Building students’ abilities to focus became increasingly important prior to the pandemic and has increased importance as students return to classrooms now and in the fall. Clinical psychologist and director of the SKIPS (Skills for Kids, Parents, and Schools), Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin, shares ways that teachers can plan specific practices that support students in developing focusing skills. Discover the importance of positive emotions, visuals, intrigued-based mindfulness and practice.
Find Dr. Beaudoin’s book “Mindfulness in a Busy World” here. (Use code RLFANDF30 for 30% off!)
Visit Dr. Beaudoin’s website here.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out loud podcast. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding. And my curiosity is peaked whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate coach and support their learners.
Steve: 00:31 Supporting students’ focus for learning. I found an article in ASCD Express titled, “The Focused Brain.” It was written by Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin, who is the director of SKIPS. SKIPS stands for: skills for kids, parents, and schools. Her program offers counseling services and social-emotional skills projects in several California school districts. I’m just delighted that Marie-Nathalie said that she could join us here. So welcome, Marie-Nathalie.
Marie-Nathalie: 01:08 Thank you for having me today.
Steve: 01:11 I’m wondering for starters, if you could tell teachers a little bit about your background and and where you got the interest in the teaching and learning process.
Marie-Nathalie: 01:23 I’m a psychologist who’s always been very interested in brain research, narrative therapy and positive psychology, and in particular, how to bring out the best in every person. In my exploration of the ingredients of well-being, I’ve been interested in how to facilitate social-emotional learning in children, but also how to help them be successful. School plays such an important role in children’s lives and future!
Steve: 02:00 In the article, you talked about the fact that focusing is so important to learning but you called it a learned skill. I’m wondering if you could define that a little bit further for us.
Marie-Nathalie: 02:17 Yes. Few people realize that focusing actually involves four steps, none of which are formally taught to children. So the first step is to disengage from a previous experience. So you could see that as a transition phase. The second step is to concentrate effectively on a subject, and the third step is to actually block out the distractions while they are focusing. So in psychology, that would be called inhibition control. And finally, the last step is to be able to sustain that physiological state that allocates mental resources to a specific subject. So it’s an ability to access an embodied physiological brain state where people are really able to sustain their focus.
Steve: 03:20 As I was listening to you, I was hearing mindfulness as a connection.
Marie-Nathalie: 03:27 Yeah, definitely. So mindfulness is often used to enhance focusing skills in schools, but at this time in the history of our society, we are facing a very large cohort of young people who are less and less able to focus because they spend their time with incredibly stimulating media, which are raising the bar on the amount of stimulation that’s needed for children to actually sustain attention. Mindfullness also requires a minimum amount of focus to be able to develop the skills. So the traditional mindfulness trainings are now bumping into the same limitations as traditional academia.
Steve: 04:22 What are the factors that influence students’ development of focusing skills?
Marie-Nathalie: 04:27 There’s several. There’s the fact that children’s brain tends to be more active than adults. So children’s brains naturally wander and hop from one thing to the next. That’s something that adults have to take into consideration. The second thing is the context in which children grow up, influence the development of that skill. So for example, we used to have car rides where children would just integrate their learning and think through what’s happened through their days. And now during car rides, a lot of kids are on their phone or on their tablets. So there’s less of that integration that’s happening that allows the brain to make peace and store properly, experiences of the day. So the brain kind of remains always “on” and sub-integrated. There’s also emotional stability. If there are conflicts at home and a lot of emotional upsets with peers, children will tend to ruminate about that.
Marie-Nathalie: 05:32 They’re unhappy and they’ll think about that over and over again, trying to understand, and then they’re less able to focus in class or less able to focus on homework. And so in the end, we end up with chronically overstimulated minds that can get stuck in just that habit of darting from one thing to the other. And we’re at a place where children’s good intentions and adults’ constant reminders are not enough anymore for some children to be able to focus on what they need to attend.
Steve: 06:13 In the article that I found, you talked about four different strategies or focus areas for teachers to be paying attention to. And I’m wondering if I just read each of them off, if you could talk a little bit about it. So the first one that you had listed was positive emotions can facilitate transition and concentration.
Marie-Nathalie: 06:43 Yeah. So it’s very interesting. These are studies that came out of positive psychology over the last decade. The blood flow in the brain is affected by emotions. Emotions really kind of rule the brain. And so negative emotions, for example, tend to hijack everything towards the fight/flight freeze system, which is the emotional brain right in the middle of the brain. There is literally less blood in the frontal area of the brain, which is normally involved with learning and thinking and analyzing. So if there’s an intense negative emotion, forget it, children’s brains are not going to be able to learn or record or think critically about things. And contrary to that, positive emotions tend to really facilitate openness to learning, encoding, critical thinking, better retention and making connection between different things. So positive emotions play a very important role in learning and I think more people would benefit from understanding that.
