Getting to School: The Balance Between Safety and Independence

By Allison Amy Wedell

Getting to School: The Balance Between Safety and IndependenceI don’t know about you, but to me it feels like about a third of my life as a parent has been spent thinking about all the awful things that could happen to my child. If I really allow my imagination to run wild, I get to the point where I want to envelop her in bubble wrap and store her in a closet. But not only would that be impractical (seriously, who has that kind of closet space to spare?!), it would of course be wildly unhealthy. She needs to experience things for herself and make mistakes in order to learn. Which means I need to walk the line between keeping her safe and letting her have some independence.

For many parents, a microcosm of this issue is the trip to and from school. There are a lot of factors that go into the decision of school transportation: timing, convenience, and distance being among the top considerations. But safety is also a factor.

We lived in Seattle until my daughter was in third grade. She went to a Catholic school that was two blocks from our house, but her dad and I never allowed her to walk there by herself. There was a moderately busy street to cross, but it was also hilly, which meant that people often drove over the speed limit and sometimes ignored the well-marked crosswalk. Because it wasn’t a public school, we couldn’t use crossing guards. So rather than put my daughter at risk of being squashed like a bug twice a day, we walked her to and from school (or I would occasionally drive her there if I was leaving for work at the same time).

I wondered if other parents shared similar fears for their kiddos’ daily school journeys, so I conducted a (very informal) poll on social media. I asked parents how their kids get to and from school, why they chose that option, and how their child’s safety and independence fit into the picture.

Many respondents mentioned the expected ways a child might get to school: being driven or riding the school bus or a city bus. But some parents mentioned hiring a car service or riding the subway. What I found especially interesting, though, were people’s reasonings for letting or not letting their kids walk alone.

Carrie, the mom of two elementary-age daughters in Seattle, walks them the one block to school because “They have to cross one busy intersection and I don’t trust the drivers to see them.” Todd from Cheyenne, Wyoming, provides a variation on the theme for his fourth grader: she can get “oblivious when walking, and that could cause problems.”

Bridget is from Fort Worth, Texas, where her son would have been able to walk to her parents’ house from his elementary school at the end of the day. She would not let him because of problems with her ex, though. And Beth from rural Roseau, Minnesota, had concerns about her four-year-old walking to the bus stop at the end of their road, none of which included the skunk they encountered the first time they made the trek.

Many other parents prefer to accompany their kids on the walk to or from school because it provides a rare opportunity to talk without screens, homework, or other activities getting in the way.

What interested me about these responses was that not a single parent—from the rural west to the heart of New York City—listed “stranger danger” as a reason not to let their kids walk to school. They had worries about their children’s safety, of course, but those worries had more to do with traffic than with shadowy men luring children into vans.

I also realized it was the same with my daughter. She started middle school last year at a school three blocks from my office, both of which are in the downtown area of our city. Because it gets very cold in the winter where we live, our buildings are connected by skyways—tunnels that run above the city streets. Not long after she started sixth grade, I showed my daughter how to get from her school to my office through the skyways, and now she can practically do it with her eyes closed. She brings along allowance to get snacks at the convenience store in my building, then does her homework while she waits for me to finish my workday.

I won’t lie: I was nervous about her running around in the skyways by herself. But there’s no traffic up there, and the worst that can happen is that she gets lost. She never has. Plus, she loves the freedom of coming to find me after school, and I appreciate not having to leave work to pick her up. For now, we have managed to strike a balance between safety and independence.

Allison Amy WedellAllison Amy Wedell is a writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on sexual abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social and emotional learning, public safety, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.


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Brain Breaks to Stimulate Learning

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Brain Breaks to Stimulate LearningI like to compare teaching to being a racecar driver. Trying to get the car (student) around the track (the school year), using the right gas (curriculum) and oil (pedagogy) to win the race (student success). However, throughout my racecar training (teacher school) I never learned how the engine (the brain) worked. Now I continually learn how to make teaching and learning more effective by learning more about how the brain learns.

According to neuroscience, our brain is programmed to solve problems in almost constant motion. Early humans traveled up to 12 miles a day in search of food, water, and shelter. Our brains still work that way today. Thinking is not a sedentary activity. It requires movement, which increases the amount of oxygen-rich blood that flows into the more advanced parts of the brain.

Have students purposefully move in the classroom every 10–15 minutes or any time you change things up the in the classroom—I call this a “brain break.” This will ensure that students’ blood is flowing and that they are actively thinking. Routinely have your students stand and talk to one another, do stretches, or walk the outer edge of your classroom to discuss a new idea or what was just learned. Keep the movement and other activities to less than two minutes. After that it becomes harder to regain students’ attention.

