Category Archives: Lessons

Getting in the Zone


Now that we have established an understanding of our brain’s limbic system which is in charge of our emotions and behaviour, it is time to become familiar with the range of emotions we may feel throughout the day and what we can do to help manage them, or self-regulate.

I have introduced the classes to the Zones of Regulation Curriculum. To be honest, when I first learnt about this program I wasn’t ‘moved’ by it in any life changing way. It seemed to be a rather rigid way of identifying emotions with too many categories and boxes. I am not very good at putting things in boxes, I am usually trying to take things out. However, a dear colleague of mine tested the program in her class for a few years and recommended that I give it another look. I guess this was a personal test in approaching something more mindfully.

Upon further investigation, I realized that the ‘heart’ of the program spoke to the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of self-regulation in the classroom. The goal is to have students be able to identify their emotional state or ‘zone’ independently throughout their day, and then with the introduction of a variety of tools and strategies be able to choose one that will help them regulate their feelings and be ready to face their day in a more optimal state.

Here is how it works:

There are four zones, often represented with these four road signs:

Zones traffic signs

The blue zone is represented by the rest area sign, as it is when our energy is low and we need to stop to re-energize ourselves.

The green zone is represented by the green light as it is the ‘good to go’ zone.

The yellow zone is represented by the slow sign as it is when we need to exercise caution or slow down. Our energy is usually heightened in this state.

The red zone is represented by the stop sign as it is when we have lost control and need to pause or stop what we are doing.

The program offers a list of basic emotions attached to each zone:

Zones Emotions Poster

One of my struggles with this program was that I know kids have a much wider range of emotion and what if they don’t identify with any of those in a particular moment?

So with each class, after introducing the basic ‘feeling’ attached to each zone, we brainstormed a more extensive list on how else you may be feeling in that zone. Here is what they came up with:

The Blue Zone: Students described this zone as feeling tired, sad, bored, sick, lonely, unhappy, slow, hungry, depressed, lethargic, emotional, drained, lazy, played out, out of it, confused, need a friend, low energy, annoyed, grumpy, forgetful, uncomfortable, shy and not ready to learn.

The Green Zone: Students described this zone as feeling happy, good, ready to learn, strong, comfortable, kind, nice, helpful, well rested, confident, awake, focused, in the zone, up beat, patient, proud, mindful and calm.

The Yellow Zone: Students described this zone as feeling frustrated, anxious, over-excited, about to blow up, nervous, irritated, stressed, hyper, fidgety, twitchy, grumpy, unable, tense, unfocused, ready to burst, on edge, impatient, ecstatic, caution, needing relief.

The Red zone: Students described this zone as feeling mad, angry, explosive, extreme, elevated, at your witts end, fed up, short tempered, violent, aggressive, want to be alone, isolated, out of control and had enough.

I was very impressed how the students articulated their feelings in each zone and deepened their understanding of the range of emotions we might feel throughout our day. This brainstorming session helped me take the zones out of the box and make it come alive for the students. Looking at the lists they generated, they could identify with how it feels when our energy is low, elevated, balanced, or out of control.

I wanted to make sure that students weren’t casting a negative or positive tone on any of the feelings. It was important for them to understand that throughout our days we all go through a range of emotions and that it’s OK to feel frustrated, angry, or sad sometimes. I really wanted students to get comfortable with the idea that the zones are here to help them identify how they are feeling so that we can help them through those feelings and give them tools and strategies to work towards knowing what they personally need to regulate their emotions. But the first step is to simply be able to identify and be aware of our emotions.

What zone are you in?


Just Breathe…MindUP Lesson #3


After discussing what it meant to be mindful, today we embarked on a very mindful practice: breathing. I love this lesson because students are able to connect what is happening in their brain when they breathe deeply and understand how it can help in becoming more mindful.breathe rock

Focusing on our breathing can help calm our bodies by slowing our heart rate, lowering blood pressure and sharpening focus. It gives our amygdala time to slow down its ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response and communicate with our prefrontal cortex. We are then able to think clearly and make more mindful choices.

Why do we need to practice mindful breathing everyday?

When we practice something everyday our brains become stronger by creating and strengthening neural pathways and connections. This is the idea of neuroplasticity.

When we practice deep breathing as a response to stress, we develop these practices as healthy habits. Our amygdala can calm down and we can be more reflective in our thoughts and actions.

This seems like quite a sophisticated process to explain to children, but with a brief visual using our hands and arms as neurons they are figuring it out.


Sitting in a circle, I asked the kids to stretch out their arms. Their fingers are the dendrites, their hand the nucleus, their forearm the axon and out from their elbow are the nerve endings. With our fingers moving, we talk about how information moves from the dendrites through the axon and then can connect to other dendrites. I had the students hook their ‘dendrites’ (fingers) to their neighbour’s ‘nerve endings’ (elbows) to show how pathways in our brain can grow and strengthen. Students were very excited to learn that they in fact could strengthen their brains!


Making connections…

So how do we breath? Funny, it’s something we do all day, everyday, but we often don’t give much thought to how we are doing it or the quality of our breaths.

