Empowering students with language-based learning differences
The Siena School Blog
No matter how old you are, it's completely normal to feel some anxiety during transition times. Returning to school in person is an especially big transition, but you can bring some useful tools to keep your mental health balanced and grounded.
This year, many of our students are learning about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. At Siena, we have been exploring natural, easy ways to shift from our sympathetic nervous system—the fight, flight, or freeze state—to our parasympathetic nervous system—our rest and digest state.
Breathing Exercises for Students
One of the easiest ways to calm our minds and bodies, as well as engage the parasympathetic nervous system, is through breathing exercises. Deep breathing exercises send signals throughout our brains that we are safe and that we can move into our more relaxed states. Long, deep breaths can help decrease anxiety, fear, racing thoughts, a rapid heartbeat, and shallow chest breathing.
There are many breathing exercises to do, and some people find some more comfortable than others. It is important to practice different techniques and to find those that work best for you so you can do them whenever and wherever necessary.
The great thing about breathing exercises is the ability to do them discreetly. And, most don't require any technology to do, so conceivably anyone in a school setting could do these exercises in any situation.
- Color Breathing lets you first visualize a color that represents positive emotions and then imagine the color filling up your body.
- Extended Exhale Breathing (inhale for 4, exhale for 6) allows you to get yourself to calm faster and activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Balloon Breath lets you follow your breath as the air goes into your nose, down your throat, and all the way into your belly, as if you’re inflating a balloon.
- 5 Finger Breathing uses the pointer finger of one hand to trace the fingers of your other hand and breathe; then switch hands and repeat:
Grounding and Calming Exercises for Students
In addition to breathing exercises, there are grounding and/or visualization exercises that can also help to calm our brains and bodies. While there are many relaxation techniques, at Siena we have focused on the five senses activity, a peaceful place visualization, and a body scan. These exercises help us by focusing our minds on the present moment. They also allow us to take a break from our thoughts, which can sometimes be overwhelming.
Feel free to practice these breathing and relaxation exercises on your own:
- When accompanied by peaceful breathing, a Body Scan helps bring your awareness to each body part starting with your head. You don't need to judge any sensation or feeling but continue to bring your attention to each area throughout your body.
- Peaceful Space Visualization guides you in imagining where you feel calm and peaceful. Once you master it, you could keep revisiting your space whenever you need to without guidance—maybe adding details each time you return.
- 5 Senses Technique is especially helpful in refocusing your thoughts on what you can see, hear, feel, smell, and taste; it’s a very simple yet effective grounding exercise:
Students’ learning conditions have been changing in the last year, and it’s natural for them to feel emotionally fatigued when things change again. The same is true for teachers, staff, and anyone else in the school environment.
Imagine having to use a smartphone with 30–40% battery life—it will still work, but the reserves seem to deplete quickly. With some help and opportunities to recharge, students will develop good emotional wellness and mental health habits to use throughout the school day.
For more social–emotional wellness resources for students and parents, see this recent Siena blog post for parents, as well as this one I wrote in May 2020 about self-care throughout the school day.
Stress management and self-care tools are needed for our students in normal times, but it’s especially important to offer these tools now.
How do we as educators and counselors keep teaching students about self-care and stress reduction when so much has changed—and continues to do so? When possible, practicing the following exercises virtually alongside our students allows them to feel the benefits in the moment and take them outside class time.
Mindful breathing: While teaching the biology of deep breathing and its activation of the parasympathetic nervous system can be helpful, practicing the following breathing exercises can allow students to feel a sense of calm immediately after the practice. Some breathing exercises to note are:
- 4-7-8 breathing,
- 5-finger breathing,
- shape breathing (such as square breathing),
- hand tracing breathing,
- infinity breathing,
- extending the exhale by one or two breaths,
- taking 10 deep breaths.
Progressive muscle relaxation: You can guide students through a brief relaxation exercise of tensing specific muscle groups and then relaxing that muscle group completely. Continue this from head to toes. This is a great stress reliever that students can easily do on their own.
Mindfulness: There are numerous ways to practice mindfulness, many of which our students might be doing every day. Grounding exercises help students better understand the concept of paying attention to the present moment without judgment. A simple way to introduce the concept of mindfulness is to have students practice the 5 senses by naming:
- 5 things they can see,
- 4 things they can hear,
- 3 things they can feel,
- 2 things they can smell, and
- 1 thing they can taste.
