In this episode, Dawn Williams speaks with Blue School teacher, Annabelle Baylin. One of the hallmarks of Annabelle’s classroom is her care in bringing mindfulness into children’s daily routines and her commitment to conversations about social justice. Annabelle discusses her own mindfulness practice, as well as what she’s learned from doing this work with children.
Mindfulness for Children and Families with Annabelle Baylin
DAWN WILLIAMS: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance at home and in life can be a challenge. And now, we’ve been called on to be 24 hour a day parents while balancing work responsibilities and our own emotions during this difficult moment in time. If you're finding it particularly difficult, we’re so with you.
Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience empowering children to be joyful, creative, courageous and compassionate.
I’m Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment and proud parent of a Blue School Graduate. Every week I’ll be talking to an educator, Blue School Advisory Board member, or special guest about today’s ever-changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing.
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Today I’ll be talking with Blue School teacher, Annabelle Baylin. One of the hallmarks of Annabelle’s classroom is her care in bringing mindfulness into children’s daily routines, and her commitment to conversations about social justice. Today we’ll be discussing her own mindfulness practice, as well as what she’s learned from doing this work with children. Annabelle will also share tools that we can all use at home to invite deepened presence and deepened connection with our families. Annabelle, welcome to On Balance.
ANNABELLE BAYLIN: Thank you Dawn, it’s great to be here.
DAWN WILLIAMS: It’s so good to talk to you. I know that ‘how are you’ can feel like a loaded, almost existential question these days, but I’d love to start by checking in. Can you tell me where you are and how you’re doing today?
ANNABELLE BAYLIN: Sure. Yeah, I think I am — I am doing pretty well overall. I am really very actively every day working on cultivating joy, and moments of joy. And so right before this I sat down and just sang a little bit on the piano, and that really reset where I am, and I feel really good right now.
DAWN WILLIAMS: That sounds so lovely. I think this time really calls for those moments, right? Whether it's just looking out your window for a moment and sort of remembering that there is a sky, and there are birds. Or sort of connecting to the things that you love to do. I love to think about you singing in your house. So we were going to talk today a little bit about your mindfulness practice, both your own sort of personal practice and your work with children. Can you share a little bit about your own mindfulness practice and what it’s meant to you throughout your life a little bit?
ANNABELLE BAYLIN: Absolutely. I mean, I think first maybe it would be helpful to just give a quick definition of mindfulness. I think a really simple way to define it that I like to use when talking to children especially is that it’s paying attention to whatever’s happening right now with curiosity and with kindness. So it brings in that piece of — that you’re open to whatever’s arising and that you’re going to be non-judgmental, that you’re going to be kind with yourself with whatever’s arising. So I think I really like that definition.
So my own practice, I grew up in a family of meditators. So both of my parents have been meditating for a very, very long time. And so I grew up with that as something that was important to my family. And so I learned to meditate and follow my breath and many different strategies for going inward from a very young age, and how important that was. And when I was younger I didn’t necessarily sit down and practice that, but I saw my parents doing it and I knew how important it was, and I knew it was something that my family valued. And then when I was a teenager, it really became crucial to my life.
I felt like I was out of control a lot of the time, and I realized that a lot of the sort of out of control feeling was something that I could actually bring into my control with my breath, and by noticing what I was thinking and feeling, and sort of changing that narrative through meditation. And so when I was 15, that really became an important practice for me. And I’ve continued to practice meditation every morning. That’s part of my morning routine, I sit down and meditate. And another practice that’s been incorporated into my meditation practice is setting an intention for my day. It’s something that I think about at the end of my meditation practice, of what I — what I want to bring to the day. And that’s been a really transformative practice for me. It’s been something I can check — a way to check in with myself throughout the day.
DAWN WILLIAMS: That’s so beautiful. I wonder if, are there specific ways that this practice has affected your work as a teacher or your work with children?
