Tips for educators: cultural responsiveness and student-centered work

I spent three amazing, brain-busting days in Chicago at the CASEL SELXChange conference two weeks ago and I know that the lessons and conversations will continue to reverberate in my brain for a long time to come. It was an extraordinary gathering of folks who are interested in the well-being of children and how we can fix the broken education system to serve children better.

There are so many places to focus attention and shine a light, but the one I’ve chosen to dig further in to this week is the idea of cultural differences and what they mean and how they affect the experiences of students every day. The first thing I did was pick up Zaretta Hammond’s book “Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain.”

As commonly happens in my world, things started to converge. When I read her explanation of “cultural archetypes,” in particular, the distinction between collectivism and individualism, I was reminded of a quote I’ve heard over and over again from Peter Drucker:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Of course, he was referring to the culture of a company, but it’s true in the case of schools, too. We can have the best educational strategies around, but if they don’t take in to account the cultural background of the kids we’re teaching, they will fall flat. Hammond talks about the fact that many kids will come to school from families whose beliefs and values center around collectivism, and if we have our classroom norms set up around individualism, those kids will struggle to find resonance.

Even if we put kids in to groups to do projects or explore concepts, our bedrock in most cases is individualism – we talk about leaders (singling out one student in each group) and emphasize grades and don’t take the time to explore what each student is bringing to the table as far as cultural viewpoints.

As my amazing, insightful friend Jen Lemen says, “the way we hold individuality and the idea of contribution to a group puts a lot of weight on our personal preferences and experiences and a lot of weight on the group being a certain way. If the groups aren’t a certain way and I don’t feel good myself, I have to hyper-individualize or hyper-conform or squash some part of myself. After doing that for a while, either you crack or the system cracks.”

Encouraging kids to do group work without really talking about what that means and exploring the responsibility of each member to themselves and the others is asking a lot. As I talked about in my last post, we can’t assume that everyone is coming to the work in the same way, and if our classrooms and systems are set up to reward individualism, then the kids who have been steeped in that culture will naturally thrive while the ones for whom individualism is alien and challenging will not. Simply calling something “group work” or “collective” is not enough. We have to really understand what that means to each student and acknowledge the barriers it throws up for some.

The kids who are coming to us with completely different world views are already working harder. If our systems trigger big questions of values and identity for them, the work they do to conform derails the work they’re doing to learn the material we present. And for some of those kids, behavior issues are a result of hyper-individualizing or cracking. When the system is bigger than you and supported by the dominant culture, it’s more likely that you’ll crack than the system. But as more and more children from diverse backgrounds enter our school system, what we are seeing is the system beginning to fall apart. Rather than panicking and trying to shore it up, I believe we need to see it as an opportunity to radically re-think how we serve kids.

We’ve centered the system for far too long. It’s time to start centering the students and their well-being. There are many ways to do that, and one incredibly powerful one is for folks to find Hammond’s book and hold it up against the practices and priorities we have in our educational systems right now to see where we can do better.

Effective SEL Practices for Educators (and Parents), Part 2

Part 1 is here. This post will explore qualities of effective leaders, expectations of leaders, barriers to functional groups, and what a “good” group looks like.

Qualities of Effective Leaders: First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that there is always always a power differential. As hard as we may work to make kids feel safe, we have to remember that it will take time to earn trust and build relationships, and the more we exert our authority or use it as a tool to manage the conversation and get our way, the harder it will be to build rapport. Trust is an outcome of honest conversation, not a prerequisite for it.

Second, we have to be willing and able to examine our own biases/habits/behaviors. Without judging or shaming or blaming, simply acknowledging our tendency to wield power or assume ill intent or use body language to express our disapproval or disagreement will help us as leaders and parents to think about how those things affect the atmosphere we are trying to create. The more we can do this, the more we are able to choose mindful responses and actions when we’re in tricky situations with adolescents, especially if we are uncomfortable.

