Wearing masks and social distancing makes it harder for kids to connect with one another at school. Here’s how mindfulness director Adam Ortman is helping by incorporating more playfulness in the curriculum.
As the mindfulness director at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, Adam Ortman spent this past school year teaching mindfulness to around 1,000 students from kindergarten to grade 12, mostly in-person. Although, his teaching practice has been anything but business as usual. Wearing masks, even in person, made it more challenging to connect, and the students’ movement was highly regulated to accommodate social distancing requirements.
“There is a sense of being a little isolated and separated even when we are in the same room. There is the sense of greater alienation. So at an emotional level, I’ve been trying to orient my teaching to the two deficits that students are experiencing: social connection and co-regulation.” Co-regulation happens when peers or adults help each other self-regulate during stressful situations by using their voice and gestures to show that they are felt with or attuned to.
Adam has been the mindfulness director at St. Andrew’s since 2016 and is part of WholeSchool Mindfulness, a non-profit that seeds and supports mindfulness directors in schools across the US. As a more experienced mindfulness director, he serves as a coach to the other mindfulness directors who are in their first year.
At St. Andrews, Adam has integrated mindfulness into the fabric of the school and sees the importance of the work beyond the challenging time of the pandemic. He offers in-depth mindfulness offerings to the students, faculty, and parents of St. Andrews. “Mindfulness doesn’t just fit inside a social-emotional learning box. It also supports the school’s work around diversity, equity, and inclusion, spiritual education, performing arts, academic routines and stress, athletics, and more.”
Getting Past the Masks
Wearing a mask makes it difficult for students to read each other’s emotions. With that in mind, one exercise Ortman does with students is focused on the smile. “I show myself smiling with a mask. I ask the students to notice the quality of a smile around the temples, the ears, the tops of the cheeks, the eyes,” he explains. “Then I turn it into an imaginative space. Imagine people you know well smiling. This helps them co-regulate around adults and others in their space when they can’t see their full face.”
For social connection, Ortman relies on partner work in-person and using break-out rooms in Zoom to practice mindful communication. He asks students to look for non-verbal cues to understand how their partner is doing. What does their voice sound like? What is the expression on their face?
“It has been a time to build positive resources rather than explore the difficult with mindfulness.”
This year, Adam’s classes focused less on breathwork, and he scratched traditional body scans from the curriculum as well. “I recognized that indoor sitting practice isn’t desirable this year,” said Ortman. “If students are feeling anxious, focusing on the breath can be dysregulating, especially if they have to wear a mask. It’s not ideal.”
Instead, he’s leading the students in free-form movement practices like walking in local nature preserves. “It’s a way of still doing collective practice that ends up being fun,” he says.
In kindergarten to grade to six, Ortman also led more nontraditional embodiment practices. “I tell the students, ‘Move in a way that feels good.’ I want them to be completely autonomous. And then I ask them to teach their classmates how to do it,” he says. “Their postures have been so regulated. They are told where to sit and stand. Before we do a body scan, they have to relearn how to feel good and free in their bodies.”
“This year, there has been a real willingness to show up from students. The students seem to intuitively understand the importance of these lessons now. I have to do a lot less to convince them to do it. I’m seeing a sense of relevance, and the students are able to talk to me about how they apply it. It has been a time to build positive resources rather than explore the difficult with mindfulness.”
Pulmonologist Ni-Cheng Liang takes a look at how the breath—a common anchor of attention in meditation—can be triggering. Explore her masking practice to calm feelings of anxiety and stress when we’re unable to comfortably connect with the in or out breath.
We may be headed for reverse culture shock when we re-enter society. But just as our brains worked to adjust to our current state of life, they must go through the same process to adjust to post-COVID reality.
In her role as Mindfulness Director at a US middle school, Erica Marcus is helping students and teachers honor the difficulties of learning in the era of COVID, while also savoring the joys.