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Mindfulness and Academic Success

 

Improving Focus and Productivity with Self-Awareness

 

Mindfulness is an effective way to increase health and well-being, It’s also now commonly heard in households and classrooms all over the world, and is being explored and used in health care, education and public policy. Academically, mindfulness demonstrates a positive impact on cognitive thinking and processing skills (attention, stress management, self-regulation and social skills), which are all skills that are essential for overall school success.

 

Schools in the US and UK are using mindfulness-based programs and incorporating strategies into the curriculum. John Kabat-Zinn, widely known as the father of contemporary medically-based mindfulness, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.”

 

The power of mindfulness helps us to better:

  • Pay attention to our breath in order to focus on the here and now
  • Observe and become aware of disturbing thoughts and emotions without immediately reacting to them
  • Find our own still, quiet place
  • Manage anxiety by teaching ways to quiet the mind
  • Control our attention
  • Engage with the world (to notice what we notice without judging)

 

Mindfulness is especially helpful for students with ADHD and Anxiety because it supports stronger stress-reduction and self-acceptance.

 

While we depend on our electronic devices, they are built to distract us with a wide variety of information and activity. As a result, those very devices have a negative impact on our social interactions. We focus on the device, rather than the other person. These devices regularly pull us away from our tasks.  Mindful.org explains that practicing mindfulness strategies helps us manage the barrage of distractions we encounter by:

  • Retraining our habits of attention
  • Prioritizing and valuing our actions
  • Helping students be calm and alert so they are available to learn
  • Learning about the basics of attention help attention skills improve
  • Noticing when our mind wanders and bringing it back to the task at hand
  • Choosing this new habit, we “flex the muscle of attention” and strengthen those skills

 

Completing homework in a timely manner can be almost impossible for many students. There is an extra challenge because students often use their phones as resources either to take pictures of assignments on the board, use a digital calendar or organizer, notepad, internet or other online sources. In the process countless alerts cause regular distractions. Disabling these alerts at least during work time is a first step to being present in the moment.

 

Working in a present and mindful manner supports cognitive control and enables our ability to manage our impulses, which is a very high predictor of success. Simply taking the time to think about our attention will help us train our brain to be more efficient in our attention and productivity. Mindfulness matters!

 

 

Well Done – You Made a Mistake! The Benefits of a Growth Mindset

A big trend in education now is that of Growth Mindset, but this concept has been around for a while. Dr. Carol Dweck and her colleagues began studying the impact of student’s attitudes about failure over 30 years ago. She then coined the phrases “fixed mindset” (the belief that our basic abilities, talents and intelligence are what they are and cannot change) and “growth mindset” (the belief that our abilities and skills can be developed with effort, learning and persistence).

This year you may have even noticed your child learning about Growth Mindset in one or more of his classes. This change in thinking bodes well for our students. So many students are afraid of being wrong, and instead increase their own stress levels with expectations of being correct. In today’s classrooms, significant numbers of students are fearful of experiencing the discomfort of not knowing an answer for even a few moments.

Until recently, in education there was a great deal of focus on the outcome, or the end result, due to standardized testing. Students often thought that knowing the answer meant they were smart. We need to help students recognize that mistakes are a valuable part of the learning process and that intelligence includes the ability to solve problems. Solving problems involves making mistakes, learning from them, and then changing course to continue to search for the solution. Understanding what is not correct, and why, is as important as understanding the “correct” answer.

Part of the discomfort in making public mistakes has to do with the culture and expectations of the learning environment. Some classrooms welcome it, while others do not. As a parent you may not be able to control the classroom setting, but you can support a proactive learning environment at home by promoting and discussing the following benefits, beliefs, and educational values with your children.

  1. Mistakes build problem-solving skills. When we must think and work hard to find new ways to solve a problem, we expand our thinking and fill up our problem solving “tool box” with new strategies.

 

  1. Mistakes can build self-confidence. How we speak to ourselves makes a huge difference in how we feel about ourselves and our performance. When we make a mistake say, “OK, that didn’t work. Why not? What other strategy can I use to solve this problem?” We may use a strategy we already learned, use our resources to find another way, or we may come up with a new approach. Regardless of which method we choose, we can rely on ourselves to find a solution.