Other ideas for brain breaks:

  • To avoid students going into a “down shift,” sending blood energy into the survival (fight-or-flight) area of the brain, create a safe and welcoming learning space. Allow students to have their own personal space—even if your students rotate into your room, give them a bin, folder, shelf, cabinet, or desk assignment that is theirs. This will help them feel a sense of ownership and that they are not strangers in the room.
  • The brain is wired for novelty, wanting to make sense of everything around us. I often carry a “junk bag” when working with students. In the bag are all kinds of small, interesting-looking objects, such as a wooden spoon with slats or a funny-looking key chain. Any small items that can stir creativity will work (avoid sharp objects!). Share one of the items with your students, asking them to turn it into something that it’s not. For example, the cardboard tube from a paper towel roll may become Pinocchio’s nose or a musical instrument. Students can also draw pictures or create stories about the object.
  • As students enter the classroom, give them a blank sheet of scrap paper with a squiggly line drawn on it. Have them use that line to craft an object or create a scene. To make the task trickier, have students draw with their nondominant hand—this increases bilateral thinking (see below). Encourage them to turn the paper many different directions in order to find different ways to see the line.
  • Movement that requires using both sides of the brain (bilateral movement) is also important to the thinking process. Have students do stretches where they put their right hand on their left ear or touch their left hand to their right foot. Doing silly moves, such as rubbing your tummy and patting your head, also requires multiple areas of your brain to fire at once.
  • Our brain always pays attention to all five senses. Therefore, be sure to include varied teaching strategies that go beyond just talking at students. Students should visualize images, have access to artifacts, and engage in conversations with other students. It’s best if you have students see it, say it, and then do it.
  • Incorporate physical movement into conversations, discussions, and debate. Use the “four corners” idea: “Those who think the answer is A, go to the northeast corner. Those who think the answer is B, go to the southeast corner. Those who think the answer is C, go to the northwest corner. Those who think the answer is D, go to the southwest corner.” You can also use “two sides of the room,” where students go to one side of the room for one answer and the other side for another answer. Combine that activity with debate or persuasion by having each side defend their answer in hopes of convincing others to join their team.
  • Essential to learning is getting feedback in a timely manner. It is easier to change the way a student thinks or performs if we can provide accurate, efficient, relevant, and immediate information. Descriptive feedback should be focused on what the learner has done well, where they need to direct their attention, and what resources they may need to grow. Also, consider using a “coaching” method to help students increase their self-beliefs and self-efficacy. Keys to productive coaching are:
    • Listening carefully to what students are telling you
    • Responding thoughtfully by asking more questions that can draw out more ideas from students
    • Resisting making judgments or giving students the answer—coaching is about helping students change their ways of thinking

As we begin a new school year, this is the time to put into practice ways to make sure students’ brains are actively engaged in the learning. There are more ideas on how to engage your students’ brains in my book Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century. If you have brain break ideas you’d like to share, please leave a comment in the section below!

Bonus! For more brain break ideas, check out the “Brain Breaks” worksheet from Advancing Differentiation.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners


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Enter to Win The Struggle to Be Strong PLUS the Leader’s Guide!

Enter to Win The Struggle to Be Strong PLUS the Leader’s Guide!This month we are giving away The Struggle to Be Strong along with A Leader’s Guide to The Struggle to Be Strong. This collection of thirty true stories by teens will help readers discover they’re not alone in facing life’s difficulties. The leader’s guide uses activities, exercises, role plays, and questions to help students go deeper into the stories, relate them to their lives, recognize their own potential for resilience, and start building resilience skills.

To Enter: Leave a comment below describing how you help kids and teens build resilience.

For additional entries, leave a separate comment below for each of the following tasks you complete:

Each comment counts as a separate entry. Entries must be received by midnight, September 20, 2019.

The winner will be contacted via email on or around September 23, 2019, and will need to respond within 72 hours to claim his or her prize or another winner will be chosen. This giveaway is in no way affiliated with, administered, or endorsed by Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram. Winners must be US residents, 18 years of age or older.

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Mindfulness for Rookie Teachers

By James Butler, M.Ed., author of Mindful Classrooms: Daily 5-Minute Practices to Support Social-Emotional Learning (PreK to Grade 5)

Mindfulness for Rookie TeachersI remember my rookie year in teaching like it was yesterday (it was 2002), and I sure would have benefited from having some mindfulness practices of my own to help me move through the oft-overwhelming first year of teaching as clear-mindedly as possible. There is so much happening, and it seems like new and challenging situations/expectations arise every day. Rookie year is unlike any other year in your teaching career.

As the SEL (social and emotional learning) mindfulness specialist for the Austin Independent School District, I have the fortune of working with and supporting first-year teachers with mindfulness—the practice of cultivating moment-to-moment awareness of ourselves and our environment. Here are five mindfulness-related tips to help you move through your first year of teaching and come back for year two. Please keep in mind that patience is key for all five of these tips.

You can even imagine “. . . and be patient” written at the end of each of the tips.

