Preschool Podcast

Using Mindfulness to Organize An Early Years Classroom

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Episode #138 – Teaching preschool can be challenging. In this episode, we chat with Catarina Peterson, author of Golden Sparkles, researcher and certified trainer in the Mindful Schools Curriculum. She tells us about how she turned an overwhelming teaching experience into a positive one by incorporating mindfulness in her daily work with the children. We also talk about the correlation between practicing mindfulness in order to teach it to the children and how that contributes to a calmer and more organized classroom.

Resources mentioned:

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Episode Transcript

Catarina PETERSON:

You know, oftentimes we don’t know why we’re reacting the way we’re reacting. But that’s because we’re not giving ourselves the time to just be present. And for children, they need that time to learn and understand: Where are those emotions coming from?

Ron SPREEUWENBERG:

Catarina, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

PETERSON:

Hi, Ron. Thank you so much for having me.

SPREEUWENBERG:

So, we are delighted to have on the show today Catarina Peterson. She is an educator, mindfulness practitioner and author of a book called Golden Sparkles [An Introduction To Mindfulness], which hopefully will have the chance to learn a little bit more about on the Podcast. Catarina, let’s start off learning a little bit about you and your passion: mindfulness. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background and what mindfulness means to you?

PETERSON:

Well, Ron, I’ve been teaching early years for over a decade now. I started my journey in England and I then ventured into international teaching. I first came across mindfulness in 2013, I believe. I was introduced by it by Bora Rancic – he was a secondary teacher, and I thought it sounded quite an interesting topic. And he was willing to come and do a few sessions with the early years teachers at my school. And initially he started by giving mindfulness sessions to the teachers so that teachers could use mindfulness to calm themselves down whenever they were having a hectic day. And yeah, that’s how the journey started for me.

SPREEUWENBERG:

And then what got you so passionate about it that you decided that this was something that you really wanted to focus your time and career on?

PETERSON:

Well, actually I began doing mindfulness myself before I started using it in the classroom. The only time I began using mindfulness in the classroom was when I came across a class that had a number of children with a very high social and emotional needs. And the provision that we had available at the time at the school just wasn’t sufficient because it was a high number of students. And it wasn’t just in my classroom, it was in several classrooms.

So I thought I needed to get creative because I had tried so many different strategies, from modeling positive responses to positive reinforcement, comforting words. Whenever major meltdowns erupted nothing seemed to work at the time. So I just thought I felt like I couldn’t go any longer. I either had to quit or try something new. And so I just thought, when I entered education the vision I had was that I wanted to support students and make them achieve their full potential. And for me, if quitting just wasn’t a good enough option I wanted to make sure that I would exhaust all the options available before I could say, “Okay, I can’t teach anymore because this is just too much.” So yeah, and that’s how that’s how mindfulness came into the picture.

So we started by, we redesigned our classroom spaces to ensure that there was an easy flow in and out of the different learning areas. And we created a quiet space that was dedicated for children to go to whenever they were in need of respite or whenever they felt that they wanted some time for themselves with a book or listening to gentle music.

And then from then on we just changed the way our school day began. Instead of beginning the day with free inquiry we began our days with the mindful minute where we would connect with each other. And during that mindful minute we would use the I.B. [International Baccalaureate] Learner Profile attributes as a guide. So for example, one of the key attributes is being a communicator or being caring. And so I would encourage the children to set up individual intentions for themselves and share it with the group. And then we would all set up a class intention as well. And the children love this because it gave them agency and choice as to how they wanted to act and respond and interact with their peers and the adults in the classroom.

And from then on it just became part of our routine. And on a weekly basis we would have a mindfulness session, as well aimed, at just developing certain skills – for example learning about our emotions and how these affect our behaviors, and how being mindful by pausing we are able to better respond in any given situation.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Cool. And your story is interesting because even on a recent Podcast episode we talked about oftentimes when you’re the most challenged, that’s when you’ve got to get creative and it makes you really think deeply about your approaches and strategies. And that’s oftentimes when new things come about, and improvement. So it’s a really good example of that in your own personal experience, too.

For those listeners that are out there that might be completely new to this concept, can you kind of take it back down to the basics of what is mindfulness, and what is it in the context of early-childhood education?

PETERSON:

So, mindfulness… I mean, it’s a universal concept for me, really. It’s just our ability to pay attention to what’s happening right here, right now. And we’re all able to do that if we just pay attention to the present moment. Now, in terms of the classroom it’s just asking our students to be present in in what they’re doing. And sometimes that that can be a little bit frantic because really and truly we tend to spend part of our lives on autopilot. So just having a moment where you’re able to just sit down and just have some downtime looking at each other or doing something that’s not very physically challenging, if you know what I mean, just pausing and having time to just be still. And when I say “be still”, it doesn’t mean that you’re sitting still without moving – it’s just be still inside of you.

SPREEUWENBERG:

And why do you think there are positive benefits to this, again kind of going back to the basics? I know you mentioned something about spending our lives on autopilot. Like, is that a big part of the challenge that we’re trying to correct with this?

PETERSON:

Yeah, I think, absolutely. Because we know that, as humans, emotions are central to who we are. And unfortunately – or fortunately – sometimes emotions take the best of us. And mindfulness just allows us to inquire and experience those emotions: “Where are they coming from? Why are them manifesting the way that they are in my body? What is happening to me?”

You know, oftentimes we don’t know why we’re reacting the way we’re reacting. But that’s because we’re not giving ourselves the time to just be present. And for children, I mean, they need that time to learn and understand, where are those emotions coming from?

