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Four Principles for Mindful Communication with Kids

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This is the second post in a series on mindful communication we’re doing this fall with Oren Jay Sofer, our Senior Program Developer who teaches our Mindful Communication course. Oren is author of a new book, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication.

In the first part of this series, we explored how mindful presence lays the groundwork for teaching by developing our relationships with students. Today, let’s explore four key principles of communication with kids. These principles build that primary relationship, strengthen healthy classroom culture, and support learning-readiness.
1. Identify what matters, which helps kids feel seen and creates relevance for your lessons and requests.
Whether we’re listening to students, teaching a lesson, or managing behavior, learning to identify our students’ deeper needs in a situation is transformative. Instead of focusing solely on what is happening—our lesson, a student’s words or behavior—try shifting your attention to why—what’s important to our student right now?
There is a difference between our strategies and our deeper objectives. We might want a student to be quiet and cooperate; they want to goof around. Our attempts to get them quiet is a strategy for our needs, and those of other students. We want everyone to be able to learn. But they may be longing to be noticed, or to have their classmates talk to them.
When we’re able to identify and understand the needs behind someone’s choices, strategies or words, something transformative happens. When they feel understood for what’s important to them (and trust that we care about that), we are no longer locked in conflict. We can learn to make these inquiries, and listen, in the midst of our lesson without losing the rest of the group. Here’s how:
Let’s say you have a student who’s talking during your instructions and into the time you’ve set for writing. You’ve tried making your usual brief request, “Quiet, please, so everyone can hear the instructions.” Next, you might connect further with the student by guessing what’s going on for them, then share your own needs and propose some ways of working together.
“I notice you’re talking during this assignment. Are you bored? Do you want to be a little more engaged? Or just want to have some fun?”
[Student responds]
“I’d like to find a way for you to have that, and I want everyone else in the class to be able to focus on getting their work done too.”
Depending on the student’s age, you might offer one or two suggestions, or invite them to share their ideas.
When we teach a lesson or make a request, if we share the “why”—our needs, values, or objectives—we honor our students autonomy and intelligence, and help create a sense of relevance and meaning.
2. Make space for emotions, which can build trust, de-escalate tension, and bring healing.
Growing up, did your teachers mirror and validate emotions?
So many of our kids today are struggling with confusing and painful feelings. If there’s emotion, something matters. Emotions are evolutionary signals that point to our needs being met or not. Unacknowledged emotions can build up inside, interfere with learning, and cloud decision making. Making space for them can help us understand what’s going on for a student, which lets them know we care about them and that they’re safe with us.
If a student is visibly upset, acting out, or seems to be in a terrible mood, find the time and space to empathize with their feelings. Be patient. “I hear how angry you are but …” will likely register as dismissive. Genuinely reflecting what you hear and see is more likely to help:
“I hear how angry you are. This must be very important to you.”
Similarly, when you’re feeling upset (as we all do at times), use it as an opportunity to model your healthy relationship with your own emotions. Instead of trying to stuff it, pretend you’re okay, or express things reactively, how would it be to share what’s happening in an open and transparent way? Not only are we taking responsibility for our emotions and modeling how to do that for our students, but when we do this, we’ll feel more internal balance.
3. Learn to see “resistance” as information, which supports better outcomes.
When students behave in a way that’s at odds with our goals, we might label it as “resistance.” This judgment blinds us to the real emotions and yearnings driving our students’ behavior. A mindful teacher terms resistance as a student communicating their inner experience or exercising autonomy. This is especially true with teens, who need to be seen as an individual with a clear identity.
As educators committed to teaching mindfully, when students make choices different from our wishes, we need to choose: can we connect and build the relationship right now? Find ways to balance respecting the individual, the needs of the classroom, and our own wisdom. Engage with care as we inquire about the student’s feelings or needs. Invite collaboration to work towards a shared goal.
4. Share power and discuss limits, which models respect and teaches collaboration.
Many schools function in a power-over, hierarchical system as a strategy to create safety, order, and support learning. If we’re not conscious of how we use the structural power we have with kids, we may unintentionally reinforce cultural messages that disempower our children and stunt creativity. This dynamic is amplified if we are part of the dominant culture. (As a white, male teacher, for example, am I conscious of the inherent power dynamic with female students or students of color?) When we acknowledge the power we hold and engage our students in collaborative decision making we model democratic values and send an important message about their self-worth, intelligence, and capacity.
If you need to set limits or use your power to resolve a situation, share your reasons calmly and clearly. Acknowledge any limitations of time, resources, or energy that prevent you from working more collaboratively, and affirm the student’s autonomy by restating their choices that are viable for you.
Each of these principles points to the underlying ethos of a range of more specific, concrete communication tools. To learn more about the mechanics, join me for a free workshop with Susan Kaiser-Greenland, or check out the resources below.