1. Start with Yourself

This is crucial. Mindfulness will not work effectively in your classroom if you don’t have some type of personal practice and believe that it’s worthwhile. In fact, if you implement mindfulness techniques without any personal background experience and just as something for classroom management or as a way to “keep kids quiet,” then you can cause harm to students. And we became educators to help students, not harm them.

Thankfully, there are some great apps that offer free subscription services to educators. I highly recommend signing up for Calm; Stop, Breathe & Think; and Headspace and exploring their practices/formats to see what works best for you. Simply click on the links and fill out the brief forms on the sites, and you’ll be granted access.

Carve out a time for yourself to practice mindfulness consistently, and you’ll end up doing it much more frequently because it’s a part of your routine. My home practice started during the five minutes it took for my coffee to get ready in the morning. I was usually on my phone or computer during those five minutes and wasn’t productive with that time. Integrating mindfulness into that time that I already had available every day helped immensely, and it eventually became a habit. An extremely healthy habit.

Think of a time that would work for you to practice mindfulness (morning, after school, before bed), and go with it. You know yourself best, so figure out the best way for you to consistently integrate mindfulness into your life.

2. Build Relationships with Your Students

You might be thinking, “How is this a mindfulness practice?” A huge part of mindfulness is being present, and when you’re able to be present with your students, you can start to form trust. When you’re present with your students, you’re showing that you care about them, what they’re interested in, what drives them, and what causes them to slow down or shut down.

All this is extremely important to know if we want our students to succeed to the best of their ability. Notice what they need, and realize that every one of your students is going to need different things in order to feel comfortable in school. And if our students don’t feel comfortable, they’re not going to be able to learn as well, or at all. According to “The Impact of Stress on Academic Success” at Evoke Learning, “A number of researchers have discovered that psychological stress affects the thinking skills and brain development of even the youngest student.”

A few powerful ways to build relationships with students are starting or ending the class/day with handshakes or greetings, asking students to fill out a questionnaire about their interests and then appealing to their interests through your teaching, truly listening to your students and allowing their voices to carry weight in decision-making in the class, being “selectively vulnerable” with your students (letting them know a bit about who you are and that you’re human), and attending extracurricular activities outside of school.

Mindfulness for Rookie Teachers3. Get to Know Your Students’ Families

This mindfulness practice is similar to building relationships with your students in that it requires a great deal of presence, compassion, and awareness. In my 14 years of teaching in the classroom, I always expressed to my students’ families that they were the number-one teachers in their child’s life.

We may be trained educators, and you might have educator kids in your class, but no one knows our students like their families do, so it’s important to honor that. Get to know your students’ families through creative and personalized interactions with them. Trust that parents care about their kids and want what’s best for them.

If families are not showing up to events, returning forms, and so on, there could be a multitude of reasons for that. Perhaps their work schedules don’t line up with the school schedule. Or perhaps school wasn’t a comfortable or safe experience for them as kids, or their voices haven’t been heard at school. Getting to know your students’ families and showing them that you care is one of the most important and mindful things you can do for your students.

And lastly, understand that if your students and their families don’t look like you or didn’t grow up like you, it’s extremely important to be open to their perspectives and be aware of any judgments or biases you may have. Our brains are wired to label and sort into categories, so it’s imperative that we stay present and notice any discomfort that might arise when we notice how other people differ from us.

As a white teacher with many students and families of color, I’ve learned that different doesn’t mean wrong. It’s just different from my lived experience, and that has led to many amazing learning opportunities. I’ve learned so much from Zaretta Hammond’s excellent book, Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain. I highly recommend it!

4. Learn and Share the Science of Mindfulness

I love science and looking at how things work, so learning about the science of mindfulness has been one of the most interesting aspects of teaching mindfulness in my classroom and to teachers over the past 10 years. There is some cool research behind mindfulness, including its benefits to the brain, what our breath can do for us, and how it impacts our focus, relationships, and mental health.

From preK through high school and beyond, learning and teaching about how mindfulness can help the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex is powerful and gives a cool glimpse into neuroplasticity. Also, check out how we can regulate our nervous system just by controlling the way we breathe. Learning about the science definitely helps with staff buy-in, but it’s equally as important for student buy-in.

As I travel to schools and classrooms in Austin and throughout the United States and Namibia (I taught there in 2009 and went back this summer to share mindfulness), the science behind mindfulness is the most sought-after information and creates the most interest for building a personal practice.

5. Provide Options

Starting with yourself, building relationships with your students, getting to know your students’ families, and learning about the science all lead to understanding the importance of options when it comes to mindfulness.

First, mindfulness should never be forced on someone, and there’s no one way to sit or do it. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be just sitting and being quiet. There are many ways mindfulness can be practiced with the goal of being more present during our everyday lives.

