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Episode twenty one

The Virtual Staffroom Podcast

Episode 21 – Digital + Mindfulness – Not such an unusual recipe

 

Joachim Cohen:

Welcome to the Virtual Staffroom, a podcast made for teachers by teachers and all with a dash of educational technology thrown in. My name is Joachim Cohen and today, like every single day, I am joined by two rather awesome and extreme members of the Technology 4 Learning team. Linda Lazenby, Yvette Poshoglian, welcome.

Linda Lazenby:

Hey, both.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Hello, Joe.

Joachim Cohen:

So listeners, if you've been tuning into our last few episodes, we've had a focus on teaching and learning from home. You will know we have talked evidence, gained insights from a digital classroom maestro, but in completing this podcast we as a team have perhaps like you, been experiencing a struggle to work remotely. So, we thought wellbeing, yours and your students and of course, how a renowned online tool set can help. In this episode, we are all about wellbeing and getting you and your students through learning from home. And we are lucky enough to be joined by Mary Morrison, education wellbeing lead at Smiling Mind. Welcome to the Virtual Staffroom, Mary.

Mary Morrison:

Thanks so much, Joe.

Linda Lazenby:

Before we get really into it, tell us about Smiling Mind and what is your mission and what have you achieved so far with our schools, Mary?

Mary Morrison:

So, Smiling Mind is a not-for-profit organisation and our mission is to provide lifelong tools to help every mind thrive. Now, one tool that our listeners might be most aware of is our free Smiling Mind app, and that's had over six million downloads. We also have a range of schools programs, supporting teachers and students in the field of wellbeing and preventative mental health and our overarching vision is to help every mind thrive and navigate the challenges of the modern world.

Mary Morrison:

In terms of what we've achieved so far, one really exciting achievement this year was that we had a goal for 2021 to reach five million young people. And we actually achieved that goal in January this year and in doing so also reached over 230,000 teachers. So, that's something of which we're really, really proud.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Oh, that's fantastic. Mary, it's Yvette and I'm just wondering what your story is and what gets you up and out of bed every morning to make this kind of impact with Smiling Mind. What's your story?

Mary Morrison:

Like Joe and a lot of the listeners, I was an educator and a school leader for a long time before I joined Smiling Mind and I'm a strong believer that both education and wellbeing are fundamental human rights that are essential for every child to be able to thrive and flourish. I used to lead lots of programs, leadership development programs for young people that were underpinned by social and emotional learning. So, I've always had that as a passion and drive. And then, about six years ago, I experienced some mental health challenges of my own for the first time and yeah, I struggled with my own mental health.

Mary Morrison:

So, after that I discovered initially mindfulness but then other preventative mental health tools as well, and found them so helpful for my own wellbeing that I decided to retrain in them to support others as well. So, my interest grew from there and to have a job that combines both education and preventative mental health with a real focus on teachers and young people is a huge drive to get me out of bed in the morning.

Joachim Cohen:

Oh gosh, Mary, it's so awesome to have someone with your passion and such a really relevant backstory that got you into this area, leading these kind of programs. And I suppose, let's get down to it. Your team played an integral role in supporting teachers and students through the extended period of learning from home in Victoria. What are some of the strategies that you've found and your team found helped students and teachers?

Mary Morrison:

Yeah, great question. And the Smiling Mind team did work really, really hard and also very quickly last year to get our existing programs online, but also to create some new tools and resources specifically to support people in lockdown. And they're all still available. So, really recommend those teachers and parents in New South Wales that the want to access those, I'll talk about them now and then, they are freely available on the website for everybody.

Mary Morrison:

So, one of the tools that reached over 22,000 parents and teachers were our digital care packs. So, our digital care packs, really comprehensive packs designed by psychologists that have a whole host of information, activities, and resources for primary age kids. So, there's one for five to seven-year-olds. There's one for eight to 10-year-olds. There's one for 11 and 12-year-olds. They are really designed to support young people, understand times of anxiety and worry, and also to support them to regulate their emotions and build their resilience.

Mary Morrison:

So, they're great for parents to use in conjunction with their young people or kids can use them in a self-directed way. Teachers can use them to let parents know that they're available, but can also use them for online activities as well. So, they reached over 200,000 primary age children during lockdown last year, which was really exciting for us to be able to provide that level of support. For teachers of older children, high school kids, we had the Feeling It campaign, which was a social media campaign presented by young people for young people that had heaps of video content and practical strategies to support how senior students can manage the time and also their study. And that reached over 235,000 high school students as well.

