Voices in Education

Tools to Be More Present With Students

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In my last blog, I introduced the concept of the Window of Tolerance and shared how we all have different windows of tolerance based on our biological nervous system, upbringing, and interactions with the world. I also explained how in a crisis our presence can be a superpower.

Since then, I’ve received several questions from teachers about what specific tools they can use to be more present with their students. This led me on a deeper quest to figure out how to make this information even more practical for our busy lives.

When a child is upset and the adults in their life are able to emotionally meet them in their distress, the child is more easily able to co-regulate back to an optimal state. This sounds good in theory, but how do we accomplish this when we can’t always decipher when we are present or not? Sure, I like to think that I’m always living in the moment, but the facts have proven otherwise. The research has shown that we all spend a good portion of our days in our default mode network ruminating about the past, or in the task-positive network planning our futures. This is similar to how we can be in the parasympathetic “rest and digest” state of our nervous system or the sympathetic “fight or flight” at any given moment. In both cases, we can only operate in one or the other brain networks at any given moment.

Here is an overview of the focuses of these two networks whose primary functions are to assist brain operation. Imagine them as opposing sides of a teeter-totter; when one side is up, the other must be down.  

  

To accomplish different sets of tasks with ease in our daily lives, we need to find ways to alternate between these two networks. This is especially seen in helping relationships, such as a parent and a child, or a teacher and a student. Being able to successfully alternate between these two networks also assists us in being present for those we help.

When we remain on the bridge of awareness, we can hear what is being communicated while also being open to “Aha!” moments of inspiration and simultaneously offer advice when necessary. We will not always have the correct responses for an upset child, but they can learn to be more responsive, aware, and flexible from our helping relationship. This attunement is what strengthens the connection. 

Reflect

We have all experienced moments when despite our bodies being physically present, our minds were elsewhere. Whether it be driving all the way home but barely thinking about it, reading a chapter of a book, yet not remembering what you read, or replaying a day's events in your head while seated at the dinner table with your family. Recently, I left for work and during the entire drive, my mind was focused on trying to remember if I turned off the coffee pot. Luckily I did, but this is a perfect example of how we can run on autopilot. When we are on autopilot, it’s hard to be present, and even more difficult to know when we aren’t mentally there. These are all examples of the disconnect between our inner and outer worlds while we coast on autopilot. Mindfulness training aids us in becoming aware of when our brains unintentionally go into autopilot.

Respond

Imagine, you’re walking along a river and you come across an unfinished bridge. You can clearly see at the other end of the bridge there is an entirely different view of the river. You decide you want to cross the bridge to see the new view; however, there are no tools, so you must construct the missing part of the bridge using only your awareness. 

The more we practice connecting the two sides of the bridge, we can be more present with our students. Bridge building integrates our inner and outer worlds allowing us to move with more freedom between the two states of our nervous system. Successful bridges provide us with the ability to utilize the inner resources we need to alternate between a Task Positive Network and the Default Mode Network.

Call to Action

Here is a powerful practice you can use to cultivate being more present in your daily life.  

P-PAUSE: Pause from whatever you are doing.

R-RELAX: Relax into the moment, and into your body. Do a gentle scan of your body. 

E-ENHANCE AWARENESS OF YOUR BREATH: Become aware of your inhale and exhale as air enters and exits your body.  Notice your breath and where you feel it in your body. 

S-SENSE YOUR INNER BODY: Bring awareness to your emotional body and your physical body. Sense what is true for you right now, but notice without judgment. 

E-EXPAND YOUR SENSORY AWARENESS OUTWARD: With your eyes open or closed, look around and visually take note of your surroundings. Expand your awareness of sound and simply listen to any sounds in or outside of your space. 

N-NOTICE: What is true in this moment inside and outside. Imagine resting on the bridge that exists between your inner and outer world.  

C-CENTERING AND GROUNDING: If comfortable, close your eyes. Notice your feet on the ground, feel your breath as it moves up and down the center of your body.

E-EXTENDING: Make contact. Open your eyes to connect with your child as they tell you about their day. Open the door to welcome someone into your house. Open a virtual room and invite someone to connect in this moment.

Committing to the inner work gives you the resources to cultivate being more present with others. Over time, frequently practicing this activity throughout your days will naturally cause you to find yourself in a state of presence and awareness. There are no short-cuts to this process, but it’s worth every minute that you invest in your practice of cultivating being more present. 

Every interaction that we have with children matters!

“To help children, we have to help the adults in their lives.” – Christina Bethell, Professor of Public Health advancing a new science of thriving to promote child, family, and community flourishing.


Additional Resources

Do you want to try a different type of mindfulness practice to expand your capacity to become more present? Check out a Walking Meditation from the Greater Good in Action at Berkeley University

Are you looking for a more guided practice to do while sitting or doing other activities? Download the free Healthy Minds App to get started with a skills-based practice you can tailor to your life.

Anna Marie Keil

Anna Marie Keil Mindfulness Coach www.eqembodimenteducator.com

Anna is a certified EQ-i 2.0 Emotional Intelligence Facilitator whose work focuses on the intersection of emotional intelligence, interpersonal relationships, and well-being. Anna is a former kindergarten teacher, middle school principal, and change leader, with a demonstrated history of working in the education field in North America, South America, Asia and Europe.  Anna’s mission is to combine insights from psychology and neuroscience into practical strategies that support well-being.

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