 

  1. Mistakes build personal growth. When we don’t know the answer, we must take a risk and either ask for help or try a new strategy. We don’t know the outcome of either before we choose, but the process builds our understanding of the learning process, as well as our role in our own learning.

 

  1. Mistakes help develop creativity. Hitting a road block requires us to think in new ways.

 

  1. “The Key to Success is Failure.” When our daughter was in 4th grade this phrase was on a sign in her classroom and has stuck with me ever since. Research by the American Psychological Association finds that students are more likely to have academic success if they view failure as a step along the path to learning.

 

  1. Mistakes foster new learning experiences and successes (“Happy Accidents”). When something doesn’t work out right, we might actually discover something new. These well-known items were discovered by accident, by scientists working toward something else: Post-It® Notes, chocolate chip cookies, potato chips, penicillin, X-rays, and fireworks, to name a few. I don’t know about yours, but our household has greatly enjoyed the mistake of chocolate chip cookies! What will your child discover though his next mistake?

 

  1. Mistakes fight the fear of failure. The more experiences we have with mistakes, the less frightening they will be. We will learn that a mistake is not a commentary on our intelligence level, but instead simply a necessary part of learning. Eventually, we will come to welcome mistakes because we will know that mistakes do not mean failure; they direct us to the next step.

 

  1. Mistakes are important! Mistakes are how we learn. Not only do we learn factual material this way, but we also learn coping skills. Learning to handle and manage mistakes is an important life skill that will shape our courage, critical thinking skills, creativity, mutual respect for others, and independence.

By supporting your child’s efforts and the benefits of their mistakes as well as achievements, you show them you value them as a person, a learner and a problem-solver. Continue to talk with her about her successes and challenges. Engage in a dialogue about what she can learn from her mistakes. Support her as she uses her resources and her own problem-solving skills to work through academic challenges. Shifting the discussion about school struggles this way will also support more positive family communication. So, go ahead; make a mistake!

Sleep: The Most Important Part of Your Teen’s Busy Schedule

 

Importance of Sleep in Adolescence
Is Your Teen Getting Enough Sleep?

 

Wendy P. Jones, Licensed Educational Psychologist

 

Most of us can say we could use a little more sleep, but adolescents are famous for being sleep deprived! As preteens and teens continue to grow, both physically and emotionally, sleep becomes even more important. However, sleep is often the factor that is sacrificed most in order to fit in all of their daily demands or activities.

According to the National Sleep Foundation www.sleepfoundation.org, getting enough is so important for teenagers’ academic success that more and more schools across the United States are implementing later start times to accommodate this need. Sleep is as important as the air we breathe, and the water and food we consume. A sufficient amount even helps us manage stress better. Bonus!

How much is enough? On average, teens typically get between 7 and 7 ¼ hours of sleep per night. In general, teens need between 8-10 hours per night, but due to the way teens’ bodies work, many can’t fall asleep before 11:00 pm. Add in activities, homework, projects and early school start times and we have a generation of overtired adolescents trying to keep up with their demands. Many are not successful. Some are, but often at a cost. There are ways to help.

  • Consequences of not enough sleep: Limits the ability to focus, listen, solve problems and learn; causes difficulty remembering important information; contributes to acne; negatively impacts our frustration tolerance, patience and behavior such as yelling at friends, family or teachers; triggers eating unhealthy food which leads to weight gain; may increase effects of caffeine and nicotine; heightens effects of alcohol; contributes to illness and traffic accidents.

 

  • Solutions to getting enough sleep: To get enough, it needs to be a priority. Sometimes activities and demands must be adjusted or eliminated to keep teens at their healthiest, happiest, and most productive.