Mary Morrison:

The feedback was that, that really helped teenagers to influence their behavior and building positive habits for their wellbeing. So, we saw some really great impact there. And again, care packs and Feeling It are all available for free on our website. And the final thing that I'll mention is Thrive Inside program. And again, that is in the app and it is a section of meditation specifically to support people who want to thrive whilst they're inside. So, we're all at home a lot more than usual during lockdown, and that brings some opportunities but also lots of challenges for lots of families. So, it provides lots of guidance and meditations to help navigate those from a place of calm and positivity and proactive responsiveness as well.

Linda Lazenby:

Gosh, Mary, they are some phenomenal numbers of students that you've talked about supporting. Congratulations on those numbers. Can I ask, in terms of the care packs and the app and what you're providing, can you talk to us about the evidence that's behind the work that you do?

Mary Morrison:

So, our app is predominantly based in mindfulness, and mindfulness is one of the preventative mental health strategies that probably has one of the widest research bases. Everything from indicators around stress and anxiety relief, being able to focus and pay more attention, the benefits around improving social skills, learning and memory, for example. So, research that's grounded in psychology, neuroscience, and wellbeing, and that's why we believe it's so great for schools.

Mary Morrison:

And one of the first things we do when we engage a school is to share our evidence-based guidelines with them. And that's a really comprehensive document that sets out some of the research that I just mentioned in relation to our program. So, that's mindfulness. We also draw on a range of other social and emotional learning topics and strategies in our curriculum. Again, evidence-based and drawing research from places like positive psychology with say, gratitude practices and growth mindset, for example. Programs are designed and reviewed by psychologists as well as educators as well and they're all trained in mindfulness. So, that's another aspect of evidence-base for our framework.

Mary Morrison:

And then, every program that we run, we run internal and external evaluations, and many of those are available on our website. So for example, in the last 18 months we've been working with 445 schools in New South Wales, and we've just had some really positive evaluation results that will be shared shortly. And the last thing I'll mention on that is some really, we're always looking to find ways to track our impact over time and also to enable teachers and students to monitor and track their wellbeing as well. So, we're doing some really exciting work with ACER, the Australian Council for Educational Research, in that space where we have a range of surveying tools that are available to teachers and students to support that as well.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Yeah, I think that research and that evidence and the planning as well is so intrinsic to us really comprehending, I guess, the full package that Smiling Mind offers, Mary. So, that's really fantastic to know that, that's forms part of everything you do. I think I personally need to work on my gratitude each day at the moment. Many of our schools in New South Wales will be familiar with Smiling Mind because of the program you rolled out last year and they may have already gotten started with it. Can you tell us a little bit more about what the New South Wales schools can expect or can work with, maybe some new features or some new pathways that they can check out?

Mary Morrison:

Well, the plan was to work with 400 schools last year, and we actually managed to work with 445, and that was made possible by the New South Wales Government and the Buildcorp Foundation. The way that that program works is that we support schools to implement mindfulness-based social and emotional learning curriculum over a 12-month period. So in term one, we train one or two teachers from each school who will serve as Mindful Champions. So, they essentially become the experts in their school at understanding mindfulness, developing their own practice, supporting young people by implementing lessons around it in the classroom. And then, in supporting the rest of the school in that process as well.

Mary Morrison:

The second term, then staff from the whole school have access to the Mindfulness Foundations program. Again, supporting teachers to develop their own practice, understand mindfulness and the different mindsets that were involved and to develop a practice in the classroom. And then, the third term is really about whole-school implementation and empowering schools to put the curriculum in, in a way that is meaningful and sustainable.

Mary Morrison:

So, we've got very close to 700 Mindful Champions in New South Wales now, supporting over 140,000 students to develop these practices. And schools have really, really engaged and teachers are feeling really, really confident after the program as well. So for example, 97% have reported feeling confident to teach mindfulness and at the beginning only 26% felt that. And over 85% have reported that they've already observed benefits for their students. Now, one thing that we were able to do is access some more funding for schools across Australia, for 600 schools in regional and remote areas, including regional and remote schools in New South Wales.

