Friday, January 15, 2021

MindUP: Mental and Emotional Wellness Training for Ages 3-14 Goes Virtual


A month or so ago, I listened to a podcast of actor Alan Alda interviewing Goldie Hawn about her non-profit MindUP.  I was quite intrigued.


The organization provides training materials to help children ages 3-14 develop social and emotional learning, to give them a strong foundation to weather the challenges that life will throw at them.  The skills included in the MindUP program have been proven to increase resilience and decrease negative behaviors.


The MindUP training program is based on scientific research in the fields of neuroscience, positive psychology, mindful awareness, and social-emotional learning.  It covers topics including:

·      The Brain & The Brain Break

·      Mindful Awareness

·      Acts of Kindness & Optimism

·      Perspective Taking, Kindness, Gratitude

The training includes coaching services as well, so teachers and parents can themselves become proficient in the skills.


Just like the brain breaks I wrote about in my last blog post, and the mindfulness practices available for our readers at eM-Life, the MindUP training program helps children learn how to learn.  The children acquire skills they can use for the rest of their lives, regardless of which educational or career path they choose.


Just a few days ago, I discovered that the MindUP training materials are now available virtually.  Meaning that any teacher or parent, anywhere in the world, can take advantage of the science-based curriculum and coaching support.  Many of the lessons are available for free on the MindUp website, and memberships to the online learning platform are free in “early 2021” only.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Brain Breaks: Every age person needs them


I used to teach multiple-day workshops for adults and facilitate multiple-day negotiation sessions for small groups in conflict.  It’s hard to sit still that long.  It’s even harder for the brain to stay focused for that long.  Until I learned about brain breaks, I just knew that my adult participants would start behaving like children right around 3 pm.


There’s actually neuroscience theory to support the use of brain breaks.  First, our brain uses 20% of the body’s energy when resting, more when doing difficult mental tasks like reading and listening.  The brain works very hard, especially when we’re concentrating trying to learn something new.  It needs a reset sometimes (as often as every 10  minutes for small children and 30 minutes for adults, if you’re really trying to memorize something).  The idea is to switch neural activity to non-learning networks, so the setting-memory networks can rest a little. 


Some experts also suggest that we try to engage both hemispheres of the brain (generally, the right hemisphere controls the left side of our body, and vice versa) during brain breaks, and help them to work together.  I like to think of this as “windshield wiper-ing” the brain, helping it to clean out the detritus and start again with full focus.


So what does a brain break look like.  In my experience, the sillier, the better.  We’re trying to get the two sides of the brain to do opposite things, which is not so easy to do.  So, there’s a little bit of frustration at first and (hopefully) a lot of laughter.  These are a few of my favorite brain breaks:


·      Start with what most people know:  rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time.  After that feels doable (2-3 min?), switch what the hands are doing (i.e., tummy-rubbing hand now pats head, head-patting hand rubs tummy).


·      Wink and snap:  wink left eye and snap right finger; wink right eye and snap left finger; repeat, getting faster and faster (until you’re laughing so hard you can’t continue!).


·      Forward and backward circles:  Make circles, starting with both arms fully extended toward the ceiling; one arm makes forward circles, the other arm makes backward circles.  Once you’re pretty competent with this combination, switch directions for each arm.  (Hint: it’s easiest to get started one arm at a time).


·      My favorite brain break if you have adult foreign language speakers in the group:  Act out the children’s game of Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, naming the body parts in another language.  This is another one that gets adults laughing hysterically.


There are many more brain breaks to be found here and here.  If you think these brain breaks are just for little kids, you’re wrong.  Every age person/student has the same neurological constraints in their brain.  Working with the brain, instead of against it, will maximize every student’s learning.  My adult workshop participants loved brain breaks. Really.


So, try one of these fun and silly activities next time you’re taking part in a long online learning session.  If you’re a teacher, incorporate regular breaks (as in, leave the screen kind of breaks) and brain breaks, and see if your students don’t stay focused a little better.


And, today on New Year’s Eve, try a brain break activity to help the long wait for 2021 pass by more quickly.  Let me know how it went, or send me some additional brain break activities that you like.  I’ll publish them in a future blog post. 


Happy New Year!


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Keeping Students’ Attention During Online Learning


A recent article in the Washington Post captured my attention.  Entitled “Why are teachers’ faces covered in stickers? To get kids engaged in remote school – and it’s working,” it highlights some of the challenges of keeping students’ attention in a 100% virtual learning environment. 


