity as such. You have likely witnessed your own child become absorbed in a favorite activity, whether it was engineering a LEGO construction, collecting wildflowers, or watching the clouds pass by. Awareness training is quite complementary to a central tenet of Montessori philosophy, which is to develop the innate ability to become absorbed in learning. As Maria Montessori stated, “The first essential for the child’s development is concentration” (The Absorbent Mind, p. 202).

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Mind full, or mindful?

Portions excerpted from Perry-Parrish, C., & Sibinga, E.M.S. (2014). Mindfulness meditation. Functional Symptoms in Pediatrics (ed. R. Anbar). Springer.

—Carisa Perry-Parrish

. . . And stay tuned, readers, for teacher reactions to the workshop as well as some of Dr. Perry-Parrish’s very helpful, evidence-based tips on how to (and why we should) mindfully interact with children, whether at home or in the classroom.

Meet the Art Teacher: A Portrait of Elisabeth Willis

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TNCS art teacher Elisabeth Willis.

Recently, The New Century School welcomed a familiar face to the permanent teaching staff. Elisabeth Willis has served as summer art instructor at TNCS (with The Painting Workshop) and also in various other instructor roles around campus since 2014. As TNCS bade farewell (for now) this past January to long-time art teacher Jenny Miller-DeFusco, who is pursuing a graduate degree, Ms. Willis has taken over the helm.

Already immensely popular among the students, she brings an impressive amount of experience to her new role, with both a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Art History and a “MAT”—a Masters in Art and Teaching from the Maryland Institute College of Arts (MICA). Although she anticipated entering the classroom full time one day, she freelanced after graduating in 2011 to spend time on her art. She is a painter, typically using oil or water colors. “I want to keep a balance between teaching and doing my own art. They each inform the other,” she said.

One unique aspect of her art is the scale. “I work very small,” she explained. “Working small” began during a 2008 semester in Italy, where she fell in love with doing landscapes in miniature. In contrast to the vastness of what her fellow students were doing at MICA, such as murals, she found “band-aid size” (approximately 1″ × 3″) and other handheld variations to be just the right fit.

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“Smalltimore”

Not all of her work is tiny, however. She also paints water-color illustrations for children’s books, which she came to as a teenager through her step-mother, who ran the children’s section of a library. Despite that field being notoriously difficult to get a foothold in, she taught herself to paint with water colors, and her initiative has clearly paid off.

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One of Elisabeth Willis’s hauntingly lovely illustrative water colors.

“I really gravitate to water colors,” said Ms. Willis. She has taught adult classes in water color technique through The Painting Workshop, something she may resume in the summer during the academic hiatus.

Regarding her teaching approach at TNCS, she is feeling her way carefully while she determines what students have already been exposed to and what she can introduce anew. “I think kids are a lot better at art than people might give them credit for, so I like doing blind contour drawing, drawing with the non-dominant hand, and especially portraits as early as kindergarten. We go step by step with where the eyes go and so on, and they totally get it.” In fact, at the time of this interview, she was doing “snow self-portraits” with her students, which are not traditional portraiture, but are intended to give a “taste of winter” . . . and sure are joyfully cute!

As surprising as it may sound, given the ease with which she has acclimated to her position, elementary was not her original choice of age grouping to teach. In fact, her plan had always been to become a high school art teacher doing portfolio development or work in the education department of a museum. Almost from the moment she encountered the younger kids at The Painting Workshop, however, she realized how fun it was to teach and work with them. She now feels perfectly at home in this division, and she is a born teacher. “When I was a senior during my art history study, I worked as a teaching assistant, and I loved it. Even though I was extremely shy and quiet, I had no problem in the classroom. I love teaching, and it has helped me, too,” she said.

Upcoming art-related events to look out for include the stage sets Ms. Willis will design and create for the 2016 TNCS Spring Concert as well as the first-ever TNCS Art Show to be held sometime in April that she will (democratically) curate from her students’ work. “The kids are super pumped about it!” she said, winningly betraying her own enthusiasm for this very exciting endeavor.

Other than observing a few classroom rules, her students have no other cares but to have fun and make art. “I don’t care if they can’t draw a nose,” she explained. “But I look for three things from them: craftsmanship, following directions, and participation.” This adds up to respect—respect for the pursuit, the materials, and the classroom. Nevertheless, she also believes that, in some ways, art gives kids a break, a chance to switch off certain parts of their brains and tap into others.

“Art shows us where we all came from, and where we are heading,” she finished. With this  profound insight, she seems to say that art is just about everything where humanity is concerned.

 

TNCS Primary Workshop: Connecting Montessori to Home

A few weeks ago, The New Century School Montessori teachers gave their bi-annual Primary Workshop to provide parents with a firsthand experience of the Montessori approach to pre-K education. But this time, they also added a new twist—how to support Montessori principles in the home.

