Taking Time to Breathe

As an educator, social and emotional learning (SEL) has always been important to me. I am uncomfortably shy in a new setting but talkative when I am with my family and friends. Is this because I’m a Gemini or because most people feel the same way when put on the spot in new social situations?

My own reliance on strong social skills led me to fully implement lessons for social and academic success when my district adopted the SEL curriculum Second Step several years ago. I am able to show videos, sing songs, and role-play various social skill lessons. My class learns about self-regulation, empathy, and emotion management.

Here are some of my favorite activities to help my students learn to regulate their emotions:

  1. Dancing. Movement-based activities, including dancing, can be very effective. I have my students dance to a music video, “Stop. Name your feeling. Calm down.” It is catchy, and my students can sing the chorus when we need to settle down.
  2. Hand Brain. One of my favorite lessons includes having each student use their hand to make a “hand-brain.” We talk about how the thumb represents the “feeling” part of the brain and that the fingers are the “thinking” part of the brain. They learn the fingers can flip up, which is like “flipping your lid.” Even my young students understand how the feeling part of the brain takes over because the thumb is left uncovered. I have seen the neuroscience behind this concept covered in teacher workshops and in TED talks. Our students are able to understand the visual images, allowing us to discuss emotion management.
  3. Mindful Moments. My school has also added a “Mindful Moments” to our SEL program. Each Monday, our students take a big “team breath” as a way to take time for ourselves. They learn how to calm themselves down with deep breathing. We breathe in our favorite color and exhale out our least favorite color. Sometimes we concentrate on the length of our breaths, making sure the exhale is longer than the inhale. Other days we concentrate on a happy time and then discuss how the memory can be mood altering.
  4. Look and Listen. We also use our Mindful Moments to help us focus. We have learned that in order to focus, we need to look and listen. Talking about how to concentrate and ignore distractions has helped our students block out small noises so they can finish work in a timely manner. One concentration lesson includes looking out the classroom window and noticing one item at a time. Spending time looking at one specific item that catches one’s eye allows students time to practice looking at that item without being distracted by other things in their view. On one particular day, we spent one minute looking at three different items, one at a time. It was one of the best minutes of the day.

Getting parents involved is important to success. The parent connection piece of Second Step links the parents with premade letters and at-home activities. Parents have enjoyed talking to their children about social skills and are amazed at the emotional growth of their elementary-aged children.

I feel fortunate to have these tools because teaching can be tough some days. It is healthy for me to take a cleansing breath at times. The kids can ask for a Mindful Moment, and so can the teacher!

Ilene Pappert earned her bachelor's degree from Tulane University and her MEd from the University of Houston. She taught in Alief ISD and she is currently on her 23rd year of teaching for Austin ISD at Highland Park Elementary School. Ilene enjoys spending time with her family and friends when she is not teaching. She is proud of her son and daughter who both attend Texas A&M University. Ilene feels fortunate to be a part of the Austin ATPE chapter because ATPE has taught her so much about the connection between the government and her career.

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