Mary Morrison:

Now, we have a very small number of fully funded places available for New South Wales schools. If you're in a regional and rural area, do hop onto our website and check out our eligibility criteria. And if you are eligible, do apply, if you want to grab one of those last places for term four or term one next year.

Joachim Cohen:

Mary, the impact that you had, I really liked listening to those statistics, that's for sure. And I know, I've downloaded that Smiling Mind app that everyone can download. And I'm sure many of our listeners have done that as well. Where is the gold and is it for everyone?

Mary Morrison:

Sure. Oh, great. That's so great that you've downloaded the app. Okay. So, my advice is if you've just opened the app, would be to have it on your home page so it's front of mind. And then, the bit of the question that you say is it for everyone? Definitely. And if you tap into the explore section, you'll be able to see that. So, if you are a teacher, you can find mindfulness guided meditations by year group, mapped to the curriculum. If you're a young person, you can find your age bracket and find some age appropriate meditations for you.

Mary Morrison:

If you speak a language other than English, we have a languages section. So, we have some meditations recorded in Indigenous languages, we have a Creole section, we've got Arabic coming very, very soon. So, it really, really is for everyone. One of the tools that I really like on it is that if you find a meditation that you really like, so for example, one of my favorites is a body scan meditation. Particularly if I've been sitting at my computer and my screen all day, and I've been really overusing my brain, it's really nice to do a body scan, to rediscover the mind-body connection. I can add that to my favorites so that when I go back into the app, the ones that I most like doing are there, really easy to find.

Mary Morrison:

Another favorite of mine is the SOS meditation in the section about stress management. So, it's very common, particularly in uncertain times that we can feel quite anxious or overwhelmed if our routine is disrupted. And I find, it's a three minute meditation that can really bring you back to the present moment and really reset. So, that's another one that is a personal favorite of mine. And look, most of them are guided, Joe, which is great when you're either learning this as a new skill or if you're stressed, because it really supports you in that process. You just have to listen and follow along, but there's opportunities to learn how to meditate more independently as well. So, there really is something for everyone.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Fantastic. And should I say shukran, which is thank you in Arabic. I think that just sounds fantastic. All the different features and languages, and it really is going to reach so many people, Mary. Look, I used to teach the HSC and it's a really tough time for those students at the moment, even if they've had their trials put back by one week here in New South Wales. We've got a lot of senior students who are probably feeling stressed, not to mention the parents, what are some of the strategies we can use and you could suggest, that could help these students really get through this period? And I suppose being able to have a little bit of control over the things they can control, they can't change everything, but any strategies or tips you could share for those listeners we've got at the moment doing their HSC?

Mary Morrison:

Yes, it's such an important point that you raise and there are definitely lots of strategies to how both managing the stress and anxiety of exams and study in general, but also the compounded effect of feeling like the normal routine of education has been disrupted a little bit. One of the easiest ways I would say, is to hop into the study section of the app, it's available in both the youth and adult sections. And there are five topics there that specifically look at stress related to study, and also ways to optimise your capacity for study and exam success.

Mary Morrison:

So, there's a couple of guided meditations specifically to support you if you're feeling stressed and overwhelmed. There's also a section on growth mindset. So quite often, if we're stressed with the amount of work or study that we've got to do, we might start telling ourselves things like, "Oh, I'm not very good at maths," or, "I'm going to fail my exam," or, "I can't do this project." And we tell ourselves these limiting beliefs that can stop us from either doing our work, but also stop us from being able to feel like we're being successful. So, there's a section around being aware of and developing growth mindset, so that you can really move through some of those obstacles that come about because of stress around study and really help you to ... Or help students to optimise their capacity for success and importantly, sleep as well, because we know how important it is that we get a good night's sleep to help us with both studying, memory, and exams and so on.

Mary Morrison:

So, they're things that young people can do in a self-directed way, they're also things that teachers could introduce to the students by perhaps introducing one and making students aware of it. So, they can start to build those habits in the classroom and then take them home. And one of the things I really like about all the Smiling Mind resources, whether it's the app or the care packs, is that it's a tool that can start to open up conversations. So, it can start to open up conversations between teachers and students, or parents and students, about study stress, or about exam stress, or about anxiety. We can encourage young people to talk to teachers, to talk to their friends, to talk to the school counselor. If they're really persistently struggling, to talk to their GP.

Mary Morrison:

So, I think using the app and using campaigns like our Feeling It campaign are great to offer practical strategies in their own right and also to build a space where these conversations are normalised, so that we can really respond to young people as they're experiencing these challenges.

