The Value of Relaxation Time for 1st Grade PYP Students
GUEST WRITER: The high expectations that we have for our students to become independent, life-long learners, in schools that offer the International Baccalaurate programmes, such as the Primary Years Program (PYP), requires that students pay special attention towards inquiring into themselves. As a result, Anna Bernadas, an international educator, decided to introduce mindfulness to her Grade 1 class, at the International School of Zurich North in Switzerland. Thus she started her journey into what she called Relaxation Time.
In this article Anna explains:
Why she felt it was time to implement Relaxation Time in her Grade 1 classroom.
How Relaxation Time was introduced.
How Relaxation Time was structured.
The observed and experienced benefits for the students.
The science behind my Relaxation Time lessons.
WHY INTRODUCE RELAXATION TIME INTO A GRADE 1 PYP CLASSROOM
I attended a couple of educational conferences where the importance of inner reflection and the benefits of meditation were highlighted as key elements for successful learners. I decided that for my classroom to fully become a meaningful and productive setting for learning, more time was needed for the students to focus on themselves.
Most of my students had moved from country to country, watching their friends come and go, some experienced a lot of pressure from parents related to their academics. The list could go on and on.
As educators, we all know that kids go through a lot, but what do we specifically do to help them deal with the stress of it, as well as the pressure of education? How can we help them to be happy and to function as a person in everyday life and in a classroom setting?
For me, addressing this is a big part of what is needed in order for these students to become independent learners. Reflecting on their academics is not enough; “Oh I need to practice my reading more” does not create a healthy life-long learner. It is also necessary for them to realise how they feel about their learning and to then know what to do about it. Understanding themselves helps them to not only become better learners, but to become mindful people.
INTRODUCING RELAXATION TIME TO MY STUDENTS
When I introduced the idea of a Relaxation Time to the students at the start of the year, we talked about how much we would learn throughout the year. They would be inquiring into systems, pollution, the human body and many other areas, but I specified that Relaxation Time would be used to inquire into yourself. It would be a time to find out who you are, how you feel, what you love, what you want to change or improve upon.
During Relaxation Time, I explained to them, you will reflect by having little chats with yourself to check on yourself. It will be like inquiring into your mind, checking to see what is working and what needs help, because if we do not take care of it, learning will be much harder. Being a good learner is more than knowing if Spelling is hard or easy for you or what to do to get better at it. I think that we need to go deeper into the emotional level and ensure that our students know themselves and can manage their feelings and emotions, as well be in a more relaxed frame of mind to do their school work with more ease and thus will create a better environment for learning.
As they learn throughout the day, they need to be able to ask themselves: How am I doing? Is feeling upset helping me learn? Why is this making me anxious? Should I take a moment to calm down or find something that makes me smile? I have very high expectations for my students, as I want them to be the best they can be and feel good about the process of learning. When we talked about how Relaxation Time was going to help us, the students all agreed that if we wanted to work really hard and learn a lot, we needed to take care of our minds and bodies.
STRUCTURING RELAXATION TIME: PHASE 1 (POSTURE AND BREATHING)
Here is how I structured what I decided to call ‘Relaxation Time’.
The students would come back to the classroom (generally after lunch) and we would have music, candles and incense. They would enter in silence and we would all sit down together in a circle on the carpet. We would always focus on posture first and discuss why this is important for the energy flow.
It greatly surprised me how difficult it was for some of the children to sit cross-legged with their backs up straight. Some would even need help to get into position or to sustain it. One student would always round his back, lean forward and move his head. I sat behind him and gently helped him stretch his back for a few weeks, until he managed to sit straight for himself. Many of them made considerable progress in a short period of time.
Once into position, we would practice different breathing exercises, to learn how different types of breathing can help us connect to our bodies and minds. We experienced how the feeling in our body changed as we breathed. We also talked about the importance of applying what they learnt into different contexts, such as bedtime to help them sleep better, when they felt very angry or scared, when they got hurt and other times that they themselves suggested. We also discussed when they had used it outside of our Relaxation Time and how it worked for them.
Gradually, we kept extending the amount of time they would sit in silence, whilst focusing on their breathing. At the start, their main goal was to stop their mind from wandering and to stay focused on their breathing. This really helped some of them become more aware of distractions, not only during Relaxation Time, but also throughout the day. Once again talking about the importance of applying their learning into other contexts increased their self-regulation.
Then we developed our routine into two parts; first, time to focus on the breathing, and second, a prompt of something to ponder in their minds so they could have a chat with themselves. They would think about how they felt right then, how they felt during the day and why, which feelings they liked and which they did not. Over time this developed into checking if they liked the way they were feeling and if it helped them learn. We developed different ways to change the way we feel so they could choose how they wanted to feel for the rest of the day.
To conclude the Relaxation Time, I would ask the children to either take three deep breaths or lion’s breaths (Pranayama breath that helps you let go while roaring), which they loved! Sometimes we then just rubbed our hands until they were warm, put them on top of our eyes and opened our eyes slowly before finally removing our hands from the eyes. There was always time allocated for those who then wanted to share anything about their experience. This sharing time at the end became a very special moment when students talked very honestly about themselves. It allowed them to learn from each other and at the same time, it allowed me to get to know them on a different level. An incredible bonding experience for all of us!