Belly breaths

belly breath

I remember the first time I learnt about belly breathing in a yoga class I was shocked to find out my whole life I had been breathing backwards. When I would breathe in, I would literally suck my belly in, not allowing much air in. When I breathed out, I would push my belly out.

When you think about breathing in as bringing fresh oxygen IN to your body, it makes sense that your belly would rise up as you fill it with air. When you breathe out, your belly then drops as your squeeze all the air out of your belly and lungs.

The best way to do this with kids is have them put their hands on their bellies so they can feel their bellies rise and fall. With younger kids it is also fun for them to do it lying down with an object placed on their belly so they can watch it go up and down as they breathe.

Once we had some giggles and figured out how to breathe in and out we decided to put it into practice. I told the students to find a place in the room they felt comfortable. I would ring a bell to start our mindful breathing and then I would ring it again to signal that we were done. The chime helps to bring our attention to our breathing. It’s nice to have a bell or chime with a resonate sound so that is lingers for a while so that the students can keep focusing on the sound.

We talked about if we were indeed ‘mindfully’ breathing, what should we look like?

-Focusing only on our breathing

-Our bodies are still

-our eyes are closed or focused on one thing

-Our backs are straight, shoulders relaxed, and feet flat on the floor

These were all ‘check ins’ to help us be able to really focus on only our breathing.

The MindUP book gives a nice script to follow to guide your students through the breathing practice:

Mindup script

The first group I did this with was a grade 6/7 class. We got through the lesson and then I asked them to find a place in the room where they could be comfortable so we could practice our mindful breathing. I waited until everyone shuffled about, some choosing to sit against the wall, others laid out on the floor and some in their chairs. We took a moment just to relax and get comfortable before I rang the bell.

And then in was silent. I looked around and everyone was breathing.

When I rang the bell for the second time I asked the students to come back to the circle we were gathered in on the floor. I wanted to ask what they thought about it.

“Can we do it again?” was the first comment. I smiled and said of course.

“It was nice to have a minute where I felt like I didn’t have to worry about anything.”

“I finally felt relaxed.”

It was very powerful to hear grade 6/7 students speak like this after 1 minute of deep breathing. Imagine if we practiced everyday!

We talked about times in our day when a minute of deep breathing could be helpful. Here’s what they came up with:

Beginning of the day

After reccess/lunch

Before a test

On the bus

Before bed

I asked the students to see if they could use their deep breathing at least once more that day when they feel like they need to take a minute to reflect and calm down. I hope we are on our way to developing a healthy habit 🙂


Mind Full or Mindful? MindUP Lesson #2


We started out our next lesson reflecting on this image:

Mind FUll or Mindful?

I asked the students to look at the picture and decide what the difference between mind full and mindful was.

One student responded: “Being mindful means you are only thinking about what is happening around you”.

Another student added: “Mindful means being aware”.

Wow, nice descriptions.

Another student raised their hand: “Being mindful means not worrying about anything else and being able to enjoy the moment”.

These are grade 4 students…my heart was melting.

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 8.11.46 PM

We went on to discuss that yes indeed, being mindful if about be aware and present in the moment. The students instantly connected this to our previous lesson on our brains and said that if we are being mindful, our amygdalae are calm and we are able to thinking clearly and make good decisions.

Being mindful is also about paying attention to all the details and gathering facts before we form opinions. We do this so we don’t make unmindful judgements about situations or others. When we are tuned in to what’s happening around us we can be reflective in our thoughts and actions rather than letting our emotions rule our reactions.

Students quickly connected this to their day and thought of times they made both mindful and unmindful choices. We talked about that when we make unmindful choices it doesn’t mean that we are ‘bad’, it just means that we were not able to make a good decision in that moment.

So now the question is, how can we be more mindful?

Mindful choice

Getting to know and love your brain: MindUP Lesson #1



We have embarked on an exciting journey within our schools. Our goal is to increase self regulation amongst our students so they have the capacity to recognize and take control of their emotions and actions. We want to equip children with the tools they need to be mindful and aware of themselves and others.

This journey has started with the MindUP program. The first lesson got our kids from kindergarten to grade 7 learning about their brains, specifically the limbic system which controls our thoughts and emotions. The three parts we learnt:

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 8.51.25 PM


Prefrontal cortex:  ‘our leader’ right in the front of our brain.PFC

It is in charge of making decisions, thinking, learning and problem solving.



security guard


Amygdala:  our ‘security guard’ that warns our body of

amg and hipdanger and stress to protect us.




filing cabinet 

Hippocampus: our memory saver or our filling cabinet

that stores all of our experiences and everything we learn.



How does this help us understand our thoughts and emotions?

When we are in a calm and safe state, our amygdala can communicate with the ‘leader’ part of our brain to make good decisions. When we are in a negative emotional state where we feel stressed, anxious, or fearful, the amygdala fires to warn us (our fight, flight, freeze response) and cannot communicate with our ‘leader’ part of our brain for clear decision making.

fight or flight

We can train our brains to respond reflectively rather than reactively. By developing this awareness of what is going on in our brains, we can learn ways to calm our amygdalae so that we can reason and think clearly to make better decisions.

We will spend the weeks to come learning about how we can do this!