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Our illustrious panel of Montessori teachers.

Joining teachers Catherine Lawson, Martellies Warren, Lisa Reynolds, and Maria Mosby, Head of School Alicia Danyali introduced the workshop and was quick to reassure parents that they needn’t run out and “remodel the home with Montessori materials”; rather, “this presentation is to show ways that Montessori can be connected naturally to what you already do in the home.”

Although previous workshops, including in the fall of this academic year, have demonstrated specifically what students are learning and doing during their daily class time, this one did not cover teacher and learning with Montessori materials per se. For those parents who did not attend Montessori school as kids, the materials are a marvel—both eye-opening and fun. For those who did grow up in a Montessori environment, the chance to reacquaint themselves with the materials must evoke the most delicious nostalgia. Maria Montessori developed the Montessori materials based on her extensive observation of children ages 2 1/2 through 6 years. Her goal was to put academic success within their reach by setting realizable achievement milestones, so to do that, she tailored materials to be used the way she saw children interacting with their world. Primary students use these materials nearly exclusively, and seeing how the materials are actually used and learning what each does for the child’s development was the focus of prior Primary Workshops.

As such, the Montessori classroom is a very deliberately “prepared environment.” Every nook and cranny is optimized for both the child’s size and the child’s development (accommodating a range of both, of course). Similar child-optimization can also be accomplished with a little careful tweaking of the existing environment, such as in the home, as the TNCS Montessori teachers went on to demonstrate.

To make the home–school connection, they covered the following four areas.

Part 1

Up first, Mrs. Lawson described how to prepare the interior and exterior of the home and the car, joking that “we aren’t going to force anyone to set up this way. No one is coming to your home to check on you! But we’re trying to teach independence, and here are some ways you can further this at home.”

Entryway

  • Install low hooks for children to hang up their own coats or use child-sized hangers so they can hang their coats with everyone else’s (Mrs. Lawson showed an old, well-loved hanger one of her daughters had decorated for this use).
  • Create a place to put wet boots and dirty shoes.
  • Designate a place to keep lunch boxes, backpacks, and other regularly used gear.

Living Room and Family Room

  • Make these areas child friendly so children feel welcome—said Mrs. Lawson: “Children like to be where their parents are, but they need their things handy also.”
  • Make books available in every room, if possible, with a bookshelf or basket to hold them.
  • Keep some toys available for use in an organized way, which encourages easy clean up:
    • Use low bookshelves or the bottom shelf of a television cart to hold toys.
    • Give each particular toy a place on the shelf. Place activities with many pieces in dedicated holders (e.g., shoe boxes, baskets, etc.).
    • Offer limited choices of activities that fit on the shelves provided, and rotate the toys when interest wanes.
    • Use a bathmat, throw rug, or bath towel for the child’s designated activity area, à la Montessori.
  • Although these might be hard habits to break, try to avoid:
    • Using a toy box or big basket that holds many toys because children can get overstimulated with too many choices.
    • Allowing the child to play with many toys and then doing a big clean-up. Instead, encourage playing with one toy and putting it away before moving onto the next.

Bedroom

  • Make books available in every room, if possible, with a bookshelf or basket to hold them.
  • Use low shelves for children’s toys and activities:
    • Each toy should have its own place, and rotate toys as necessary.
    • Only have bedroom-appropriate toys in the bedroom because you will not always be present to supervise. Markers, for example, are not a good choice!
  • Keep a laundry basket handy that allows the child to dispose of his or her own dirty clothes each night.
  • If possible, install in the closet an easy-to-reach rod and child-sized hangers.
  • In the dresser, place season-appropriate clothes in the lower drawers so the child can choose the clothing and dress him or herself.
  • Install a bulletin board at the child’s eye level to display pictures of family members, artwork, postcards, etc.:
    • When they are reading, post reminders about things or just love notes.
    • Add a calendar to mark off days.
  • Consider using a comforter instead of a bedspread on the bed. Let it be the child’s job or to help pull up the comforter each morning.

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    “It hides the wrinkles and looks tidy even if it isn’t perfect,” demonstrated Mrs. Lawson.

Outside

  • Make a place for outdoor toys (not just a big plastic tub for everything), such as a laundry basket.
  • Have opportunities for gardening (i.e., digging in the dirt) available.

Car

  • The car is an extension of home for many commuting families. Make it a happy environment with car-appropriate activities:
    • Books
    • CD of music or stories
    • DVDs
    • Activity books (avoid crayons, which melt)
  • Keep a supply of snacks and drinks on hand. Make a snack bag that allows the child to decide when and how much to eat (this encourages responsible decision making and avoids a power struggle).
  • For longer trips, consider making a goodie bag filled with tissue paper–wrapped activities or toys (they can be new things or things from around the house, e.g., rubber ducks, trucks, sticker books).