As the weeks went by, we became more creative and started to experiment with different ways of sitting, learnt about the mudras (hand gestures during meditation) and used a variety of different types of relaxation music. For example, just before Christmas we played classical music with a crackling fire projected on our big screen and students sat either alone or with a partner snuggled into a blanket.
STRUCTURING RELAXATION TIME: PHASE 2 (VISUALISATIONS)
At some point I knew I wanted to take my students further, but I could not decide the best way to go about this. That is when I spoke to my friend who is a certified Yoga Health Coach for adults and children, and she suggested to do some visualisations with them. At first, I thought it would be really hard, but the students just loved it!
We started by talking about what visualizations were and how we were going to do it. The first time I took them through a guided visualization and from there, they were ready to do it by themselves. Their imagination took them to so many wonderful places! I used the different types of relaxing music (ocean sounds, forest sounds, water sounds) to create different atmospheres.
What fascinated me is how the students started to link their visualizations with both their personal lives and their learning. These journeys became a great tool for all of us to find out about each other’s dreams, wishes and fears. For me as a teacher, sharing their visualizations turned out to be one of the best formative assessments I have ever used.
Our last unit of inquiry was about how journeys provide opportunities for personal growth. During this unit, the students loved going on their own personal journeys during Relaxation Time and sharing where they had been and why. They amazed me with their deep explanations of how their journeys through visualizations helped them grow as people. They were able to identify what they wanted to change about themselves and what kind of experiences that would require. Could there be any better way to find out how much they learnt about during that inquiry?
BENEFITS FOR STUDENTS: CHANGES IN STUDENT BEHAVIOR AND EMOTIONAL STATES
I have also recently attended conferences about inquiry and inclusion. I kept hearing that good differentiation needs to come from knowing your students really well in order to choose how to best differentiate for them. That made me realise that the Relaxation Time was a practical way that helped me to get to know my students in depth, not only at a personal level but also academically.
Relaxation Time strengthened my students’ academic achievements in many ways, from helping them to stay more focused, to developing their understanding of the concepts covered. Becoming more aware of their feelings and emotions, as well as, how to manage them, ensured that they were more ready and open to learn. Their self-management skills particularly showed great improvements.
It also helped my students with their personal growth. Some gained confidence, as sharing their thoughts and ideas at the end of Relaxation Time was easier than during regular lessons. Some also learnt how to better self-regulate their behaviour. I particularly remember a student who used to get extremely nervous very easily, especially when he got hurt. Once he learnt how to use his breath to control his body, he became a new person!
Guy Claxton, an author and Education Reformer, pondered in one of his talks, “On my death bed am I going to ask myself how I wellnessed my life or how I fulfilled my life?” Relaxation Time gave my kids the opportunity to talk to themselves to find out more about who they are and what matters to them. In order to feel fulfilled, I think you first need to know what makes you tick!
The student’s parents were very positive and I received lots of encouraging comments from them. Some students started to do Relaxation Time at home and were asking for music and candles. Parents found their kids sitting in corners or on their beds focusing on their breathing silently. I worked with one mother to create a special relaxation corner in their home in order to provide her child with a space to go to when he got angry. Many parents quickly realised the benefits of these practices, as they saw the changes in their children.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND MY 'RELAXATION TIME' LESSONS: WHERE I'm AT NOW
My journey into Relaxation Time started off as my own personal inquiry after attending a conference that inspired me to try it. At the beginning it was a very intuitive approach, but the more I practised it with my students, the more curious I became to find out more.
A book I am currently reading for my own personal growth, has helped me gain a deeper understanding of the importance of sitting in silence, particularly nowadays. It helps you to become more aware, sleep better, it reduces stress and increases confidence and efficiency.
According to neuroscience, when we are stressed our frontal lobe shuts down and our higher order thinking is disabled, which makes learning very hard. Sitting in silence while breathing consciously oxygenates the lower lobes of your lungs and that is where the relaxation receptors are located. Your parasympathetic nervous system also activates and it boosts your mood. The blood flow to your brain moves from the primitive brain to the prefrontal cortex. This shifts you from being reactive to receptive, from impulsive and anxious to clear and kind, and from compulsive to creative.
In short, reading Cate Stillman’s book, you can understand why it is that finding time to sit in silence builds brain cells, improves our reactions when stressed, and increases concentration, learning and memory! Cate Stillman states, “To live empowered, you need to clear your mind and digest your experiences. Sitting purposely in silence, you digest your thoughts, ideas and experiences. You learn how to learn (…)”
I am still not sure about how to accurately label this magical time, because for me it is more than meditation or mindfulness. It is a time for being, sharing who we really are and allowing ourselves to interact with each other at a different level. When we allow ourselves the time to stop and inquire into how we are doing, we become more aware of who we are and much closer as a learning community.
Are you ready to give yourself the time to give it a go? It does not matter if you teach the PYP (Primary Years Programme), MYP (Middle Years Programme) or DP (Diploma Programme) in an IB World School; this is beneficial for all age groups.
BOOKS AND PEOPLE REFERENCED IN THIS ARTICLE
Monica Biasiolo, Yoga Health Coach for adults and children
Guy Claxton at the Chapters International Workshop, Powering Up Learning Through Inquiry, November 2019
Stillman, Cate 2019. Body Thrive: Uplevel Your Body & Your Life with 10 Habits from Ayurveda and Yoga. Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True.
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