Steve: 07:56 I used to describe it that the teacher frustrated with one student – kind of yelling out at that student can in effect be shutting down the learning environment for the whole class at that moment.
Marie-Nathalie: 08:13 I completely agree. I often tell teachers and parents that the amount of energy they will need to spend to control their own negative emotion is far less than the amount of energy they will need to spend to then address that negative emotion in 30 young children. Some may withdraw, some become anxious, some will ruminate on it later, some will talk to their parents about it. It has a rippling effect.
Steve: 08:53 It’s worth controlling yourself.
Marie-Nathalie: 08:53 It’s definitely worth controlling yourself. And then at the same time, I understand that teachers are so overextended. They have so much on their plate. It’s a very difficult job.
Steve: 09:04 It’s interesting because what’s going through my mind – I recall working with a school administrator who spent the first 15 minutes of his morning visiting every teacher’s classroom prior to the kids coming in to get an upbeat spin to the teacher. And he shared with me that that 15 minutes could save him hours during the day because he got that environment set before the kids even walked in. It’s just flashing through my mind as I’m listening to you share that.
Marie-Nathalie: 09:37 Yeah. I think that’s a great example. Anything that can be done to help children start the day on a positive note, an upbeat note, is really, really worth the effort. In fact, they say that facial expressions, such as the facial expression of the teacher, just when she’s either turning on Zoom or greeting children at the door, is recorded in like, 1/300th of second and it has an effect.
Steve: 10:08 Acting is part of teaching.
Marie-Nathalie: 10:08 [laughter] Yes.
Steve: 10:13 Do you give an example or two for the building, the positive emotions?
Marie-Nathalie: 10:17 Yes. Since facial expressions tend to captivate children’s attention, I think starting the day with the teacher having a positive emotion that’s very visible on her face, whether it’s enthusiasm or excitement will actually pay off. Also, one of my favorite is facial yoga. Children really love to do that gymnastics with their face and their muscles and make silly faces with one another and silly faces with their teacher. That’s always like a very quick thing that can be done in the morning. Or even asking a National Geographic’s fun quiz, for example, “which country of the world has the most tornadoes?” Or, “can pigs actually learn to play video games?” Any one of those fun unusual question can start the day with intrigue and positive emotion and get the students doing that transition phase that I was mentioning earlier, from their home life, especially if they’re on Zoom – from their home life, because they could have just had a fight with their sister into the classroom.
Marie-Nathalie: 11:40 It compels them to be in the classroom and attentive to what’s happening there.
Steve: 11:47 The second item that you mentioned in the article was that visuals help with inhibition control and sustainable focus.
Marie-Nathalie: 11:56 Yes. 80% of the information that enters the brain is visual. So that’s huge. And 50% of the sensory cortex is devoted to processing images. So since sight is the sense that receives the most attention in the brain, incorporating visual elements into teaching can dramatically boost children’s attention. And in some ways, it might even compete with children’s constant mental replaying of either scenes at home, or conflicts at home. What we’re seeing more and more too, is children playing video games in their minds while they’re listening to the teacher. So if we have visuals, then it really helps us compete with that mental replaying that’s going on in children’s minds.
Steve: 12:47 Have another example on the visuals strategy?
Marie-Nathalie: 12:52 Yeah, definitely. So if the teacher is on Zoom, having a colorful background that changes every day or even changes during the lesson can be really helpful. Or even, teachers can tell students to be on the lookout for a weird object that might appear suddenly on this screen. So it’s kind of a game of being really attentive and finding something unusual. We definitely tend to remember more colorful objects than gray ones. So anything that can be colorful and move and change is worth it. There is a teacher that I worked with who used to have children take trips to different countries of the world every few weeks. So she would redecorate the class and I know that can seem like a big job, but at least redecorating just one wall and having posters of a different country. And she even sometimes, had children move their desks so that they pretend they’d be in an airplane and would land in Egypt and all of a sudden she’d take out these artifacts of Egypt. And that was very engaging. That was very, very engaging for the children and it really marked the transition in very visual ways.