Positives: Research has shown us that when people list 3 Good Things that happened during their day for a period of at least two weeks, they have lower stress and anxiety. Having students list 3 Good Things, big or small, regularly encourages them to focus on the positives in their lives. For instance, Siena teachers and students shared some early positives from our move to distance learning.
Gratitude: Ask students to write a letter of gratitude during a class and what they appreciate about a person, object, topic—or even themselves.
Emotion check-in: Create a routine in which students label how they are feeling. This can be done through a Google form or in other creative ways; educators can offer new emotional vocabulary to help students expand their (evolving) feelings.
Controlling what they can: Ask students to draw a circle on a page and write things they can control inside the circle: e.g., their attitude, their perspective, their hygiene, their next meal or drink, how they spend their time, how they care for themselves, and so on. On the outside of the circle, ask students to write things they cannot control at this time; e.g., how others act, the virus, when things will open, etc. Identifying what they can and can’t control can help assuage students’ anxiety, as well as ground them in the moment.
Creative projects: Often when students engage in creative endeavors, they are naturally practicing mindfulness. After working on a project, ask students to reflect on how they felt while doing it.
Movement: Whenever possible, add movement into your lessons. For example, there are many chair yoga poses or other quick bursts of movement that students can do. See this blog post from Siena for how teachers keep students (and themselves!) moving during online classes.
Self-care: Ask about your students’ self-care routines. Encourage them to name ways they take care of themselves. Normalize self-care and allow students to share this with one another; hearing from their peers may just encourage them to adopt a new tool. If they’re reticent about sharing, consider giving them some suggestions based on your own self-care techniques. (See below for an example of a weekly wellness challenge.)
Anxiety management and attention to mental health will continue to be important in the coming weeks and months. Getting students to think now about self-care and anxiety management not only helps them finish the school year; it also sets them up for similar practices in the summer when they might miss the structure of school.
As teachers, counselors, parents, and others in students’ support networks are caring for our whole selves, we can keep ensuring that students know how to care for themselves and others.
While we’re all being extra-aware of physical health and wellness, remember that our mental health, anxiety management, and self-care are important as well. We’re learning more each day about what to do to keep ourselves and others healthy physically. There are also resources to help support your own and your family’s mental health during this time of distance learning.
Note: The Siena School does not endorse or assume responsibility for any of the programs, services or individuals listed below. This list is solely for the reader’s information.
2-1-1 Maryland is partnership of four agencies working together to provide simple access to health and human services information. 2-1-1 is an easy to remember telephone number that connects people with important community services. Our specially trained call specialists answer calls 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Child Mind Institute
In addition to numerous articles helping parents navigate this challenging time, the Child Mind Institute is offering the following clinical and supportive resources:
- Facebook Live video chats with expert clinicians (10am and 8pm)
- Remote evaluations and telemedicine
- Flat-fee phone consultations for problem behavior
- Daily parent tips on childmind.org, Facebook and Instagram at 8am
During this time of heightened anxiety, EveryMind is encouraging people to utilize their phone, text, and chat call specialists. They are available 24/7 to listen and provide support. This service is free and open to all members of the community. You do not have to be in crisis to connect with EveryMind. Reach out even if you are just looking for ways to support someone you are concerned about.
GoZen is a suite of educational programs and tools designed to give parents and practitioners what they need to arm kids with essential life skills to not only manage anxiety but to live with deeper engagement and purpose.
During this challenging time, GoZen is offering video chats by four experts to discuss the myriad of challenges that families are navigating.
Helping Kids Play Independently - Avital Schreiber-Levy
Helping Kids Manage Coronavirus Fears - Dr. Laura Markham
Helping Parents Navigate Life Changes Due to Coronavirus - Dr. Shefali Tsabary
Applying Mindfulness to Quell Anxiety - Dr. Elisha & Dr. Stefanie Goldstein
Resources to Help Manage Anxiety
Counselor Keri Blog Post: Helping Kids Who are Worried About the Coronavirus
Counselor Keri: Worry Warrior Videos for our 4th-6th grade students
NY Times Article: 5 Ways to Help Teens Manage Anxiety About the Coronavirus
CNN Article: How to Keep Coronavirus Fears from Affecting Your Mental Health
Resources to Help Manage Anxiety - Apps/Online Activities
Calm: Free Curated Resources for Guided Meditations, Calming Sounds, Movement, etc
Reach Out Australia: Various apps to help manage stress and anxiety
Positive Psychology: 25 Mindfulness Exercises and Games
Free Mindfulness Classes: For Elementary Students
Note: We do not endorse these apps. Check the privacy and appropriateness for your teen.