Next, it’s vital that we remain accountable to the larger group or relationship. Getting defensive is not a path to relationship-building. Staying humble and curious and treating everyone as though their perspective is important and deserves air-time (even if we vehemently disagree) is key. When someone lets us know that they feel shut-down or disrespected or triggered, it is our responsibility as leaders to set aside our knee-jerk responses and dig in to really understand. Dismissing another person’s emotional response is a quick way to stifle connection.

Expectations for Leaders: Stay present. Letting past challenges or future worries invade the conversation, or dissociating because the topic isn’t compelling to you or it’s a difficult one to sit with derails the conversation.

Lead with curiosity. We have to be willing to give kids this age air-time, if only to give them practice speaking up about challenging issues. The more they feel listened to, the more they’re willing to engage.

Lead by example. Be honest about your own difficulties, show compassion for everyone in the room, listen carefully. (The one caveat I have here is that it is possible to share too much. Remember that this is about the kids, so while it is helpful for them to see us being human and vulnerable, oversharing can make it feel like a lecture or as if we are comparing our experiences to theirs. The goal is to help them understand that it’s ok to talk about hard things and that there are a range of perspectives that are all valid and important.)

Support and encourage everyone. Acknowledge how hard this work is and praise individuals for sitting with discomfort, for learning to be with it and not run away.

Barriers to Good Groups: Huge power differentials – there can’t be one or two people always driving the conversation or making the decisions.

Norms are habitual and largely unexamined. It’s important to really spend time looking at the expectations for any group through the lens of each participant.

Focusing on consensus or agreement. The goal of SEL is to learn to appreciate difference, see diverse opinions and perspectives as strengths, and encourage everyone to speak up. The tendency of adolescents is to ‘fit in’ and in many cases that means people-pleasing. It may be difficult, but it is vital to remind kids that the goal is not for everyone to conform.

Attributes of Good Groups: Effective groups have a balance of engagement of all voices. They are also self-aware and able to change when necessary – if there are behaviors that are preventing honest conversation such as bias or stereotypes, good groups are willing to stop and address those underlying issues. Groups that are doing the hard work are able to look at systems/policies/norms that are unproductive and center folks whose needs aren’t being served.

Good groups also lead with curiosity and prioritize learning and understanding. They know that their purpose is to get messy and really open up, not necessarily to come to some larger “conclusion.”

All of these things are a work in progress. There is no group/classroom/family that will start out with all of these qualities and hit the ground running. As I wrote in Part One, the important thing is that you begin, and that you are willing to stay curious and make adjustments as you go, thanks to feedback from anyone in the group.

I’d love to hear your comments or questions!

 

Effective SEL Practices for Educators (and Parents), Part 1

You can have a curriculum or a set of ideas in front of you and still not know where to begin when it comes to working with teens on social-emotional health and well-being. Because there isn’t an answer key, it is often intimidating to sit down with an adolescent or a room full of them and talk about hard things – things that most of us haven’t been encouraged to share. I’ve been studying Dr. Craig Elliott‘s work on social justice and racial caucusing and many of his ideas adapt well to this kind of work.

PRE-WORK – Before we start, it’s important to think about some key things that could impact how we interact with kids, especially around difficult topics.

  1. We have to examine our parenting/leadership experiences to find patterns, norms or habits we have, history or traditions we carry forward without thinking about them, and stereotypes and myths we have about teens, kids of color, gender roles, etc.
  2. It is also important to examine our relationship with leading/parenting – did we come to it with enthusiasm or not, have we internalized ideas of what it “should” or “shouldn’t” look like, are we resentful of the role itself?
  3. Next, we need to spend time thinking about our own experiences as teens – were they largely positive or negative, are there things we suffered through that we feel are “rites of passage” and we will perpetuate?
  4. And finally, be very clear on your intentions as you move forward – are you looking to help the adolescent(s) in your life come to their own conclusions or is it more important for you to impose your values and will on them, are you looking to establish your own place as an expert or do you want them to find their own expertise on themselves?

IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER – We learn best in relationship, but only if we feel safe. For teenagers, this not only means that they feel free to share their ideas and thoughts without fear of punishment, but that they feel as though they are part of the group, that they won’t be mocked or shamed for thinking out loud or expressing ideas that may not be fully formed. Belonging = survival in the adolescent brain. This means that it is incredibly important to spend more time and energy investing in community-building, especially in the beginning. Respect, safety, and accountability are all key parts of a strong relationship.

It can be incredibly intimidating to dive in, but there is no Right or Wrong answer. It is most important that we begin. We can always change course, apologize for mis-steps, and learn to do better, but we have to do the work.

Part 2 will look at qualities of effective leaders, strong groups, barriers to productive work, and expectations for leaders. Feel free to ask questions in the comments.

When Competition Brings Out the Worst in Us

  Human beings like certainty. We like rules and order and we especially like it when we can make analogies in order to extrapolate principles from one thing to another as a way to make sense of the world. Unfortunately, sometimes we do this without questioning the basic underlying ideas or thinking about potential consequences. Case in point, the notion that competition is good for us, that it spurs us to greater feats, drives us to do things we wouldn’t do on our own.

The “Space Race” in the late 1950s and early 1960s between the US and the Soveit Union is widely touted as a prime example of competition that benefited humanity as a whole. There are those who say that humans would never have made it to the moon without it, or at least not as quickly.

Capitalism is rooted in the idea that competition for customers means that companies will be held to account, that they will continue to innovate and grow and we will all be better off.

We’ve extended these ideas to our places of work and our schools – reviewing employees and students on a bell curve, creating sales incentives and spelling bees and the like. Some parents even pit their own children against each other in competitions around chores and grades, but are we really benefiting from this culture of competition?

First and foremost, the notion that competition is responsible for bringing out the best in us is based on a pretty dim notion of human nature. It presupposes that we are not internally motivated enough to innovate and create things on our own, which I don’t believe is true. I think that humans are naturally driven to want to create and improve on things and that competition can actually bring out the worst in us.

Left to our own devices and given ample time and space to experiment and work on things we are interested in, we may find that we get blocked or need some outside inspiration. We can also discover that there are different ways of thinking about things and perhaps feel more free to expand our creativity. But when we’re worried about “losing” a race of some sort, we can take shortcuts, fudge data, and become more focused on the end result than we are on the ultimate goal. Our brains react to this stress with a flood of stress hormones that shut down our ability to be creative or think rationally, and the emotional need to triumph takes precedence.

The idea that human beings require some sort of external motivation to perform to our potential is baked in to our cultural narrative, but are we actually training ourselves to eliminate our own internal reasons for acting, thinking, innovating? When we teach kids that they can’t be trusted to come up with their own ideas unless we give them a compelling reason, we are underestimating the human need to challenge ourselves and think creatively.

If our reasons for scientific discovery and product innovation center around competition with other countries or becoming the richest entrepreneur, are we really living up to our potential, or have we simply become slaves to an artificial construct? Does Apple feel like they really need to innovate on their phone technology or are they simply creating new phone after new phone because that’s what is expected of corporations? Is it because their executives want to continue to be the most well-compensated workers in the world or because they want to maintain their place on the NASDAQ or Fortune Magazine’s lists of successful companies?

If human beings are designed to create and be in community -which there is ample scientific evidence to support – then the premise that we are unmotivated slugs who need to one-up each other is contrary to our actual nature. If we have decided that competition is the way to keep moving forward, we have also said that creativity and collaboration are not as important, even though these things are an integral part of what it means to be a healthy human being.

What if our entire economy, educational system and cultural ethos are built on a premise that is anathema to what it means to be human? And what if we’ve bought in to it so deeply that it is creating depression, isolation, and anxiety on an epic scale? How can we begin to shift our view of humanity to acknowledge that people will create, innovate, and grow regardless of whether we challenge them to do so? What if we trust that, even if someone else’s process doesn’t look exactly like we think it ought to, if we give them time and space and support enough to believe in themselves, they will flourish and begin to express their purpose and passion and it will end up benefiting us all?