 

  • Good sleep cannot be replaced by pills, energy drinks or vitamins.
  • Avoid caffeine, chocolate and soda late in the day
  • Make the bedroom a sleep-friendly environment.
    • Homework should be completed at a desk or table, not in bed.
    • Keep the room dark, quiet and at a comfortably cool temperature when sleeping.
    • Natural light from open curtains (when seasonally available) in the morning tells your teen’s body it’s time to wake up.
  • Avoid eating, drinking or exercise within a few hours of bedtime.
  • Maintain good organizational strategies so less time before bed is spent finding assignments or getting ready for the next day.
  • Establish consistent sleeping and waking schedules all week long, including weekends.
    • Aligning sleep with the body’s natural rhythms helps us feel more alert.
  • Avoid TV, phone and computer within an hour before bed.
  • A calming bedtime routine to helps us to fall and stay asleep easier.
    • All devices turned off and placed out of reach.
    • Read a book or magazine (not on a tablet or other electronic device).
    • Listen to soft, calming music.
    • Warm shower (depending on the person – while it may help some fall asleep, a morning shower may help others wake up.)
    • Use of natural sleep supports like high quality lavender and related essential oils.
  • Calm racing thoughts and “mental chatter”.
    • Keep a pen and paper by the bed. Writing down thoughts allows us to remember what is needed, so we won’t worry about it during the night, which can disrupt sleep.

 

To make room for enough Zs, sometimes other activities need to be re-prioritized or given up while good sleep patterns are reestablished. Every person is different, so each teen will have to find what works best for him or her. Getting enough sleep is a good habit for the whole family and will likely result in happier, more peaceful and more productive family, peer and school interactions. Sleep well!

Be More Present and Connected This Holiday Season

Malena Ally, MSW, Staff Therapist

A lot of us tend to rush through the holiday season in a whirlwind of shopping, parties, food comas, and stress. But it is important to use this precious time to connect with family and friends, as well as to re-charge for the New Year.

Here are 3 simple ways you can be more present this holiday season:

  1. Practice mindfulness: This means that you slow down and become aware of what you are doing in the present moment. Stop rushing to get one thing done, so you can hurry to the next. For example, during dinner you can practice tasting each bite of your meal and looking at those around you. When you walk the dog, do not rush, but walk with an awareness of your steps and steady breathing. Hugging with mindfulness is my favorite: Take three slow, deep breaths when you hug your loved one and be aware that you are present and happy.
  2. Laugh: Our facial expressions trigger feelings within us, as well as within other people. A good belly laugh – even if it’s fake – can trigger a rush of endorphins that leave you feeling cheery for hours. When you wake up in the morning, try lying on your back with your hands placed on your belly and let out any kind of laugh you can think of – the more creative, the better! If you don’t have 5 minutes to lie down for a laugh, simply smile while you are driving to work. This is a fun exercise to try as a family and research endorses the health benefits of laughing.
  3. Meditation: Meditation can be as simple as sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing. My favorite way to meditate is to color mandalas – circular, symmetrical designs that are used in various cultures for spiritual and healing purposes. You can look online for mandala coloring pages or create your own. Focusing on coloring a mandala can help you to slow down and bring your attention to the present. I have found that pre-teens and teens especially like to use this technique.

All of these strategies can help to reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, soothe tension and pain, and improve your immune system, among other benefits. However, one of the most important rewards is the connection you will gain with your loved ones.

Mastering the Organization Mission

Christopher C. Jones, Licensed Educational Psychologist

You’ve prepared your child for back-to-school. You’ve secured the appropriate school supplies and attended Back-to-School Night at your child’s school. You have a better understanding of what’s expected for this new grade that has become your child’s world. Now it’s your child’s turn. As your child progresses through each new grade, responsibility and management of complex tasks increases. Here are some steps you can take at home to help your child manage and master the organizational skills needed.

  • Make time to discuss getting organized: Initiate dinner table conversation or call a family meeting so the whole family participates. Older siblings can share advise and empathy. All children and teens can share any concerns or additional items they might need.
  • What system is used at school? Teachers typically begin the year with organizational strategies and expectations. Are these strategies working for your child?
  • Enlist your child’s help. Your way not be his way. Brainstorm ideas together to help him discover a way that works for him. What has worked so far? What has not?
  • Come up with a plan. Consider a combination of strategies:
    • A clean start. Is your child’s workspace clean? Organize what is needed. Purge the rest.
    • Assignment Notebook. Some tool to write down what is due and when.
    • Paper-tamers. A way to keep track of loose papers
    • Gadgets. Depending on age and your child’s style, a notebook may be too low-tech. Perhaps an electronic organizer or other devise.
    • Break down big projects. Working in small chunks can help avoid overwhelm and complete the project on time.
  • Stay positive! Check in with your child to help him stay on track with patience and persistence.
  • Backpack Clean-Outs. Pick a day each week (i.e. Sunday). Don’t do it for your child, but be nearby to help with any problems/frustrations. Start the week fresh.
  • Family Calendar. Family activities, appointments, but also due dates of special projects.
  • Call for reinforcements. If you’ve tried everything and your child is still struggling, seek outside help. Your child may respond better to a different intervention.

