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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Stilling the Mind: An Interview with Linda Lantieri

Teachers can create moments of calm in the midst of classroom bustle -- and help students learn better.
By Sharon Brock

Head Teacher:

Emotional-intelligence expert Linda Lantieri writes about teaching students to manage their stress.

Credit: Courtesy of Linda Lantieri

Do your students have difficulty focusing, remaining calm, or managing their emotions? Do many of them seem chronically stressed? A new book offers hope, bolstered by practical tips, for helping them overcome these problems.

Being calm and paying attention are actual skills you can teach in the classroom, says Linda Lantieri, a twenty-three-year veteran of bringing social and emotional learning to New York City schools and a teacher for forty years.

In her new book, Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children, Lantieri, also a founding board member of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and a cofounder of the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program, offers practical advice to do just that. An accompanying CD, narrated by emotional-intelligence pioneer Daniel Goleman, guides students through two relaxation and mindfulness activities aimed at helping them calm down and focus.

Mind Games:

Lantieri's new book offers advice on helping students remain calm and focused. An accompanying CD narrated by Daniel Goleman offers relaxation and mindfulness activities for students.

Credit: Courtesy of Linda Lantieri

We caught up with Lantieri for her thoughts on how teachers can work with students to develop their emotional intelligence and how better stress management helps kids learn.

What can teachers do to help children with chronic stress?

Teachers can have regular routines and practices that still the mind and calm the body to release accumulated stress. With our New York City program, many classrooms have peace corners, where students can choose for themselves a time-in, as opposed to a teacher sending them to a time-out.

We also have daily quiet time, when we pause, honor silence, and go to a deeper place of wisdom that is within us. When we started, we weren't sure if the children would be responsive, but we are finding that they are hungering for it. As long as we keep nurturing that part of ourselves, it becomes stronger.

It's important that this quiet time is not fragmented. It needs to be built into the classroom ethos as a way of being. It's not just about taking ten minutes of quiet time, then having a frenzied experience the rest of the day. It's about focusing young people, as well as the teacher, in a more reflective way throughout the day.

How does stress affect learning?

The interesting part of the connection between stress and learning is that the prefrontal cortex of the brain is the area for paying attention, calming, and focusing as well as the area for short- and long-term memory.

So you need to focus in order to connect with your memory. And connecting with memory enables children to take in new knowledge, because they need to attach it to something they already know. When a child doesn't have strategies to decrease anxiety, there is less attention available to grasp new ideas, think creatively, solve problems, and make good decisions.

Also, when children are upset, nervous, or angry and cannot manage their distressing emotions, they are not in an optimal zone for learning and retrieving information. They may know something for the test, but they are not able to access it.

What is resilience, and why do some people have it, while others don't?

Resilience is the ability to successfully manage life and adapt to stressful events. Resilience is developed in childhood, when there are loving people available to help during difficult times, but if a child feels alone, resilience is not developed just because challenging things are happening.

Building resilience is about integrating what's happening by having support, safety, and love around the child. With our program, we hope children will become stronger than they were before because they will develop greater control of their thoughts and emotions and will be able to deal with future stressful situations in a more relaxed way.

Perfect Practice:

Lynne Horde-Prince helps her son Nai'im practice a progressive muscle-relaxation exercise from the Building Emotional Intelligence CD.

Credit: Courtesy of Carolina Kroon

What is mindfulness, why is it important, and how can we cultivate it in children?

We define mindfulness as being aware of what you're feeling, thinking, and experiencing when it's happening, without judgment. Mindfulness activities quiet the mind and develop self-awareness and the ability to pay attention.

The book has age-appropriate scripts to guide students in mindfulness activities. For the younger kids, we start with play adventures and use concrete props, such as a soft toy or a "breathing buddy" to help them watch their stomachs go up and down. Other examples include listening to a chime and having children raise their hands when they no longer hear the chime, or eating a raisin or an orange very slowly. These activities calm and focus students and prepare them to listen to the CD.

Why are these skills important outside of the classroom?

We first started this work after 9/11, and we have worked with hundreds of kids who ran for their lives that day. Some said that these children would be traumatized for the rest of their lives, but instead we asked, "What can we do to help these children heal and recover in a way that is real and truly builds the resilience back into them?" So we started researching and developing these programs.

We don't know when the next tragic event will happen. We don't have control over that, but we can teach children these skills of inner preparedness. We are living in such uncertain and challenging times that young people need to have this inner strength, this inner reservoir they can depend on and go to when difficulties arise, so that they are able to manage their stress, rather than seeing all things as a state of emergency where the fight-or-flight response goes off.

We aren't aspiring to make young people great meditators. We are helping them to become more loving, caring human beings and to develop inner resilience and competencies they can access for the rest of their lives.

How is this book different from other books on emotional intelligence?

Due to recent brain research on neuroplasticity, we know that brains are growing and creating neural pathways during childhood and through adolescence. What's new in this book is the focus on a repetitive practice that strengthens these neural pathways and teaches young people concrete skills to calm themselves and focus their attention.

This book also puts emphasis on self-awareness. One thing we hope both adults and young people realize is that they may be in a state of chronic stress and not be aware of it. In the book, there is a list of signs that teachers can look out for that indicate students are handling stress poorly, such as having a quick temper or a constant upset stomach.

I suggest showing students this list directly so they can be aware of and manage their stress themselves. We also know that chronic stress results in poor health outcomes, both mentally and physically.

Sharon Brock is a former high school science and leadership teacher now dedicated to supporting teachers and celebrating inspiring educators through journalism.