 

Tips for Parents and Educators: “The Complex Yes”

Practicing the Complex Yes

When you disagree with a friend,

a stranger, or a foe, how do you

reply but not say simply No?

For No can stop the conversation

or turn it into argument or worse –

the conversation that must go on, as a river

must, a friendship, a troubled nation.

So may we practice the repertoire

of complex yes:

Yes, and in what you say I see…

Yes, and at the same time…

Yes, and what if…?

Yes, I hear you, and how…?

Yes, and there’s an old story…

Yes, and as the old song goes…

Yes, and as a child told me once…

Yes. Yes, tell me more. I want to understand…

      and then I want to tell you how it is for me….

Kim Stafford

As parents and educators, when we are trying to create and maintain strong, trusting relationships with adolescents, there are times when we need to distance ourselves from our role as “teacher” or “mentor” and become simply listeners. This is where the “complex Yes” comes in, and I believe that it is the second to last line of this poem that is the most effective approach.

Yes. Yes, tell me more. I want to understand…

This approach signals to the student or child that we are not interested in convincing them of anything, diminishing the importance of their ideas or thoughts or feelings, or proving them wrong. It is a message that we are curious, that we are on equal footing, or maybe even that roles have reversed for a bit and they are invited to become our teachers, to introduce us to something we may not have considered before, to a new perspective. This is an incredibly powerful and simple way to build confidence in teens and let them practice with their own unique voice and it opens the door to a richer relationship. It isn’t easy to break ourselves of the habit to correct or guide or offer our opinion, but with practice, I think you’ll see the value of it – both for your connection with the other person and in their own growth and development.

Back-To-School: When Anxiety Rears its Head

The end of summer is a difficult time for many teens, especially older teens who are entering their final years of high school and anticipating the challenges that will come with that, and first year college students who may be moving away from home for the first time. So how can kids think about anxiety in a way that will help them continue to move forward in the face of fear and often overwhelming feelings? My own personal experience with anxiety might help shed some light on this all-too-common issue.

The problem with anxiety is that it is insistent. It is conniving and coy and always trying to convince me that I have to do something – or, NOT do something. Everything is fear-based with anxiety and, in my case, as soon as I started listening, it was incessantly in my ear, my brain, buzzing. But over a period of years I learned that the best thing I could do when she showed up was nothing. I promised myself that I wouldn’t ever make big decisions out of fear, and it took many repetitions of this mantra and even written reminders on my laptop, my bathroom mirror, my desk to help me hear it in my head over the sound of Anxiety’s yapping.

My first instinct was to fight Anxiety, and it worked for a while, but it was so much work. I was exhausted and Anxiety just kept coming back. Everything changed when I learned that instead of combating it, I could stop, breathe, acknowledge its presence. I could listen to the frantic admonitions, the nay-saying, the fear-mongering, and let them pass right through me. I started to pretend that they were the ramblings of some sad soul on the subway. I nodded with sympathy, heard Anxiety out, and released it all. I don’t have to believe any of it. I get to understand where Anxiety is coming from and honor it and also not follow its advice. Anxiety will tell you that it wants what is best for you, that it will keep you safe, but that path keeps you small and afraid. It keeps you in the dark – isolated and lonely. True, I might be safe, but that’s not how I want to live, and I’m pretty sure, if your kids are honest with themselves, that’s not the life they want either.

THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT ANXIETY

It’s important to remember that Anxiety isn’t  me. Anxiety is afraid and it always will be – it is literally the only reason Anxiety exists, but it is not why I’m here. I have other reasons for being, and while Anxiety is loud and compelling and jacks up my heart rate and makes my palms sweaty and my head spin, it is possible to gradually separate myself from Anxiety. I can hear its words as though I’m underwater – muffled and distorted – I can let them pass through me and not stick.