Part 2

Mr. Warren spoke next. “My part of today’s presentation is on allowing for mistakes. A huge part of Montessori and overall development is making mistakes.” He read essential parts from “Mistakes and Freedom,” an article published by The Center for Guided Montessori Studies and starting with this famous quote by Dr. Maria Montessori:

“It is a commonplace that the child must be free. But what kind
of freedom has he been given? The only true freedom for an
individual is to have the opportunity to act independently. That
is the condition sine qua non of individuality. There is no such
thing as an individual until a person can act by himself. The
instinct guiding the child to seek his independence thus leads us
to realize what the whole of nature demonstrates – that any sort
of association is composed of separate individuals. Otherwise
there would be no such thing as societies, but only colonies.
Education must foster both the development of individuality
and that of society. Society cannot develop unless the
individual develops, as we learn from observing the child, who
immediately uses his newly won independence to act on a social
environment.”

Read the article in its entirety here: http://www.guidedstudies.com/2011/04/mistakes-and-freedom/.

tncs-primary-workshop-connecting-montessori-to-homeMr. Warren ended with his own classroom tenets of allowing for mistakes:

  • Prepare the environment and step back.
  • Give the child time for reflection, problem-solving, and coming to their own conclusions.
  • Don’t swoop in!
  • Encourage the desired behavior, but understand and accept that mistakes are necessary for growth and development!

Part 3

Next up, tying into Mr. Warren’s theme, Mrs. Reynolds discussed the difference between praise and encouragement and how to allow children to cultivate the courage to be imperfect. “I like praise,” she joked, “it’s like candy.” Audience laughter ensued. “But what is the long-term effect,” she asked? “Children who are praised choose less challenging work.” That might seem counterintuitive—it’s why we praise our kids, after all, to ostensibly build up their self-esteem—but studies are unequivocal in demonstrating that our good intentions are having deleterious effects.

Mrs. Reynolds brought up the example of kids’ art, which parents can tend to gush over, even when what is depicted is basically a scribble. Not only does this signal to the child on some level that he or she doesn’t need to really try hard to make something praiseworthy, but the praise itself also becomes less meaningful.

The upside is, said Mrs. Reynolds, “Children who are encouraged for their efforts are willing to choose more challenging tasks on their own.” Encourage the deed, rather than praising the outcome. “Show respect for and interest in the child’s point of view.” Also, make sure to provide opportunities for the child to develop his or her life skills, such as making the bed. (Recall from Part 1, though, that the idea is to set the child up for success by “preparing the environment.”  See above.) This will help the child develop self-confidence and independence, as well as independence from the negative opinions of others.

“Who doesn’t want that for their children?” she concluded.

Part 4

Ms. Mosby then took up the thread of independence by presenting specific ways that parents can give children these opportunities at home. “Have you ever been approached by your children while your cleaning the house because they want to help?” she asked. Our tendency can be to brush aside these offers as sweet, but not really very helpful because we want an actually clean outcome for our efforts. But, this is exactly the time, explained Ms. Mosby, to tap into that natural excitement and teach them how to tackle some of these household tasks before they become too jaded to want to help. Sure, the results might not be perfect, but the ultimate reward of cultivating independence and a fundamental helpfulness in your child will outweigh this temporary downside.

She went on to tell parents how eager her students are to help clean the classroom and how she seizes those opportunities to both accept the help as well as teach the correct methods. “All of the materials I’m showing you are things you’ll already have around the house, such as dust cloths, dustpans, and plastic bins to wash dishes or other items ‘the old-fashioned way’.” (She gave parents the helpful tip that her students love polishing tables and will rub the polish practically off in their zeal for this task.)

Kids are also natural sous chefs—they love to help make their lunches, for example, such as by spreading ingredients on bread and peeling vegetables. Learning to use kitchen implements also helps them develop their fine motor skills. They can also be recruited to put dishes away. “Let them know you trust them,” said Ms. Mosby, ” and start with unbreakable pots and pans in a low cabinet, progressing as the child is ready to more fragile dishes.”

They can also help with pets. “They love to have another little someone to care for,” said Ms. Mosby. Let them brush the cat or dog and help put out the food and water. They can even help with younger siblings and get practice with gentle care in the classroom with babydoll models.

The garden or backyard is another area where kids can be a huge help, whether with cleaning up or actual gardening. A “pooper scooper,” she pointed out, makes a great child-sized leaf picker-upper.

Resources

Head of School Alicia Danyali offers the following resources “to support your family’s educational journey” with a young learner.

Books

  • The Child in the Family, by Dr. Maria Montessori
  • Positive Discipline for Preschoolers, by Jane Nelson
  • Child of the World: Montessori, Global Education for Age 3-12+, by Susan Mayclin Stephenson
  • How to Raise an Amazing Child the Montessori Way, by Tim Seldin
  • The Whole-Brain Child, by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
  • How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Farber and Elaine Mazlish

Websites