In the article, a middle school math teacher had tried all kinds of tricks to encourage her students to actively participate in online class.  Thinks that apparently did not get the students to answer questions or otherwise be engaged in the learning process:  calling on students randomly by name, creating small group discussions in breakout groups, enticing students to earn extra credits through competitions, or breaks called movement or brain breaks.


What did work?  Something very silly (and perhaps not exactly age-appropriate for middle schoolers); the teacher promising to put a sticker on her face every time a student answered a question or participated in a class discussion.  The middle school students initially responded because they thought it was hysterical.  But the competition between the teacher’s three classes to see which class could end up with the most stickers on the teacher’s face was the most effective strategy to foster class participation.


The article gave examples of teachers using the sticker method for students of all ages.  One successful example was a professor of an online college-level introduction to psychology class, who reported that more students than ever had participated in class discussion when he rewarded them with stickers.


So, that got me to wondering what other strategies have been effective to get and keep students’ attention during online learning?  Here’s a quick list of some strategies I’ve learned about:


·      Create an expectation of surprise.  A teacher of students in grades 3 through 8 asks a different class each week to pick which color he will dye his beard that day.  If the vote results in a tie, he’ll dye the beard in both colors (it’s a pretty long beard).  I am assuming that the students in each class need to meet some minimum participation requirements to be included in the weekly voting.

·      Nurture curiosity through mystery.  Present the students with a mystery (an information gap), and send them off to find the missing information.  The example given was to have students find out how dolphins can stay awake and alert 24/7 for 15 days.

·      Encourage exploration by having some assignments done away from the screen or the desk.  For online learning, this may mean assigning students to take virtual tours of museums (see this blog post for some suggestions) or giving hands-on assignments (e.g., ask students to survey their family and friends, ask them to design something).

·      Be clear about the real-world meaning of the lesson.  It is much easier to listen to a long lecture, or to study somewhat tedious details, if the student knows why the content matters.  How the learning is going to be applicable to their current or future life.  The teacher can speak to this point by explaining why the studies are relevant.  A strategy perhaps bringing the point a little closer to home is journaling – asking the students to write a journal entry giving their suggestions of a real-world problem that could be addressed by whatever the day’s or week’s lesson was about.


What’s the moral of these stories and strategies?  Teacher creativity, even silliness, can help students of all ages rediscover their enthusiasm for learning, both in person and online.  If they tune it at first to see what crazy thing the teacher is going to do next, they can’t help but learn while they’re tuned in to class.  If the students are asked to apply the learning, rather than simply regurgitate what the teacher says, they may actually learn to love learning, whether that learning is in person or online.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Bridging the Internet Divide in the Navajo Nation


In a previous blog post outlining the various challenges remaining to ensure that anyone anywhere can obtain quality education at little or no cost (the Straube Foundation’s mission), the first challenge identified was access to the internet.  The past almost-year of pandemic quarantining has only highlighted the number of households who do not have regular quality access to the internet.  Meaning that possibly tens of thousands of children have been left behind in their schooling.


The Navajo Nation provides a perfect example of the challenge of providing internet access in a large, thinly populated, remote rural area.  Due to the high incidence of Covid among the Navajo population, all K-12 schooling is currently online.  Many of the homes don’t have electricity or running water.  They are many miles from the nearest neighbor, and even further from the nearest school or public library or other wifi hotspot.  An estimated 50 percent of the Navajo Nation residents do not have an internet connection.  Stated another way, only 25 percent of the residences have broadband internet access.


The students and their families have taken heroic measures to ensure that the kids can keep up with their schoolwork.  Some hike to the top of a nearby hill every day to catch the elusive cell signal to download and upload assignments.  One high school student even moved to the big city (Phoenix) alone to earn income while finishing up school online.  And many of them drive long distances to access wifi.


The school district has instituted some measures to help.  It sends school buses around the reservation with assignments in hard copy, and returns to the school buildings (and teachers) with hard copy versions of the completed homework.  They have also outfitted 14 school buses with wifi, which are then parked in strategic locations several times a week.  The students or their parents drive to the school bus, and stay parked there for as long as needed. 


