P.E. for the soul

Guest contributor Kim Hiles teaches physical education for Kindergarten through 5th grade at Austin Discovery School, a homegrown, progressive charter school in East Austin. She has training and expertise in special education, behavioral coaching, mediation, and conflict resolution and is a Third-Degree Reiki practitioner. She blogs at Kim's Korner. Empowering others is her passion.   

I have been fortunate to have found a school that thinks outside the box and encourages the students to do the same. This was a school that called to me, over 10 years ago, because of its weekly hikes, gardening program, academic philosophy, and positive approach to discipline. After working in a Montessori School, and learning so much about what respect looks and feel like, I knew I wanted a school that fosters the whole child. I wanted this for my child and for myself—a place where professionals cultivate this in each other.

I am a physical education teacher at Austin Discovery School. My job is to teach students to love their bodies, take care of their bodies, listen to their bodies, and feed their bodies nourishing things. This can look different from one person to the next, so I teach students to do their own research and find what works for them, which also helps nurture tolerance and acceptance.

I love starting the beginning of the year with our Cooperation unit. In this unit, our focus is on character building, integrity, and honesty. Students begin by practicing what it means to really trust someone by doing free fall and other trust activities. We encourage teamwork with games such as the Human Knot, Parachute, and BLOB. In this unit students also learn how to assertively take care of themselves by speaking up as well as listening compassionately.

Students at most schools are taught to go to an adult so that the adult can fix their problems. At our school, however, and in this class, we teach students how to problem solve so that they have the skills to go off into the world as solvers, innovators, and bringers of peace. We use Conscious Discipline by Dr. Becky Bailey, a wonderful program that fosters love of self and others. Our school also uses restorative practices. Starting class with circle and ending class with appreciations/shares (and using the talking stick) fosters connection, and connection is the key to everything.

P.E. must be a positive experience for every student. In our classes, we introduce a wide variety of activities to help students find a love in something fun and healthy for the body, so they will enjoy an active life. I also offer dance, yoga, and guided meditation. The students love it when they practice “sponge” (a yoga pose) and I take them on a journey.

I like to think that I teach P.E. for the soul, wellness for the whole self. In truth, wellness isn’t just about what we do physically but is more about how we treat ourselves holistically. It is about the messages we give to ourselves and the focus of our thoughts and beliefs. When a student is struggling and saying, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” I remind them that it is very true when this is their focus. Instead, when we give more positive messages to ourselves, we are feeding self-love into the body, which in turn can teach us new things and keep us strong, healthy, and confident. I tell the students that our bodies are listening to what we say, so it’s important to feed our body kind thoughts. In our classroom we have a Safe Place (all classes on campus have these), and on the wall are affirmations such as “I can handle it,” “I am enough,” and “I am doing my best, and my best is enough.”

P.E. for the soul is my journey. It’s a full and fulfilled life with no regrets. It’s a celebration of mind/body/soul and an awakening into awareness. It's a realization that I am doing what I came here to do. Look for my memoir coming soon.

Kim Hiles

Planting Roots of Empathy in Austin schools

Laura Smith, a postpartum doula with Austin Babymoon, is one of those rare individuals who seem to transform the world in positive ways with their every move. I am thrilled to bring Laura and her latest transformative project to you by way of today’s special guest post.

Roots of Empathy is a social-emotional learning program for elementary-aged schoolchildren that brings together everything most dear to me in the world: babies, children, and compassion and empathy. From the moment I first encountered the program, through an article in the New York Times in late 2010, I knew I wanted to bring it to Austin to share with our community.

At the heart of the program are babies, coming into K–5 classrooms every three weeks all year long as tiny teachers. As a postpartum doula and nanny (and mother) with over a decade of work with dozens of babies, I have long felt reverence for the simple wisdom and presence of babies. Babies’ lack of self-assertion and their guilelessness makes them universally appealing. Almost anyone can smile with a baby.

What Roots of Empathy has discovered since the program’s inception in Toronto in 1996 is that deliberate exposure to these infantile qualities can be profoundly transformative, bringing out the best in us all. The children connect to the baby's humanity on a deep emotional level. This connection becomes the lever for discovering their own feelings and the feelings of others.

Roots of Empathy takes place in classrooms with students and teachers, a parent & baby duo, and a trained, volunteer Roots of Empathy instructor. Through guided observations of the baby's development and feelings and of the loving parental relationship, children learn to identify and reflect on their own thoughts and feelings and those of others. The trained Roots of Empathy instructor prepares and reinforces teaching done during family visits using a specialized lesson plan each week.

Much research and independent evaluation back up what I could immediately intuitively understand: that the program significantly reduces bullying and aggression and increases social-emotional competence and prosocial behaviors such as sharing and cooperation. It also reduces bystanderism. When students who have been through the program later witness cruelty and injustice, even if they are not directly involved, they are moved to stand up for their beleaguered peers.

And of course, better academic performance is a natural outcome of children's lowered stress levels and sense of being more supported and safe in their classrooms.

The program has deeply affected many participants, like a troubled young man who had been in and out of foster care most of his life. He held “his” baby (a beautiful sense of ownership comes for the students as they connect to “their” baby throughout the year) in a Snuggli and took her to a corner of the classroom to spend a few quiet moments with her, while the mom, instructor, and teacher pretended not to look on. Afterwards, he said to the instructor, “Do you think that even if no one has ever loved you in your whole life, it is possible to love?”

The program is widespread in Canada, England, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and New Zealand and is newly established in Germany, Seattle, San Francisco, and New York. It is so effective that the Scottish government has decided to implement it countrywide.

Roots of Empathy has been recognized by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama; Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman, Dr. Dan Siegel, the award-winning psychiatrist, author, and educator; and the World Health Organization, among others. The organization works in partnership with indigenous people and minorities globally. Mary Gordon, the founder, has won numerous awards, and the program has also won an International Changemakers award from the Ashoka organization.

And now, this fall, as a result of more than two years of community development work, Roots of Empathy is coming to Austin!

There is nothing quite like seeing the program in action, so I suggest at this point watching this two-minute introductory video:

Here is a longer, ten-minute video with a lot more classroom footage. (I will admit it now: I can never keep from tearing up when I watch these videos!)

You might also want to listen to this Jian Ghomeshi interview with Mary Gordon that aired on NPR in May.

Interested in being involved? I would love that, and I need your input! Here are a few ways to participate.

  • I am looking for people who are interested in becoming volunteer Roots of Empathy instructors. Instructors deliver all aspects of the Roots of Empathy lessons in the classroom and work closely with the participating volunteer family. The instructors witness and guide the transformative effect of the baby’s presence in the group of children. It is an amazing experience!
  • We will also need volunteer families, once funding is secured. Babies should be between two and four months old at the beginning of the program, so born between early July and late August of this year. It is a transformative experience for participating families. Often, the parents are so moved by the experience that they become volunteer instructors the following year!
  • Perhaps you know of a school that would benefit from this program. This fall, it will be in 15 classrooms across the following four schools: The Khabele School, Austin Discovery School, Cedars International Academy, and Ridgetop Elementary. I have interest from schools in Pflugerville ISD and Eanes ISD as well and am already starting to prepare for the next school year (2014–2015), when it will be in 15 more classrooms.
  • Lastly, and at the moment most importantly, funds. Financial support. We are applying for several grants, but in order to conduct the training in October for this fall, we need immediate funds. Roots of Empathy is a 501c3 nonprofit organization. We are looking for private individual donors as well as corporate sponsors.

Thank you for your interest! For more information, check out the Roots of Empathy website. And please feel free to ask me any questions in the comments section below.

Laura Smith