Our physical and mental health are strongly connected, and you can get the support you need to maintain both for your family—and yourself. Siena will continue to share valuable tips and ideas as we learn more about how to take care of our whole selves. Help is available online and in our communities
Written by Holly Rothrock, Counselor at The Siena School
Mental Health America (MHA) was founded in 1909 by Clifford Beers, who suffered from a mental illness and was subjected to much abuse as he sought treatment. As a result, he helped found MHA to bring awareness of the need for more humane and effective mental health treatment. In 1949, MHA established the month of May as Mental Health Month to destigmatize mental illness and promote treatment options.
A lot has changed in our culture's perception of mental health since the inception of Mental Health Month, 70 years ago. In the early part of the 20th century, mental health was often a taboo subject and considered a private family matter. Individuals suffering from mental health issues were often institutionalized and suffered discrimination and abuse. Throughout the years MHA and other organizations have fought for comprehensive prevention and treatment. Thankfully through education, the stigma that was once associated with having a mental illness is diminishing but there does remain many misconceptions which is why continuing education programs for the public are imperative.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, in a given year, approximately 46 million Americans are affected by mental illness and one in five youth experience a mental health disorder. In fact, half of the individuals living with mental illness experienced the onset of their illness by the age of 14. Educators have long known that a students' mental health impacts learning. As of 2018 only two states, New York and Virginia, mandate that mental health is taught in schools. The expectation is that by educating youth, students will be better able to recognize the signs of mental illness in their peers and in themselves and reach out for help. Many organizations are pushing for other states to mandate mental health in health curricula.
At The Siena School, we believe strongly that the health curriculum should be comprehensive and include physical and mental health lessons. Starting in elementary school, we introduce mindfulness as a healthy coping strategy. Recently, elementary students focused on a lesson that incorporated listening skills and mindfulness. Using a singing bowl, the students were instructed to listen until they no longer heard the vibrational sounds, they were then challenged to listen for sounds outside of the room. We then make the connection between this activity and active listening. We feel students respond best by both practicing various mindfulness activities and understanding the biology behind why it works; we incorporate lessons about how mindfulness allows for different regions of our brain to communicate with each other.
In middle school, we begin our discussion on stress and the science behind stress. We want students to recognize that some stress is needed for motivation and can be a healthy part of human functioning. Throughout middle school, we are brainstorming healthy coping strategies and specifically which individual strategies work for each student. In one lesson, we explore our individual strengths. We talk about personal challenges, or as students labeled it, "turbulence", and explore which of these identified strengths will help us cope during this "turbulence".
For our high school students, The Siena School hosts health workshops. We have had outside speakers come in to discuss personal experiences with mental illness. An important part of the curriculum is talking about the signs of common mental health disorders as well as review the myriad of treatment options. These workshops are designed to show students that treatment is available and it works. We also focus attention on the benefits of exercise, sleep, nutrition, and social support to our mental wellness.
Family communication is an important component of our mental health education. We have hosted a respected psychologist to speak with our families to answer questions about the difference between developmental changes and when to seek outside guidance. The Siena School shares relevant studies and resources in newsletters and letters to parents.
Our mental health is integral to being able to function and learn. Taking a holistic approach to our health is necessary. The more we bring awareness to mental health, the better-equipped students and families will be to taking charge of their mental wellness.
Below are some other resources that may be helpful for parents or educators when learning about or discussing mental health.
Child Mind Institute: The Child Mind Institute is a great resource that explores both mental health and learning differences. It has a symptom checker that provides access to relevant resources based on a questionnaire.
National Alliance on Mental Illness: This NAMI page offers tips on how to help your child if they have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
National Institute of Mental Health: This NIMH page lists behaviors that might warrant a mental health assessment as well as links to find treatment providers in specific areas.
Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine: Lists a variety of online resources for specific mental health disorders and concerns. They also link to treatment service locator toward the bottom of the page.
Written by Beth Fabijanic, Humanities Department Chair and Middle School English Teacher at The Siena School
When I tell people that I teach middle school, their reaction is often, "Wow, I could never do that!" But the truth is the middle school teachers who I know love the daily challenge we face teaching middle-schoolers who are bridging the carefree elementary years and the pressure-cooker that is high school.
As middle-level educators, we believe that much of our job, beyond developing our learners' academic skills, lies in considering and meeting the unique needs of middle-level students as individuals not just learners. The Association for Middle Level Education's (AMLE) position paper, This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents, has defined how middle school programs are designed. Two of the most important of the sixteen tenants are:
- The school environment is inviting, safe, inclusive, and supportive of all.