SPREEUWENBERG:

Makes sense. And if I’m a teacher that wants to try implementing this in my classroom, what are some of the things I need to be thinking about? How do I how do I approach this?

PETERSON:

Well, I think that first and foremost there’s great organizations that teachers can look into. For example, Mindful Schools Organization in the US and “.b” [curriculum] in the UK, [part of the] Mindfulness in Schools Project. I’d say practice begins with the teacher. You can only implement in your classroom if you’re doing it yourself, because it’s pointless of you trying to teach children how to self-regulate and develop emotional-positive states such as kindness and gratitude or compassion. If you’re not practicing those skills yourself then it becomes a little bit harder for you to teach it. So I’d say do an initial course on mindfulness and then just take it from there.

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SPREEUWENBERG:

And where can I most easily access a course like this? Is there something I can do online, or…?

PETERSON:

Absolutely, you can do it. These courses are all available online. Educators can start with mindfulness fundamentals and then move on to another course entitled “Mindfulness in Education”. And the courses range from kindergarten to primary and secondary. So yeah, there’s a wide range of courses available.

SPREEUWENBERG:

And I think you did some training with the Mindful Schools curriculum, is that right?

PETERSON:

That’s right, and I’ve also attended a summer institute at Berkeley University in California, the Greater Good Science Center [at Berkeley].

SPREEUWENBERG:

Okay, and what was your experience with those programs?

PETERSON:

They’re both phenomenal, but particularly at Berkeley. I think I would encourage any educator to apply. They also offer scholarships, so that means that the tuition for the program can be partially paid or fully paid. And you just get immersed into… you get to learn about all of these concepts that support children’s pro-social development, which is so fundamental, especially at the times where we are right now where children are living more and more in virtual worlds, less time to interact with one another. And we’re sort of forgetting that it’s really important to be act as socially active and out there with other children and playing.

And so definitely, definitely, there’s just fantastic courses out there that can support teachers and early-years educators in their journey as they strive for a more balanced and harmonious classroom.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Cool. And so my understanding is you’ve taken some of your learnings and experiences in the classroom and created a book based off of that called Golden Sparkles. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

PETERSON:

Yeah. So after that crazy academic year – crazy but nonetheless so fulfilling – I went on my summer vacation, went over to the summer institute at the Greater Good Science Center in California. And when I came back I thought to myself, “How can I share with other people the experience that I went through?” I was at my wits end. I thought I was going to quit teaching. But yet, something in me told me that, “No, I must do, I must want more for my students.”

And so that’s why Golden Sparkles came about, because I wanted to share my journey with other teachers. And I wanted other teachers or professionals to be able to share Golden Sparkles with their students because it made such a huge difference, not just in my life but in the lives of my students and their families, that I wanted to honour the jet the journey that we went through the academic year, which was from a very scary and daunting beginning to an exciting and amazing end of school year.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Awesome. And it’s great to hear that you took the initiative to then not only apply the mindfulness learnings in the classroom but then also write the book to share your learnings for other teachers to apply who are maybe also in a challenging or tough position that you were in in the past, too. For the title, Golden Sparkles, what inspired that?

PETERSON:

Because whenever we had our “mindfulness minute” in the morning we use role play, because as you know in early days children adopt different roles and they’re free to use their imagination. And so “golden sparkles” came from that role play that we had in the mornings where children would just, for example, put on their binoculars. I’d encourage them to put on their binoculars: “Okay, let’s look at the sky. Let’s grab a shiny star, a golden star. So yeah, that’s where “golden sparkles” the title came from because we all have a spark in our heart, and stars are sparkly, too. So I thought, yeah, that would be the perfect title.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Cool. And if you had to share some of your wisdom based on your experiences and learnings to those early-years practitioners that are new in this field, what would your advice be to them?

PETERSON:

Well, emotions… there’s no denying the relationship that emotions play in cognition. So I think we need to try and promote as much as we can the development of children’s social and emotional well-being, because it’s not just about learning the three R’s. Yes, we need to learn to read and write. But we also need to learn and teach our students to deal with their emotions so that they can be in the position that they are confident enough to solve any problem or any issue that may come their way.

And I’d also say to educators who may be going through a difficult or tough time with their classes to not give up and to seek help because sometimes it can feel very lonely. But talk to your colleagues and try and find a supportiv3 network around you where you can share your fears, your doubts and hopefully come up with some solutions.

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SPREEUWENBERG:

Great advice, and certainly the advice of finding peers to talk about your challenges with and share experiences is becoming more and more common advice that we’re hearing, and I think really good wisdom for our listeners. Awesome. So, Catarina, if I’m listening to this Podcast and I want to learn more about what we’re talking about here today – mindfulness, maybe I want to check out your book Golden Sparkles or get in touch with you – where can I go to find these resources?

PETERSON:

Just a visit my website: www.CatPeterson.co.uk. There’s lots of information about mindfulness in education, lots of links to recent research that has been done at an educational level. And then there’s also links to other websites and to books that educators might want to purchase in addition to Golden Sparkles. My book is available on Amazon and in any major bookstores.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Cool, and I checked out the website, lots of great resources there. Again it’s www.CatPeterson.co.UK. Catarina, thank you so much for sharing all of your learnings with us here today on the Preschool Podcast. It’s been great having you as guest.

PETERSON:

Thank you, Ron. Thank you so much for having me.

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