ANNABELLE BAYLIN: Absolutely. I mean, I would say in pretty much every single way. I’ve watched how as my own meditation practice has deepened over the years, my teaching has become much richer. My stance with children is just so much calmer and more patient. And what I’ve also noticed as I’ve watched myself evolve through this practice is my need to feel a sense of control has really shifted. I feel much freer to try things spontaneously and allow something to go in a new direction and just sort of be okay with that. Knowing that it might not work and that’s okay. And I think that all comes from my meditation practice.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Yeah, that’s very interesting, that you’re — what you said about your stance with children. I feel like that — I’m hearing that as a parent and thinking, oh there’s something in that that I need to think about more in my parenting. That’s a helpful frame for me. I know as parents we so often say that we — I don’t know, we have this idea of our children being in a mindfulness practice, or we want schools to incorporate this mindfulness practice. I think what each school means when they talk about sort of doing mindfulness, it’s so different. Can you share what some of the daily practices that take place in your classroom are?
ANNABELLE BAYLIN: Absolutely. I mean, I think you’re so spot on that the definitions — what people mean when they say “our school does mindfulness” or “we’re doing mindfulness” just varies so vastly.
DAWN WILLIAMS: I laugh often when people say to me like, “what is your mindfulness curriculum? Where did you get it from?” And you’re — yeah, so I think there are very different ideas that people have, yeah.
ANNABELLE BAYLIN: Right. And so I think just to sort of address that, I think that there is a piece for sure of teachers, and I think this translates to parents as well as we begin to talk about how to bring this into your family, that this doesn’t work if you’re not doing it. So I think a lot of teachers and parents kind of want an antidote or like a panacea or something, where you can say, “Okay, just do this thing this way, the way that this video says or that this curriculum says, and this’ll make my kid calmer, or help my — you know, make my day go much smoother.” And I think that, you know, there’s an ounce of truth to that, but that there is a lot of power in these practices. But that a lot of that stems from — it goes back to that stance, right? Of the adult, and the person who wants to bring that to their classroom, to their family life.
And so I think it really does start with you, right? It starts with how are you taking that time to pause and reflect, to build in these moments into your day so that it’s embodied, so that your children are seeing that modeled. Because I think if you're just saying the words, it can come off as, you know, “You need to be calm right now.” As opposed to creating an environment. So I think that that’s important to say up front. But definitely in terms of mindfulness practices, I think that there are kind of two pieces to the practices. There’s one, I think routine is so important for children as we know. And so building in a routine that we do every day, where we do some mindful listening, we’re listening to the sound of a singing bowl and taking deep breaths, and that can be child-led. That becomes just so ingrained in them. They just know that, how to do that so well, and it becomes their own.
And then there’s the second piece, which is more of an embodied practice throughout the day. So this thing that we call mindfulness doesn’t just exist in the moment when we’re sitting together and ringing a singing bowl and taking deep breaths. But we’re learning and practicing this because it’s something that we can use in our real lives when we need it. So taking the time to notice the moments in the day when we might be able to implement, you know, a deep breath, or notice how we’re feeling and talk about that. So it’s the routine and then also the actual embodied practice throughout the day.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Yeah. I feel like you were just getting at this, but I wonder if you can share a little bit about what your intentions are, what your hopes are for your class, or for individual children as you build these practices.
ANNABELLE BAYLIN: Absolutely. I mean, there — I think self-awareness, resilience, building strength and tolerance for emotions that might feel difficult to handle, but building that tolerance and that acceptance of emotions that come and go. And knowing how to process those, how to move through those. I think a lot of people, children who are more school age, doing academic work, a lot of teachers and parents kind of think, “Oh, mindfulness helps children focus. So this is great, you know, it’ll help them really focus on their schoolwork.” And that is certainly true, but I think that if we just narrow in on mindfulness as a way to focus on the present moment, I think we lose a big piece of it. And I think there’s something that kind of goes hand in hand with what we call mindfulness, a lot of people talk about heart-fulness, and bringing in these qualities of kindness and compassion and gratitude.
And that is something that in our classroom we really cultivate that heart-fulness piece alongside of the mindfulness, the training our mind to focus on whatever the object of focus is. There’s also the bringing in those — those qualities that we want to have in ourselves and look for in each other.
DAWN WILLIAMS: It’s so lovely to hear you say that so explicitly. I feel like it’s very clear when you walk into your classroom, that language, language of heart-fulness is in the children, right? They’re very comfortable with their words of compassion, of openness, of generosity. Can you — how does that become so — I don’t want to say easy for them because I’m sure it’s not easy for them, it’s practiced. But it seems very, I don’t know, deep in who they are in the classroom.