- Organizational structures foster purposeful learning and meaningful relationships.
In line with AMLE, the Origins Program's Developmental Designs (DD) approach succinctly defines the needs of the middle-schooler as fun, competence, relationship, and autonomy which join with supportive community, motivating instruction, and social-emotional skills, to create an engaged learner.
One way that Siena provides for these needs and sets the tone for purposeful learning is with our regular "Circle of Power and Respect," meetings, CPR for short. In small advisory groups of 12-14 students, students and advisors/teachers spend time building community and relationships. The students come from all three grades but join together as a group. Each CPR meeting has four components: greeting, sharing, news, and games.
Greeting and Sharing
By greeting each other, our students create an inclusive community. They practice basic social skills like making eye contact, shaking hands, and acknowledging people by name. After greeting, we share, from simpler to more complex formats as the school year goes on. In the fall, students might share a one-word answer to a question such as "What is your favorite color?". Later in the year, students share more personally such as vacation plans or debating a current social issue as a group like "What's your favorite consumer technology?". We cultivate a listening dynamic by focusing on the give-and-take (i.e. in a whole group share, we only hear one voice at a time) and asking each other questions to deepen the conversation. As the school year progresses, we see new friendships develop across grade levels and students' conversational skills flourish.
The daily news takes many forms such as thought-provoking facts about history, science, popular culture, and current events as well as reminders of school events.
Students often leave CPR heading out to first period, still talking about the daily news. Since we use the same daily news in every classroom, these are also topics that students may discuss with other middle-schoolers. Reminders of upcoming school events help support our students' time-management skills.
To meet the students' needs for fun, we play games together such as hand hockey or "Evolution", a pantomime version of rock, paper, scissors where students evolve from a rock to a chicken, to a dinosaur, then to a king as they win rock, paper, and scissors matches.
Sometimes the games might have a winner, but typically, the games prompt us to work together to achieve a goal. Our games become increasingly complex as the year goes on, and we return to old favorites. After playing, we reflect on strategy or ways to improve gameplay. Students often create new rules or suggest ways to increase the challenge level. Strategizing gameplay, playing together and reflecting on achievements and challenges within the game creates a shared, active and reflective mindset among students and teachers to start the school day.
The most popular games at Siena are:
- Hand Hockey
- Heads up, 7Up
- Coin Toss - Hand- Squeeze
- Laser Eyes / Look up - Look down
To see the list of games CPR uses, click HERE.
When we recognize and find valuable ways to fulfill our middle schoolers' needs for fun, relationships, competence, and autonomy throughout the day, we are all better prepared to weather the challenges of middle school.
Written by Holly Rothrock, Counselor at The Siena School
The Siena School recently concluded its fourth annual kindness week. We know from their daily interactions that our students at The Siena School are kind and empathetic. In fact, research Kiley Hamlin at the University of British Columbia, proved that children are wired to be kind. Celebrating and encouraging kindness has many benefits; for the recipient and especially for the person being kind.
Some of the benefits of kindness include the release of neurochemicals, dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is released when we experience something rewarding or pleasurable; when we are kind, our dopamine is boosted giving us a “helper’s high”. Serotonin is associated with a sense of well-being. Being kind also strengthens relationships: when someone shows kindness to another person, it releases oxytocin which is the chemical known for creating bonds between individuals and building social trust. Multiple studies have also shown that when we are kind to another we are more optimistic and positive.
What did Siena’s Kindness Week look like this year? Colorful cards that read “The world needs more people like you” and “You are more than enough” were plastered on the students’ lockers. To download these printable cards, click here. Our student Kindness Committee created a video for the student body that depicts “kindness contagion”, the notion that when someone performs kind act for us, we are more likely to engage in kind behaviors as well. Students were also “Undercover Kindness Agents”. They picked names and were encouraged to perform anonymous acts of kindness. The students later reflected on the impact of their kindness, both on themselves and on the recipient.
Being intentional about kindness is another way to take care of ourselves. When we act in kind ways, we are improving not only the lives of others but our lives as well. Our kindness week succeeded in motivating our students towards acts of kindness and demonstrated the immediate benefits of their benevolence.
- Why did Viola disguise herself as a man?
- Why does Antonio follow Sebastian into town, even though it is dangerous for him?
Who we can turn to in a crisis?
What community services we can use in a crisis?