Depending on the distance between the students’ home and the parked school bus, they will stay parked there for however many hours it takes for the student to actually do the homework or to attend classes via zoom.  This allows the student to download homework, do the homework, and upload the completed assignments all in one sitting.  In some cases, this is a six-hour session next to the school bus wifi, not counting the round-trip from home (which can also take multiple hours)!  That’s dedication (and a full-time job for the students’ driver parent)!


Since Covid, the school district has put so much effort into online learning, they’ve received state approval of a fully online high school.  Now, let’s hope all the high school students can access the internet to take advantage of that learning opportunity.


Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Let’s bring the voting process into this day and age.  Let’s vote electronically.

 2020 voting in the USA is a horror story.  Our children and children’s children (not to mention the rest of the world) will have a hard time understanding the 2020 election process, as it was conducted in the most atrocious way.  People had to show up in person or use the mail, which then didn’t deliver all the ballots or didn’t process the returns in time to be counted.  Then, the counting took days, even weeks, was disputed, recounted, cut off and not counted.  Then, incumbent went to court to either stop the counting or to dispute the verity of paper ballots, or a specific group of paper ballots.  A nightmare if you ever wanted to see one, except that it really played out that way.

Common sense would have demanded that we vote electronically via our smart phones, handhelds, tablets, computers.  We already use these devices extensively every day, actually 9 hours per day or more on average.

Voting via one’s smart phone or equivalent is a lot more authentic and certainly prompt, no time delay whatsoever.  

So the question is why are we not voting electronically TODAY?  There is really no excuse for wasting paper for ballots and then battling about how that paper was handled.

At least four manufacturers of electronic voting machines already exist (  Electronic voting machines are already in use in various voting locations in the United States, for example in Illinois.

Then there is “ElectionBuddy” (, which will build you the voting software to make your electronic voting accurate and secure.  In other words: the technology exists.  Voting via your smartphone should be no problem at all.  After all, you can manage your bank account, send and receive any amount of money, by pushing the right buttons on your handheld, tablet or computer, any time from anywhere, also absolutely accurate and completely secure.  If the government wants to be super-secure in the voting, it could require that you use your fingerprint for identification and verification, which you may be doing already as your password on your iPhone.  Nothing is easier.  

Therefore it seems that there is really no reason at all not to change to electronic voting in all our elections.

Look at the cost this would reduce!  Dramatically.  And all the commotion, facilities, paid and unpaid workers, that would no longer be needed.  Actually most of it could be run by computers, only monitored and supervised by a few individuals who’d make sure the computers are working correctly.  No need for partisan hacks to come around to mess with the data.  Don’t you think that should be easy to do?

So why hasn’t it been done yet? Why are we still voting in the most medieval way?  Having to show up in person or fill out intricately designed ballots which need to be filled out format-correct, signed, sealed or unsealed according to instructions, and then entrusted to a Postal Service, which in more cases than not, may delay delivery past the voting day time.

Voting electronically is straight forward instead, much easier, 100% secure (see fingerprint), and eliminates all the means which, in one way or another, could be influenced by partisan management.  Plus a considerable side benefit:  Greatly reduced cost of the whole endeavor.

Thus it makes sense if electronic voting were adopted nationally.  In addition to the enormous cost savings, it would make our democracy better and stronger.  Congress or the president could use that electronic voting connection for gauging the country’s position on major issues which may need to be decided.  Congress could go back to the voters in midterm, or any time, to get their thinking on whatever the major issue might be. This ability would eliminate or at least greatly reduce the objections, or even hatred, building up for the next election date.  It would enable the government to govern better because of continuous feedback from the governed.  And the cost therefor would be negligible, if any.

The biggest concern circulating about electronic voting is the presumed possibility of hacking (such as by hackers on FaceBook and Twitter, the Russian disinformation campaigns, etc), and the subsequent alteration of votes to benefit a given candidate.  Well, these same hackers or others like them have been and are trying to crack into your and everybody else’s bank accounts online to move money into their hide-aways.  Yet, the banks’ electronic security systems have been and are making this a rather fruitless endeavor.  Of course the same would apply to the attempt of stealing electronic votes.

By the way, there ARE already countries which do use electronic voting extensively.  So far, Estonia seems to be the only country in the world that relies exclusively on what’s called “internet voting.”  In Canada, online voting is possible for municipal elections in Ontario and Nova Scotia.  Already in 2004, the Netherlands used i-voting for an election to the Rijnland Water Board and in 2006 (for overseas voters) for national elections.  In Switzerland some cantons offer online voting.  And more.