It is also important to remember that Anxiety hates being ignored. It will come back again and again. I know this. But I also know that everything I’ve ever done that I’m proud of, that was worth it, that gave me joy, was in spite of it. Going to college. Getting married. Having a baby. Those were all things that paralyzed me, that made Anxiety stand up and say, “What do you think you’re doing? You don’t know how to do this! This is terrifying!” And I believed that some of the time, but I did those things anyway, and I don’t regret it. It is possible to move forward, step by step, with Anxiety right next to you, yammering in your ear that you couldn’t do this, sweating and heart pounding.

Maybe most important, Anxiety is quiet when you’re busy – when you’re doing your thing. Because you’re calling it on its BS. You’re proving it wrong. You’re showing it that you CAN do this, that you WON’T mess it up, that you are capable of going out there and living your fullest life. That’s also why it’s loudest before bed and right when you wake up – because you’re chilling and not out doing, but if you can work on silencing it (or acknowledging, listening, and dismissing) at those times, it gets much easier.

KEY THINGS TO REMEMBER

*Know who you are. Know what you want. Know what you’re willing to do to get there. Anxiety doesn’t like clarity. The more clear you are, the less Anxiety will pipe up.

*All you have to do is the next right thing. When Anxiety is chatting away in your ear, it’s tempting to believe that you have to have it all figured out, that you have to have a plan. But, to be honest, there is never a point in your life where you have to have it all figured out. When you’re dealing with anxiety, the best thing to do is take the next step forward. And the next. And the next.

*Bonus points for noticing the things that feel right, that make you smile. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to Anxiety. If you get immersed in school and you start to enjoy yourself, do yourself a favor and take a moment to chalk one up for you and rub it in Anxiety’s face. You’ve got this.

*More bonus points for patting yourself on the back every time you go to class, talk to someone, join an exercise group, get out of bed. Those are monumental acts when Anxiety is riding shotgun.

Charged Conversations: How to Keep it from Getting Personal

Most of us don’t like conflict, so when we go in to a meeting or gathering where we know there will be disparate ideas and positions, we worry that things might get ugly. Maybe it’s the annual budget allocation summit, or a discussion about social justice or even a conversation with your teen about driving rules or curfew – any of those scenarios can go sideways pretty quickly if two people have different viewpoints or values. But if we want to have a constructive dialogue and actually make some progress toward a shared goal, we need to keep things on track. Here’s one way to approach it that keeps things from getting personal:

Disagree with the idea, not the person.

It is sometimes hard to separate the two, because of the way we’re conditioned, but it’s really important if you want to keep the conversation going. Challenge yourself to change the way you talk about something you disagree with and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Instead of saying something like, “How could you say that?” or “You’re wrong,” or “You’re a horrible person. Don’t you know _________________?”  try to disentangle the idea from the person who suggested it.

This might look like, “Hmm, that idea doesn’t really jive with my personal experience because __________,” or “Here’s a different idea that I think is valid and deserves some attention.”

Yes, the person who suggested X did so for a reason (maybe their values or their life experience led them to it), but if what you’re after is a solution that works for everyone, it’s important to remember that we all have slightly different values and life experiences, and if we can extract the ideas and vet them on their own merits without attacking the idea generators personally, the conversation stays more focused.

This is especially hard when we come in with preconceived notions about who might pose which solution and why, but if we can set those things aside with an eye toward moving the conversation forward, we can be more efficient. In most cases, whether or not you personally like the people you’re working with on challenging issues doesn’t really matter unless you make it personal by too closely associating them with their thoughts. Helping others see things from a different perspective is easier if we are simply trying to get them to look at new ideas, instead of trying to change who they are as a person.

I used this tactic the other day on a local social media forum where folks were talking about the issue of homelessness in our neighborhood. I was tempted at one point to lash out at someone who was characterizing all of the homeless folks as “junkies” and “losers who choose homelessness,” but I resisted. We obviously didn’t end up solving the issue, but we were able to have a productive dialogue without alienating each other or leaving with hard feelings and since I have to live here, I’m pretty  happy about that.