Linda Lazenby:

That's so helpful, Mary, for our HSC students in particular. What I'm keen to learn a bit about is those students at the other end of the spectrum, our younger students who are obviously missing opportunities to connect and socialise. And whilst they may not have HSC pressure, they are really feeling anxious about not understanding the scale of the situation and also being isolated from their peers. What can we do and through your support, where would you guide parents and teachers for our younger students?

Mary Morrison:

Yeah. It is definitely challenging for younger children. And I'd say that if that is happening at the moment in your household or in your online classrooms, downloading the digital care packs is a really great place to start. There's lots of help and guidance in there to support young people directly, but also parents to navigate those conversations. So, if those conversations aren't something that you're used to having, the resources in the pack can provide a really good framework to help you with that and also to help young people understand and stay calm and to regulate their emotions, and in doing so, build their resilience.

Mary Morrison:

Other strategies, touched upon talking to them in an age appropriate way, beginning to introduce opportunities for mindfulness, whether that's a deep breathing exercise or a mindfulness activity when children wake up. It might be that you put in a gratitude practice during a meal time or a time that might be stressful, to alleviate some of that stress and to refocus in a positive way. We talked a little bit about gratitude practices already and helping young people remember what's still good, even though in their lives, even though they might be missing out on some things that they really value, like time with friends and so on.

Mary Morrison:

And then, all the usual ones, limiting screens before bed to support healthy sleep. Nighttime meditations are a really good strategy for that. And just checking that online, what young people are accessing online, given that they are online a lot more than they are in usual times. Just making sure that what they're accessing is healthy and productive. And then the other, I think the last point I'd say is just be aware as well, that I know teachers, we're often guilty of prioritising students and other people's needs before our own. And just being mindful about your own needs and your own self-care as a parent and an educator as well. And we're mindful of that at Smiling Mind and we've included some self-care modules within all the kids' digital care packs as well for adults, just to make sure that all our caregivers are prioritising themselves a little bit as well.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Yeah. You're so right, Mary. Honestly, you took the words out of my mouth. I was going to say, what would you say to teachers if you've got this chance? I think they really do forget to put themselves first or even think about taking time out, even if it is suggesting, have a little break or whatever you're doing. You got any words of final wisdom that you could share with our educators?

Mary Morrison:

They're just so dedicated and showing such resilience and leadership. And yeah, I mean, as you say, self-care is just so important and paying attention to how you're feeling throughout the day. And on very busy days, if you've got lots happening in your own house and you're trying to manage online learning as well, it might be just a very simple little ritual like having a cup of tea in a quiet corner of the house, or a short, three minute meditation between meetings that can really make a big difference to feeling positive and productive versus feeling overwhelmed and anxious. So, the same principles and practices that we promote for our children and young people really do work for adults as well.

Joachim Cohen:

Okedoks, Mary, now we have gotten through some amazing information during this podcast, in this episode. And as Yvette and Linda have said, wow, thank you for all the amazing insights that you've passed on, and passed on to our teachers and to our parents who will be listening. But we do have the question that we ask every single one of our podcast guests, and it's called Rocket Ship Robots. Now, you might've heard of this. You might've heard of something called Desert Island Discs on a very famous podcast over in the UK, where you need to select your favorite album that you would take with you to a desert island, if you got stranded there. But we are a technology podcast and we've been talking about apps and online resources, but we're now heading to the moon or to outer space in our rocket ship, and what piece of technology would you take with you, Mary?

Mary Morrison:

Ooh, that is a good question and one I wasn't expecting. I think I would take my iPhone. I think I would take my iPhone. I think partly because-

Linda Lazenby:

Good choice.

Mary Morrison:

... that's probably what I'm most used to using, but I've got everything set on there, so I feel like that would probably give me maximum ... If there was data access and wifi in space, I think I'd be pretty comfortable taking my iPhone.

Joachim Cohen:

I think you're not alone there, Mary, we've had loads of our guests who've said the camera, they've downloading their podcasts, their magazines. And of course, we've all wanted to take the internet with us. So, you are not wrong. That is for sure. And Mary, look, on behalf of all of us we want to say a huge thank you for coming on the podcast today. We are so honored to have had you in the Virtual Staffroom and thank you again for your time.

Mary Morrison:

Thanks so much for having me. It's been great to talk to you.