Comments (12)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Edna J Jacobs PHD's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The International Brain Education Association (IBREA) has developed a program that fits nicely into the elementary and middle school day. The program focuses on helping children utilize their brains more effectively both physically and emotionally. Through a series of exercises and meditation time children demonstrate the benfits by being able to concentrate longer and being more relaxed. For more info Email: breducation@gmail.com
I've used the method with my high school class and it pays big dividends.

Mary Utne O'Brien's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The State of Illinois recognizes the truth of what Linda Lantieri writes about in her excellent new book, Building Emotional Intelligence: that social and emotional competence affects learning, and such competencies can be TAUGHT in the general classroom. Illinois has adopted Social and Emotional Learning standards that specify the skills all schools should help children develop. See them at http://isbe.net/ils/social_emotional/standards.htm.

Courtney E. Martin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Though I'm not a teacher currently, I speak with teenagers and college students through out the year. I found Linda's book to be this wonderful summary of the missing link in education, the missing link in happiness, really. Too often kids these days are taught that achievement (i.e. stress) are all that is important. Linda points the way towards a more enlightened defn. of success. Thanks Linda!

Eric Utne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What could be more important for children to learn in school than the human skills -- how to be aware of and manage their own emotions, how to notice what other people are feeling, how to see things from the other person's perspective, how to get along, how to cooperate? These are the skills that allow people to succeed in life. In my experience with Waldorf middle schoolers, the class play does more to cultivate these competencies than any other part of the curriculum. Much is asked of each student, invariably requiring them to stretch themselves individually as well as to work cooperatively and in synch with their classmates. Sports and the other performing arts can also cultivate these capacities, but nothing does so as thoroughly and inclusively as theater -- it's project-based social and emotional learning at its best. Hurrah to Linda for writing the book, and hurrah to Edutopia for publishing the interview.

Dominick's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The heart's neural connection to our brain is an integral aspect of Emotional Intelligence. Stillness is another word for coherence or some similar word signifying an optimal state of being. The feedback I've gotten from educators is that programs will only be funded which improve test results...mostly because a lack of funds to pay for programs perceived to be outside the bottom line of test results.

Andrew Gibson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As the Head of Senior at The Friends' School in Hobart, Australia for 10 years I can certainly attest to the importance and efficacy of silence in young people's lives. As Linda Lantieri says, students (and staff) at times 'hungered' for silence. To sit in peace for half an hour may seem like an impossible task for growing, active, self-aware young adults, but I was constantly impressed by the respect the students had for silence. It was a prayerful, spiritual time, and above all peaceful time, but never directive or proscribed. Students at the School were not perfect, but they certainly did extremely well in their studies. The sharing of a silent time with students was also an extraordinarily uplifting experience, and clearly had positive outcomes as fart as student/staff relationships were concerned.
As far as I am aware Friends' Schools throughout the world engage their whole school communities in periods of silence (in class, in larger gatherings, staff meetings, social gatherings, and so on). I am also aware that non-Quaker Schools (some Catholic School in mainland Australia for instance) use silence in spiritual and non-spiritual practice. I am a great fan and hope more teachers might try the kinds of strategies Linda is suggesting in her article, (and presumably in her books) which I have yet to read.

kenmorirson30's picture

I am intrigued at the idea of having students choose to enter a 'time out'. I am curious if there are some ground rules that have worked well for other students. As long as it is not used as an alternative "Can I go to the bathroom" excuse to stop learning, I can see some potential benefit both short term (class management) and long term (emotional intelligence). I am curious what has worked for others who may have used this.

Patricia M. Messerle's picture

Linda's work is so important in schools and supports both students and teachers to be present for learning. Our school district in Vermont has worked with Linda for going on three years and have been independently evaluated for the mindfulness work we are doing. The results are impressive. As Linda stated the emotional brain hijacks the thinking brain and both the brain and body needs calming before learning occurs. I think this is the best movement in education that we have seen in a very long time.

susan rubin's picture

As a teacher, I have participated in several of the programs offered by The Inner Resilience Program (director, Linda Lantieri). I went to yoga class after school, participaed in a program called Nurturing Your Inner Self, and went to a retreat. All these experiences were valuable in helping me deal with the stress of work and being more present for my students. The skills I learned became part of how i related to others. I became more compassionate, I thought more about the present moment than the past or the future, and my thinking became clearer. Although, I didn't teach these skills to my students, because I teach HS Mathematics (mostly calculus), I became more mindful of my task at hand. I developed more clarity in presenting my lessons and I was more aware of how my students received the lessons. Over the years, I felt that I was becoming a more effective teacher. Students responded favorably to the learning atmosphere I had created in the classroom and they would comment on the passion I had for mathematics.
the skills I have learned can be taught to students at young ages. These skills are a necessary compliment to academic learning. Children need to be made aware of their personal strengths and how to nurture these gifts so they can grow and enhance their lives. The children are our hope for the future and they need our guidance so they can survive and thrive.

Kyle's picture

Some forward thinking public school teachers introduced what they variously termed "moments of silence," "quiet time," or even meditation 15+ years ago when I was a student and I can honestly say that it changed my life. With hindsight I realize that what I was lacking was both resilience and mindfulness. These extraordinary educators encouraged me to begin studying yoga while still a high school student and after about 10 years of study I decided I had no choice but to teach what I had learned. I have been extremely fortunate to have met Linda Lantieri who is doing so much to both develop and spread this work that means so much to me and to teach yoga at the Inner Resilience program that she directs. Having the opportunity to work with educators and learn from them is a daily gift. While never dismissing intellectual/cognitive skills, that is just a part of what our youth need to develop. I'm confident that over time these ideas will continue to spread even more.

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