Rules of Engagement for Families (and Teachers)

As my kids got older, I began to realize that it was going to be necessary to change the way we addressed certain issues in our home. While I still encouraged lots of discussion and offered to be present and support my teens as they worked out their own differences, it became clear to me that their unique personalities meant that they approached this in very different ways. This tended to make conversations turn in to conflict, if only because one of my daughters is someone who wants to hash things out instantly, in the moment, and stay until it’s done, while the other one prefers to walk away when emotions get high, re-center herself, and decide if it’s a fight worth having. After a few ugly scenes (complete with doors slamming and tears), we sat down to create a set of ground rules that would work for everyone, and I think they’re pretty universal, so I’ve adopted them as rules for any classroom or student gathering I’m in that has a conflict of some sort. Here they are:

  1. Everyone at the table is here because they want to be (not because they are forced to be or guilted into it). Force and guilt/shame set up a power dynamic that means the discussion is doomed to fail before it even starts.
  2. Everyone has the same rights – we are all equals and we all deserve to be heard and our perspectives respected. It doesn’t matter how old someone is or what their status in the family/classroom is. There are no trump cards if we are truly interested in working through this to everyone’s satisfaction. If someone thinks that they’re bound to be over-ruled at some point, there’s no point in engaging. And if anyone else believes that they ultimately get to decide what happens, there’s no point in them listening to the others.
  3. Even if we can’t understand someone else’s point of view or feelings, we respect their right to have it and we all agree not to belittle anyone because of it. No gaslighting. Your reaction might seem disproportionate or even absurd to me, but since I’m not living in your skin, I don’t get to tell you how you should feel and I certainly don’t get to shame you for feeling the way you feel.
  4. No name-calling, ultimatums, demands, hate speech. This one might seem patently obvious, but often when we get in to a situation that seems to be going nowhere, we resort to these tactics to ratchet up the urgency. They’re not helpful at all if what we really want is to solve the problem at hand.
  5. We all agree to work our hardest to define a common goal for this situation and work toward it. Bringing up past resentments is not okay because it derails the conversation. There may well be patterns of behavior you have noticed over time, but if you want to have a conversation about this incident or issue right now, you need to stay in this moment. No fair blaming or shaming someone for something they did in the past. Period.
  6. No eye-rolling or turning away or other negative body language. This sends the clear message that you’re not listening or you’re not interested in really understanding where the other person is coming from. If you’re not, there’s no reason for you to be here.
  7. If someone decides they can’t be part of the conversation right now for any reason, they are allowed to leave, but they agree to be part of the conversation in the near future so that bad feelings won’t fester and things won’t remain unsolved. ‘Nuff said.
  8. Everyone agrees to own their part of the issue and take responsibility for their words or actions that might have caused others pain or frustration. There are multiple sides to every conflict. Nobody is ever all right or all wrong.
  9. Blaming and shaming, labeling someone, and using words like “always” and “never” will not move us forward and should be avoided. These are all shortcuts to ending a conversation and an indication that you’re making assumptions about the other person’s character or intent. You won’t get anywhere if you use these tactics.

 

Back to School (Already?)

For many kids, next week marks the beginning of another school year, and for parents, there is often at least a fleeting thought about how to help students succeed. There is a tension between nagging/constant reminders and letting kids feel their own way forward that can be excruciating for parents and caregivers because, while we want our kids to become independent, we are loathe to see them crash and burn if they don’t yet have the tools to really take off and fly.

Last year, I wrote this post about setting goals, but in the spirit of knowing that rarely does one size fit all, here is a different approach that might work better for students who prefer to approach the world in a more concrete way.  It may even be more impactful if one or more adult is willing to go through the process along with the kids so you can all hold each other accountable.

