Simple Ways to Cultivate Happiness in SchoolsOctober 10, 2013 | Elena Aguilar
In my last post I suggested that equitable schools are those that contribute to happiness in children. Now I'd like to offer some suggestions for actions that school leaders and teachers can take in order to cultivate happier schools.
1. Slow Down
When we slow down, we notice more, we appreciate more, we take stock of relationships, learning, and goals. Everyone can benefit from slowing down: students, teachers, and administrators. There's a direct correlation between our levels of contentment and the pace at which we live our lives. In the classroom, this might look like spending more time in a morning meeting with students, or lingering over a read aloud, or taking an extra 10 minutes to engage kids in a game outside after recess.
2. Get Outside
Being outside, even for just a few minutes a day, can heighten our state of well-being. We breathe fresh air, feel the elements on our skin -- the warmth of the sun, the sting of wind, the moisture of rain -- which connects us to the natural world. Even when it's cold out, or when it's warm and glorious, we can take our students outside for a quick (5 minute) walk, or we can do silent reading outside and our feelings of happiness might increase.Furthermore, when the weather is comfortable, why can't we have some of the many meetings we all have to sit in outside? Last year I took my instructional coaches to the forest for one of our professional development days. In addition to hiking, we read, talked, learned, and wrote -- all of the activities we usually do in our office.
3. Move Your Body
We all know this already, but I'm going to remind you anyway: Moving our bodies increases our happiness. Even if you can't take your kids outside, you can incorporate stretching breaks into their days, play quick games that get their hearts pumping and their energy out, or put on music and dance. During the rainy winter months when my son was in preschool, his teacher regularly played "I like to move it," (from the movie, Madagascar) and the kids danced and wiggled all over their tiny classroom. In any meeting that I facilitate, if we're together for more than two hours, I schedule ten-minute "Walk and Talks" for participants. Moments of movement are great and our brains start producing the endorphins that make us happy right away.
4. Blast Good Music
Music in a fast tempo and in a major key can make us feel happy and it has a measurable positive impact on our bodies -- it can even boost our immune system, decrease blood pressure, and lower anxiety. Playing music as your students enter the classroom can be welcoming and can create a positive atmosphere. Those of us who facilitate learning for adults can also do this. Imagine coming into an early morning staff meeting to the sounds of salsa or to Johnny Nash singing, "I Can See Clearly Now." You probably feel happier just thinking about this.
Now sing along with those tunes, or sing in your car or in the shower -- and see how you feel. Singing requires us to breathe deeply, which makes us happier. Singing along to some of our favorite music makes our brain release endorphins. If you teach elementary school, then it's easy to get your kids singing every day. Teach them a simple song and start the day with it. Use singing during transitions or to signal the end of an activity. Find songs that connect with the content you're teaching -- they'll remember it better -- and they'll feel happier. And if you teach middle or high school, then I challenge you to get your kids singing.
Even if you're not a smiley person, try smiling more often -- aim for authentic, genuine smiles, but if you can't produce one, go ahead and fake it. Yes, even fake smiles can move you along towards a more content state of being. And more than that, they can have an affect on those looking at you. So teachers, administrators, just see what happens if you smile more often at the people you interact with on a daily basis.
7. Incorporate Quiet Time
My new email pen pal in Bhutan, a teacher in a school for boys aged 6-18, describes how all students in Bhutan practice meditation. Of course, this makes sense given that this is a Buddhist nation. He describes this as a primary way in which his country works to build a happy populace. There's an abundance of evidence about how meditation causes changes in our brain chemistry that produces feelings of calm and wellbeing. In our country, some schools are incorporating mindfulness meditation, but I also think we could work towards similar ends by simply incorporating more quiet time into our daily routines.
There's so much more to say and do on this subject, but I hoped to start with some simple and actionable ideas. What ideas do you have about integrate activities that cultivate happiness in schools?