So, there is no good reason why the U.S. is so far behind in using electronic technology to make voting safer, faster, and more reliable.  Now, therefore, after this election is over and well before the next one is coming up, please go to your representative, your senator, the powers-that-be, and urge them to make our democracy stronger, greatly reduce the cost and circumstances of voting, by switching to electronic voting.  Yes, in the 21st century this is not only possible, it is high time to conduct our voting in a 21st century manner.  We just need to do it.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Garbage In Garbage Out: How Food Affects Our Brain Function


I’ve had several reminders recently about the close connection between what we eat and how well our brain functions (or not).  The most recent:  I ate plenty today, so I was not hungry.  But my brain was definitely tired around 3 pm today, even though I’d tried all my usually restart techniques (had a snack, took a walk, did a short mindfulness practice, worked a word puzzle).  I ate a handful of nuts, and presto, about 15 minutes later I was ready to attack the to-do list again.  That little combination of protein and healthy fat was the kickstart my brain needed to re-engage.


The topic of this blog entry is not likely to be news to many of you.  We all know that eating a diet high in processed food, sugars, carbs and saturated fats is unhealthy for us.  But maybe we don’t think there are significant ramifications beyond that unsightly blob of belly fat.  Think again.


Our brain uses as much as 20 percent of the body’s energy.  So, it makes sense that the fuel we give our body to create energy (food) can have a direct impact on how well our brain functions.


A recent study concluded that higher levels of body fat in individuals 65 and older suggested a higher risk of cognitive impairment.  By contrast, greater muscle mass in the same age group suggested that these individuals were more protected from cognitive aging.   Of course, the difference between obesity and greater muscle mass is not merely a function of what an individual eats, but a bad diet is a strong predictor of obesity.


Studies have shown that high sugar intake causes the brain’s memory functions to deteriorate, and may increase the risk of dementia.  Other studies show the opposite, that a reduction in sugar intake can support improved brain function.


The food-brain function connection is certainly a long-term relationship.  The healthier you eat over the years, the better and longer your brain will work for you.  But there is also a more immediate food-brain function connection.  This article suggests a menu filled with protein, healthy fats and snacks to eat the day before and the day of a big test, to give your brain the energy it needs to do its best work.


Interested in learning more about which foods are actually good for you, and should improve your cognitive function?  This chart will tell you everything you want to know.  I think I’ll add some blueberries and dark chocolate to my handful of nuts when I hit tomorrow afternoon’s slump!





Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Free Resource for Our Blog Readers to Empower Your Mind to Learn


Last month, we introduced a new resource that can set you up for success as a learner.   This resource remains available for free for our blog readers for the next ~60 days.  If you haven’t accessed the EMindful website yet, let me tell you a little bit about what you’ll find there.


First, you’ll fill out a 4-question survey to establish a baseline of how you emotionally cope with stressful situations.  Next, you’ll indicate your familiarity with mindfulness (in 3 simple steps).  After that short-and-sweet get-to-know-you introduction, the website’s many resources are revealed.


EMindful’s resources fall into 38 categories, including stress, Covid-19, sleep, relationships, anxiety, focus, happiness, performance and effectiveness, communication.  I selected these three:  resilience, leadership, wellbeing.  Fascinating material, providing relevant and practical strategies.


Exploration of the website starts with a 2-minute video called “What is Mindfulness?”  I would give a summary, but I think you should watch it for yourself!  A tour of the website reveals that there are many live programs, with a daily schedule of guided mindfulness practices.   


There are many live programs (multi- and single session) on topics such as weight balance for life; stress less, live more; social eating and holiday weight loss (a single session happening next week on 10/29).  If you don’t want to be tied to someone else’s teaching schedule, there are also on-demand programs on topics such as enhancing performance, emotional intelligence, avoiding burnout, purposeful decision-making.


So, how will these mindfulness resources help someone become a better learner?  I have an example of something that just happened today.  One of my ESL (English as a second language) students came to our one-on-one session today emotionally upset about events happening in her home country (far from here) that she cannot change.  She was so distracted that she couldn’t concentrate on her schoolwork.  Luckily, she is familiar with mindfulness and we were able to use some mindfulness strategies to re-focus her brain away from the emotional drama and toward today’s lesson plan.


I encourage you to visit the EMindful website today to make the most out of the remaining free trial period we’ve arranged for our readership.