  1. Write down your goals for the next four weeks. Keep it to two or three at the most. Make them pretty specific and concrete (I want to stop eating sugary snacks. I want to get to bed before midnight every night. I want to spend at least 30 minutes every day exercising. I want to get all of my homework done before watching any TV or spending time on social media.)
  2. Rate each goal for its level of importance, difficulty, your commitment to it, and a history with it. You can use a scale of 1-5 and ask others who know you to make sure you’re being really honest with yourself.
  3. Write down action steps for each goal. Maybe you’ll purge the pantry of all cookies or exercise at the same time every single day. Find some small way to set yourself up for success before you even begin.
  4. Tell someone else about your goals. Tell lots of people. Post it on Facebook or Instagram or put it on your Snap story. Knowing that other people know what you’re trying to do will help hold you accountable on the days when your resolve wavers.
  5. Make a weekly progress report part of the plan. If there are multiple members of the household who are doing this, set up a chart in the kitchen so everyone can post their progress, or if you’ve told a friend what you’re doing, send him or her a progress report at the end of the week. Having other people who care about you praise your efforts and reward you with congratulations is a powerful motivator.
  6. Know that it takes a long time to establish a new habit. Go easy on yourself if you slip. Practice self-compassion. Remember why you wanted to do this in the first place and remind yourself that one little slip (or one big slip) doesn’t mean you should abandon it altogether. Ask for help or look for ways to adjust your goals to make them more doable right now. Baby steps forward still represent progress. You don’t have to be making huge strides to be doing better.

Feel free to comment with your ideas or goals here and I will do my best to cheer you on and help you be accountable if you want.

Why Mindfulness is Good For Every Classroom

 

By Bing – Flickr: Austrian Bakery, CC BY 2.0

“Mindfulness” is a word that may inspire eye-rolls, thanks to its near-constant use in many different aspects of pop culture. But, regardless of its “buzzword” status, it can have far-reaching effects for adolescents who are encouraged to use it throughout the day.

Mindfulness is simply the ability to interrupt the cycle of reflexive thought responses that we all have in order to focus our attention. In my ten or so years of practicing mindfulness, one of the most impactful effects it has had on me is that it leads me to curiosity – it literally forces me to open my mind to possibilities I wouldn’t otherwise consider. And that is one reason why it can be incredibly useful as a skill to cultivate for committed, focused students.

When the tasks in a classroom are prescriptive and it is accepted that the purpose of a lecture or activity is to get from Point A to Point B, a student’s ability to get curious is limited. Think about it like this: if you are baking a cake and you have the recipe in front of you, and you only have a certain period of time to get the cake done, you will follow the recipe step by step. While this will probably get you to the end point you desired, chances are, because of the way the human brain works, you will have let your mind wander off task as you measured the ingredients and mixed them together and followed the rules. There are only certain portions of your brain that become active when you are following a set of instructions to get to a known outcome, and that allows you to not completely focus on what you’re doing, which means that the next time you bake this cake, you will likely have to consult that recipe again because you didn’t really learn much from the process.

If students are encouraged, however, to play with the order of things or design their own ‘recipes,’ or told that the outcome is not predestined, they are more likely to get curious about the process. This is a much more expansive opportunity that engages them and, perhaps counterintuitively, sharpens their focus. Think about it – if you are walking through a room in a building you are in frequently and there is plenty of ambient light, you won’t pay much attention to the details because you believe that you already “know” what’s there. But if you are blindfolded and sent in to a room you’ve never been in and asked to find your way out the other end, your attention becomes sharp. You listen for clues, use your hands and feet to feel your way, and begin to create a mental picture of where you are. Chances are, by the time you find your way out, you will feel like you know that room very well. This is mindfulness. This is paying attention. This kind of activity lights up the portions of the brain that are involved in memory encoding and learning.

Mindfulness leads to curiosity. Once students learn to find that pause in their regular mind-chatter, they can begin to question their own assumptions and motivations. The more they practice mindfulness, the more likely they are to lead with curiosity in situations where there seems to be little room for it. There are so many time and content constraints placed on educators that it can seem impossible to create a lesson plan that encourages flexibility instead of recipe-style activity or lectures, and this is why students need mindfulness skills. Because when they find themselves in those kinds of classes, they can still create room for curiosity on their own and impact their own ability to learn and find meaning, as well as enabling themselves to focus on the task or subject at hand.