Steve: 14:08 As I listened to that, I recall a middle school teacher I worked with who had five hats hanging on the front wall and each hat represented a different character. And when the class sat down, she would go up and move between the hats and the kids would yell and scream, “no, not that one!” And then, whatever hat she picked up, she took on the character that, that went with that hat. And after a while, the kids knew what, the way that character would would teach. But as I’m listening to you, I can imagine there’s kids who are extra focused in right at that spot and probably even recalling – I guess they can recall which teacher taught the lesson day even though it was in effect the same teacher.
Marie-Nathalie: 14:55 Definitely. I tend to use a lot of visuals when we do social-emotional skills program. And so I have these giant glasses that represent having a big picture vision and having empathy for others and seeing more than just a mean word, for example. Like seeing that the child has lost a pet or that the friend has conflicts at home or is starving. And so those big glasses represented seeing more of what’s going on. So yeah, any visuals really help and they love it. Children love it.
Steve: 15:27 The third one you shared was intrigued based mindfulness effectively cultivates all aspects of focusing.
Marie-Nathalie: 15:36 Yes. So as I mentioned before, mindfulness is definitely effective in cultivating focusing skill, but that is once people are able to initiate focus. So, I think, before a lot of traditional mindfulness programs, there needs to almost be a pre-mindfulness trainings, which I call “intrigued-based mindfulness.” I strongly believe, and I have seen in my practice, that curiosity precedes focus. So we need to have mindfulness exercises that trigger that curiosity first, for children to then be interested in practicing the mindfulness. And that is the subject of my last book, “Mindfulness in a Busy World,” where I’ve researched all the factors that can trigger curiosity in the brain and integrated elements of that in every single exercise so that children really want to do the mindfulness. And so then I avoid the pitfall that the child who most needs the mindfulness training in the class is often the one who will least focus on the exercise. So by recruiting, curiosity and intrigue, then all children are on board. They all really want to try this and they can’t wait to try it and then they can’t wait to practice it at home because they’re very interested in this.
Steve: 17:10 Can you can you give an example of that?
Marie-Nathalie: 17:13 Yeah, so maybe I’ll just give one very small example. One of my favorite ones is I tell children that we’re going to do an
exercise where they’re each going to be a village of breathing trees. Village one trees tend to breathe from their feet up to their head. Inhale nutrients from the earth and bring them up to their head, while village B tree people tends to breathe from their canopy, from their heads, down to their feet. And each person really feels more comfortable in one type of breathing tree village. They have to figure out which village they belong to. And so we try to two different types of breathing exercise and then afterwards they’ll tell me which village really fits the best for them. Rhat’s just one example. Some of these exercises just take one or two minutes. Oftentimes, people mistake mindfulness for just taking a deep breath. It’s really a whole lot more than that. And there’s so many variables we can modify to make it intriguing. Many ways of settling into their bodies so that afterwards, their mind can be really focused on the next thing, whether it’s math or reading.
Steve: 18:52 I think you just set us up for the last item that you had and that was practice makes perfect.
Marie-Nathalie: 18:59 Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes people will say, “oh, I’ve tried mindfulness and it doesn’t work for me.” I mean, you’ve
probably just scratched the surface. It’s almost like just learning the ABC’s and then saying that, “well, you’re really not good at writing a poem.” There’s many steps before you can actually use the skill in an effective way. So just like you wouldn’t be able to learn TaeKwonDo while fighting on the street to protect yourself, you need to practice it ahead of time.
Steve: 19:40 I was just going to phrase it that way – at the moment that you need the mindfulness isn’t the time to be trying to learn it.
Marie-Nathalie: 19:46 Exactly. But some of it can be learned rather quickly. There was some research that showed that three times, 10 minutes of a breathing exercise, could increase test scores in college students. That’s quite dramatic, but of course it had to be done shortly before. So you can only imagine when people are practicing these exercises on a daily basis, the improvement that we can find in focusing skills afterwards.
Steve: 20:19 Terrific. Well, Marie-Nathalie, thank you so much. I’m wondering if you could share with folks the easiest way that they could find out about the resources that you have available and your books and and to contact you.
Marie-Nathalie: 20:36 The easiest way is probably to look at my website at www.mnbeaudoin.com. The publisher has also made available a discount code for “Mindfulness in a Busy World,” and that discount code is RLFANDF30. And the discount is given at their website, www.rowman.com. It’s a 30% discount so it makes a big difference.
Steve: 21:13 Well, I’ll make sure that we put both your contact and the information on that discount in the lead-in to the podcast. Thank you very much.
Marie-Nathalie: 21:23 Thank you for the wonderful conversation.
Steve [Outro]: 21:27 Thanks for listening in, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.