Sharing some examples of mindfulness practices, including sitting, stretching, coloring, movement, music, and art, will help people feel more comfortable with mindfulness. When it comes to mindful attention to breath or quiet practice, offering options for what to do with our eyes (closed or gazing down), hands and arms (on legs palms down, on legs palms up, crossed in front of you similar to a hug), and feet and legs (feet down on the ground, legs/feet crossed in front of you or under your seat) can help people feel more comfortable.

It’s also a trauma-informed practice to offer options, because we don’t want to trigger our students by forcing them to sit a certain way or to close their eyes.

All that being said, remember to be patient with the process. Here’s a compilation of mindfulness resources for educators, and for more ideas regarding mindfulness in schools, check out our monthly Mindfulness Newsletter from Austin ISD.

James ButlerJames Butler, M.Ed., has been teaching kindergarten and prekindergarten since 2002. He has a B.S. in education and early childhood from Indiana’s Manchester University and an M.Ed. in curriculum and instruction from Grand Canyon University. He is now the SEL (social and emotional learning) mindfulness specialist for the Austin Independent School District (AISD), working with teachers, staff, administrators, parents, and grades preK–12 students. During the 2016–2017 school year, James helped implement a mindfulness curriculum in all 130 AISD campuses. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Mindful ClassroomsJames is the author Mindful Classrooms: Daily 5-Minute Practices to Support Social-Emotional Learning (PreK to Grade 5)


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Questions to Ask All Students as the School Year Starts and Proceeds

By Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., coauthor of Boost Emotional Intelligence in Students: 30 Flexible Research-Based Activities to Build EQ Skills (Grades 5–9)

Questions to Ask All Students as the School Year Starts and ProceedsRobert Brooks has been a voice for humanism, caring, and the value of bouncing back for many years. He regularly gives away his wisdom. On his web page, he provides over 150 free articles, the majority of which are of great interest and value to teachers and parents.

Brooks believes that resilience and motivation come from having a sense of purpose, believing you have value to others, and engaging in acts of service that confirm that value. When these point in a positive direction, students gain momentum and positive accomplishments; when they are not positive, we see downward spirals and increasing distance from college, career, community, and life success.

Things We Should Know About All Our Students

Brooks also believes that there are some things we should know about all our students, because knowing these things will greatly influence our teaching. Some of these questions are essential to address at the start of school; others are best posed after students settle in a bit. And others are ongoing questions to show concern for students and monitor how they are feeling and managing.

Here are some examples.

Immediate Start-of-School Questions

  • What helps you feel welcomed?
  • How do you like to be greeted?
  • What strengths do you bring to the classroom? To the school?
  • What do you like most about school so far? What would you like to see changed?

Settling-In Questions

  • When do you feel competent? How often do you feel competent?
  • When do you feel you are being listened to?
  • When do you feel your voice is respected?
  • When do you feel cared for and about?
  • When do you get a chance to be a leader?
  • When do you feel safest/unsafest?
  • When do you laugh at school?

Ongoing Questions

  • What is your contribution to the school?
  • Who believes you can succeed?
  • What happens in school that makes you afraid? Frustrated? Defeated?
  • When do you feel challenged and supported?
  • What inspires you in school?
  • Who helps you bounce back from setbacks?
  • Who is always happy to speak with you?
  • When do you feel it’s okay to make a mistake or to show that you don’t know something or don’t know how to do something?

These questions can and should be adapted for students of all ages, because they are as relevant to college students as they are to preschoolers. Knowing the answers allows us to create positive conditions for learning.

Strategy for Asking Questions at the Start of the Year and Throughout

You can put the “Immediate Start-of-School” questions on index cards and ask students to write their answers on the other side, perhaps doing one per day during the first week of school. Another approach is to create a survey and ask students to respond; responses can be anonymous or not.

A more interactive approach is to use a “morning meeting” format and start the school day by having students discuss their responses to several of these questions in small groups and then share their group’s responses with the class.

The “Settling-In” questions can be addressed in similar ways during the second and third weeks of school.

The remaining questions are of ongoing importance—not that the first questions should be forgotten! It often takes a few weeks before students get a clear sense of their answers to these questions. By then, they should know who believes they can succeed, who is always happy to speak to them, who helps them bounce back, and so on.

Maurice EliasMaurice J. Elias, Ph.D., is a professor and former director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology, Rutgers University. He is also director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab, academic director of the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service, and founding member of the Leadership Team for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Dr. Elias lectures nationally and internationally and devotes his research and writing to the area of social-emotional and character development in children, schools, and families. He is a licensed psychologist and writes a blog on social-emotional and character development for the George Lucas Educational Foundation at Edutopia. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Ellen, near their children and grandchildren.

Boost Emotional Intelligence in StudentsMaurice is coauthor of Boost Emotional Intelligence in Students: 30 Flexible Research-Based Activities to Build EQ Skills.


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FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2019 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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