Joachim Cohen:

Well, team, we've heard from our guru, but our podcasts would not be complete without some extra gems from the team. Linda and Yvette, what have you found that you think is supreme in the extreme?

Linda Lazenby:

Well, someone that I always go to for great wisdom is Dr. Kristy Goodwin. I know we had her in the podcast a couple of months ago to talk about all things digital wellbeing, but so much of what she says in her work and when she had our conversation, was around that infobesity. How we deal with the overwhelm of information coming at us and making sure that we're really setting ourselves up for success in terms of avoiding those digital distractions and setting up notifications in a really smart way, so that you're not constantly tethered to your device. And we can imagine that when you're working from home and teaching from home, it's very hard to finish that work day. So, I would really encourage people to check out Dr. Kristy's work and see what you can build into your own life, that she encourages. Absolutely.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Linda, I know that podcast episode has been getting a lot of love lately, so I really, really reckon it's a great one to revisit. I think I'm going to have a listen to it again, because everything she talks about feels so pertinent right now, under this mountain of online messages and emails, and I'm not teaching, so add that onto the load. I think it's probably a great time to listen to that one again. I've got a slightly different tack, obviously just putting my author hat on for a moment, lots of authors are normally gearing up to do a whole bunch of book week events coming into August. It's the busiest time of year for lots of school libraries, librarians, teachers, and with things being what they are, I know lots of things are getting canceled.

Yvette Poshoglian:

So, what the department has put together is Virtual Book Week, which is coming up in Book Week and this year's theme is Old Worlds, New Worlds, Other Worlds. So, I think adding to that online worlds, because what we're going to have is 40 authors and illustrators joining us for that week, which is Monday the 23rd of August to that Friday, the 27th of August. And the sessions are going to be, one at 10:00 AM for half an hour and one at two o'clock for 45 minutes. And on the Friday, we're going to have a stages five and six focus for senior English students.

Yvette Poshoglian:

And we've got some incredible playwrights and young adult authors joining us for that particular day. But there's something really for everyone, it's going to be a really fun format. Just go to DART Learning and you can register for your interest and I know they're going to be releasing the author list very, very, very soon. So, if that's something that your school wants to get on board with, obviously with a crystal ball, it would be wonderful to know what's happening, but just rest assured there's going to be this option for everyone this year. Joe, what have you found?

Joachim Cohen:

Yvette, look, I'm telling you, I'm just thinking about books at the moment after that amazing event that you've talked about, because they're such a great way to escape at the moment and really absorb yourself in something, another world, as you said. I can't wait to do that and it should be part of, or could be part of everyone's daily practice. But what I found is something from our wellbeing team and it's something called the New South Wales Department of Education's Care and Connect page. And it's got lots and lots of tips for teachers and for everybody to really look out for each other. What are some of the signs and some of the symbols that people might be struggling a little bit?

Joachim Cohen:

And then it gives loads of top tricks and tips to help support you and also to help support you, support your students and support other teachers. So, I think that one's definitely worth a visit and we'll pop a link to it in the show notes. So, how are you feeling as we close out this episode, hopefully packed full of ideas to look after your wellbeing, as well as your students and your school community? We here at the T4L team hope this little podcast and in particular, our three learning from home specials, might've provided you with an extra boost and the tools to make your online learning journey that little bit more awesome. You are all in our thoughts and make sure you check out our other online learning specials to support your journey.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Just a little note, please be aware that all views expressed by the podcast presenters, that's us, are our personal opinions and not representative of the New South Wales Department of Education. Discussions aren't endorsements of third party products, services, or events. And please note that as much as we sound like it, we are not experts in legalese, tech speak or anything in between. We're just passionate people keen to boost technology for learning in the classroom and to help build the skills in your students and for you to solve the problems of tomorrow. Do your due diligence, read further, and if we've got something wrong, let us know. We too are always learning and always improving.

Joachim Cohen:

This podcast has been produced by the masterful, Jacob Druce, with the assistance and supreme coordination of many more awesome members of the T4L team. Before we go, please make sure you send us through your comments, your word of techno wizardry wisdom, your learning from home tips, and your thoughts for new guests and segments. And if you liked the podcast, give us a rating, so more and more educators find us and be inspired to get a little techie in the classroom. Stay awesome, stay compassionate, and stay safe everyone. Thanks for joining us.