Did you find this article helpful? Check out our upcoming Mindful Communication online course and learn more about Oren’s new book, “Say What you Mean.”
The post Four Principles for Mindful Communication with Kids appeared first on Mindful Schools.

The Value of Mindful Communication: Creating True Encounters

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This is the first post in a series on mindful communication we’re doing this fall with Oren Jay Sofer, our Senior Program Developer who teaches our Mindful Communication course. Oren is author of a new book, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication.

When I think about the school teachers in my life who had the biggest impact on me, there’s one who regularly comes to mind: my high school physics teacher, Alan Levin. Each day at the beginning of class, Mr. Levin would stand at the front of the room, hands clasped in front of his chest, and take a slow, deep breath. He would look across the room at each of us with a steady gaze and smile. Having quietly arrived together, he would begin the lesson.
I never forgot those moments of silently greeting us with a full heart. Without realizing it, my awkward teenage body relaxed in his presence. I learned a lot that year in his class, but the most important thing was a different kind of physics—a sort of interpersonal alchemy whereby the gravity of his presence calmed and soothed my own.
The beginning of the school year is full of firsts. We meet our students, create a classroom culture, set up group agreements and learn how we’ll be together. Fresh from the summer, we may be cultivating specific positive intentions or new practices in our teaching.
As we all know, school is stressful for kids – teens in particular. Teen anxiety has been on the rise for some time. There’s a lot of work to be done to address the causes of that (many of them systemic/structural in terms of our society and schools), but we can all start by bringing more heartfelt presence and caring awareness into our teaching.
Indeed, as things get going, it’s easy to lose sight of the most important part of teaching—our relationship with students. Learning happens through relationship, and relationships are built primarily through communication. Whether we’re greeting our students in the morning, teaching a lesson, or engaging with challenging behaviors, we rely heavily on communication to understand our kids, express ourselves, and demonstrate care.
The foundation of skillful communication and relationship-building is presence. Before we say anything, it is our ability to be here in a relaxed and balanced way that creates the conditions for connection, learning and meaningful conversation. Mr. Levin said more about how much he cared in those few moments at the beginning of each class than some teachers say in an entire year.
Creating True Encounters
When I go into a classroom these days, I focus first on creating the space to truly meet students. One of the most valuable gifts we can give our kids (in fact, that we can give one another in general), is the experience of being seen. Consider the teachers who have had the most impact on you in your life. I’m willing to bet that a large part of what made a lasting impression on you was not what they taught, but how they made you feel.
Genuine human connection is so lacking in our world today. It is something for which children and youth are hungry—and something we can offer freely.
What does it take to truly see our students? To create the space in our own minds and hearts to have a true encounter with another human being? We must be willing to slow down a little, to take the time to look and listen with fresh eyes. We must realize that, in an important way, every day is the first day of school. Can we set aside our lingering irritations from yesterday? Can we hold the lesson plan a bit more lightly and relax into being here together, right now?
Awareness as the Foundation for True Encounters: Use this Guided Mindfulness Practice
Use this guided meditation to reflect on how you can help your students be seen. The first part helps us connect with our body and breath to come to the present – just slowing down and practicing as we normally do.
In the second part, we’ll imagine using some of these tools in the classroom to support having genuine and authentic interactions with our students. We’ll practice embodied awareness of mindfulness to lay the foundations for true encounters.

When you look into your students eyes, what do you see?
Here are three concrete practices you can use to create more space to really see your students, and lay the foundation for better conversations and relationships:

Pause: The pressures of the day are endless. Find moments during the flow of your normal routine when you can pause for even one breath. Your students (and your own body and mind) will thank you.
Slow Down: Try slowing the pace of your speaking down just a notch. You don’t need to speak in an artificial or forced manner, but changing the rhythm of our speech even slightly brings more awareness and spaciousness to conversations.
Really look: When you are speaking with your students, be mindful of seeing. Really look at their faces, their eyes, their expressions. Are you present? Can you take them in with your gaze? This kind of human contact is healing and nourishing for both people, and sends a message to your students that they matter.

There is a world of communication tools that we can learn, and they can and do make a real difference in our conversations. But it’s all for naught if we can’t find a way to be present with one another in a real way. We hope you find these reflections helpful. Check back next month for the next part in this series.

Did you find this article helpful? Check out our Mindful Communication online course and learn more about Oren’s new book.
[Photo by Fischer Twins on Unsplash]
The post The Value of Mindful Communication: Creating True Encounters appeared first on Mindful Schools.