Back to School 2020 is certainly one like no other. As we return to school virtually, in-person, or in-between, we continue to grapple with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic as life nevertheless marches on.
This year has often felt like one long stress test of character: juggling irregular schedules, attempting to provide a sense of normalcy for our kids, managing fear and anxiety, and so on. In moments of uncertainty, we need a life compass to help us navigate the challenges — modeling for students how to walk toward our “true north” by pressing pause, reflecting, recalibrating, and ultimately responding in a way that aligns with our aims and values.
In this post, we’ll focus on seven restorative practices that help us and our children/students recalibrate. We can use these practices anytime — in the car, before bed, at the beginning of class, in the middle of a class as a screen break, in the middle of a stressful conversation, and so on — and nearly anywhere.
The Power of the Breath
As research and ancient practices teach us, we should never underestimate the grounding power of the breath in helping us calm our stress response and recalibrate.
- Practice 1: A Simple Breathing Mantra: Choose a pair of words that will help remind you to breathe — one for the inhale and one for the exhale: e.g. in/out, deep/slow, calm/ease, smile/release.
- Practice 2: A Body Scan: Wherever you are, take a few deep breaths and close your eyes. Slowly scan down from the top of your head to your toes, gently noting any feelings of lightness or heaviness, tension or calm. Don’t spend too long on any one part of the body. Spend anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes scanning the body and recentering.
- Practice 3: Square Breathing: Use this simple technique to engage the breath: Breathe in through the nose for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out through the mouth for four counts, then hold for four counts. Repeat several times.
Bonus: Do you work with young learners? LCI Associate Director Deborah Farmer Kris offers ten exercises to help calm young children in her latest PBS KIDS for Parents column.
Activities for Flourishing
These three evidence-based activities for flourishing promote overall well-being and help us recalibrate when stress and worries creep in.
- Practice 4: Practice Gratitude: Keep a gratitude journal, write a thank-you note, write down three things that went well that day and why, share out loud several things that one is thankful for, etc. Gratitude practices increase our measures of gratitude and our feelings of psychological well-being more generally. Gratitude is also linked to better feelings about life as a whole, fewer physical symptom complaints, and improved sleep.
- Practice 5: Imagining One’s Best Possible Self: Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write or reflect out loud about what you imagined. Studies suggest that this kind of exercise has positive effects on one’s happiness and life satisfaction, on increasing optimism, and possibly on health.
- Practice 6: Identify Character Strengths: Take a survey or talk with a trusted friend or mentor to identify five central character strengths. Post these or write them down. Then use one of these top five strengths in a new way, every day, for one week (a brief strengths test can be found here). This exercise has been shown to result in higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depressive symptoms.
Practice 7: Reframing: Put simply, is a strategy that helps us change the way we think about things, such as anxiety, challenges, and other emotions and situations that might feel difficult for us and/or our children or students. Reframing prompts us to pause, adjust our thinking, and open pathways to a helpful response.
When faced with a difficult challenge, ask yourself:
- Is there another way to look at this situation?
- What went right?
- What am I learning right now, from this experience?
- What is another possible explanation that explains what happened?
- What is my thinking pattern right now?
- Is what I’m telling myself true? Which ways of seeing things serve me better?
- What would I say to a friend in this situation?
For example, we can help children reframe a challenging exam from something that is daunting and anxiety-inducing to an opportunity for growth and practicing diligence, patience, and even courage (e.g. asking for extra help in advance). However, we must first hear out and validate the concerns of the student so that she feels able to transform her perspective and reframe the situation.
Remember to really listen to and understand your student or child before engaging in a discussion about reframing. Otherwise, your efforts (though well-intended) can feel disingenuous, inauthentic, or simply useless to a student who feels that she hasn’t really been heard first.
Deborah Farmer Kris writes about the power of reframing anxious thoughts here. Additionally, our Stress Tests of Character e-Resource is replete with tips and strategies for helping girls navigate stress tests of character by thinking about virtues and using storytelling and other methods.