 

Childhood Self-Control and Adult Success

Christopher C. Jones, Licensed Educational Psychologist

Recent research finds that children who demonstrate more self-control at an early age are more likely to be more successful and healthy than those with the least self-control. Self-control is vital to one’s ability to plan ahead, for getting along with others, for asking for help, and for waiting for long-term payoffs rather than impulsive short-term gains. These characteristics are important for success in all levels of education and into the workplace. Children learn to build self-control by:

  • Expressing Emotion– Learning to use words rather than actions to express their feelings.
  • Responding to Stress– Learning coping strategies to manage different stressful situations.
  • Understanding Body Signals – Our bodies use various sensations (fear, frustration, anger, anxiety) to warn us of potential “threats” (starting something new, hunger, disappointment, hurt).
  • Learning to Wait– This builds as children grow as they learn to put time between the meeting a need and taking time to think of appropriate solutions to that need.

 

Children who overreact to minor challenges, are disruptive, hypersensitive, and impulsive can be disruptive to a classroom and an entire family. How can you support your child’s development of self-control and responsibility? Some ideas include:

  • Model self-control in your words and actions. Children are sensitive to emotional tone. When you are angry, anxious, or overwhelmed walk away and calm down.
  • Keep a structured and predictable routine. Children with self-regulation challenges are internally unstructured. Routines help increase their sense of security and control.
  • Maintain a calm environment. When you sense your child is getting upset, lower the lights and volume (TV, voices), play some soft music, engage in quieter activities.
  • Avoid talking to your child when they very upset. Use firm, quiet actions.
  • Take a break. Helping your child manage these emotions can require a lot of attention and energy on your part. Stay healthy and take care of yourself so you can be the best support to your child.
  • Ask for help. These problems are common. The earlier you help your child learn effective strategies to manage emotion and gain control over their environment, the sooner they will begin to advance on their path to successful adulthood.

Managing Back-to-School Anxiety

Malena Ally, Masters in Social Work, Associate Social Worker
School will be starting soon and this can cause a lot of anxiety for some kids. Some worrying is to be expected, but if you feel that your child is really stressed there are a few things

First of all, remember that everyone sees things differently and something that may not seem like a big deal to you (i.e. the first day of school) can be very upsetting or even traumatic to your child. Let your child know that you are listening and you understand. You can do this by validating their feelings or repeating back what they said: “It sounds like you are nervous about going back to school. You are worried that you won’t have friends in your class.”

Reassure your child that their feelings are normal and you have faith in them. Doing this in a calm and confident voice will help relieve some stress. If there is a skill that they don’t have (i.e. standing up to a bully) then assure them that you will help them develop that skill. If they do have the skills, but just lack the confidence, then you can point out past successes. You could say, “A lot of children feel nervous going back to school, but I know that you are very kind and make friends easily. I’m not worried about you making friends. I will be excited to hear about your first day and who is in your class!”

You can also help your child to problem solve. For example, if they are worried that they won’t have any friends, you might ask, “How do you make friends? How did you become friends with ____ and _____ last school year?” You could also ask, “What are some things that you could do to be friendly to a new student and help them?”

Lastly, keep if fun and positive! Show your excitement with your children in your back-to-school preparations or start a tradition that your child can look forward to every year. A fun tradition could be big or small: A back-to-school party after the first week of school or their favorite breakfast on the first day. The end goal is that children learn to cope with anxieties and develop confidence in themselves, so they know they can handle any new situation or stressor that will inevitably come their way.