ANNABELLE BAYLIN: Yeah. Yeah, I mean I think it’s work that we do every single day. And we call it — as you know, Karen and I, my co-teacher have cultivated this work that we call our intentions work. And it’s actually — it’s an extension of our mindfulness practice every day. The routine that we have that’s child-led. Right after that, we introduce a word. One of these qualities, one of these words that we really want to develop in ourselves and look for in each other.
And so we look for what’s happening in our classroom, notice what’s arising, you know, if there’s — for example, like in a moment of sort of a competitive nature coming up, we noticed there was a lot of, you know, wanting to be first in line, or wanting to be the best at something. And so when we thought about what word might encompass that, what word might help to bring the qualities that we want to see, where we’re putting others first. We thought about graciousness. And so we brought that word to four and five year olds, and they loved getting these big words. And defined it in a really simple way and just said, you know, this means a lot of different things but what we’re going to focus on is the part of it that means being happy for somebody else.
So when somebody else wins a game, you can show graciousness and you can say, “I’m so happy for you.” And you can really genuinely feel happy for someone else. And so we talk about these different words like integrity and graciousness and openness and generosity and acceptance. There’s many, many of these words that we bring to them and define in simple ways, and have conversations about on a daily basis. And then notice how those unfold in our classroom, in our children throughout the day, and name it when it’s happening. So they really become an integral part of our day, and of our vocabulary, and of our classroom culture.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Yeah, it’s so visible in your classroom culture. As someone who just sort of walks through your classroom, it’s palpable, that the group has a sense of itself as a group, and how to sort of care for itself as a group.
I wonder if you could share a little bit about the impact of this practice on individual children. If there are specific benefits you’ve noticed, or growth I guess even that you’ve noticed that feels connected to this practice in individual children.
ANNABELLE BAYLIN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think over the years I’ve seen — consistently seen, you know, children come in with maybe a frustration over not getting to be called on right away, or very quick to, you know, become angry about something and not necessarily have very many strategies to support them with that. Or not much tolerance for that emotion. And over not that much time of practicing breathing and feeling what it feels like to do this practice in a -- when they are in a calm state, that they’re able to apply that after so much practice. In those moments of frustration they’re able to learn to pause and, you know, take a break, and take the deep breaths, or even stay in the group, and just feel those feelings, but take those deep breaths and let it pass. And I see that again and again. So I think on an individual level, that’s huge.
And then I think on a group level, you know, as I mentioned we have the routine that we have every day is child-led. So we have a mindfulness leader each day. And often what happens is throughout the day the mindfulness leader or even someone else will notice that our class maybe is at an energy level that’s too much for that moment. And so children will request, you know, to take some deep breaths or the mindfulness leader, who is a child, to lead the class in one of our practices. And I think that’s just so empowering, that it doesn’t have to always come from the teacher. You know, to say, “It’s time to, you know, settle down, or we have to be quiet,” or — that children can also become aware of that, and take ownership over it, and request that moment.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Sure. And that this practice isn’t relegated to one moment of the day, that the children have a sense that they can call on it when they need it throughout the day, that feels really interesting.
ANNABELLE BAYLIN: Yeah, and also many families over the years have shared with me how their children bring this practice home, and teach the whole family. And that many children have shared that they have received a singing bowl for a birthday or you know, whatever holiday. Because that’s what they really wanted so that they could lead their family in this practice. And parents have also shared with me that sometimes their children, just like I was saying, you know, in the classroom they feel empowered to say, “I think we need to stop and take some deep breaths,” that their children do the same thing with the adults in the family.
And say, you know, “I think maybe you need to take some deep breaths.” And then lead them in that practice. But I mean, how amazing.
DAWN WILLIAMS: How totally amazing. And so this feels especially powerful right now. I mean, here we are in this incredibly difficult moment, with so many families really having to restructure what their home life looks like. And doing that while being in a moment of sometimes heightened emotions, I think both on parent’s parts and on children’s parts. I wonder if you have any thoughts about how families might use this moment to create a family practice, or to think about their individual practice.
ANNABELLE BAYLIN: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean there are so many things I could say here. But I think I really could not emphasize enough the power of the breath. I think it seems obvious, it seems like, “yeah, yeah, I know that, of course.” But it’s so simple, and it is the most powerful thing we can do, is to just remember to bring attention to our breath and notice what it’s doing. And sometimes it might just be a matter of taking an intentionally deep breath, and an intentionally long breath out.
And that can be enough to completely shift perspective. I think that, you know, a practice that I do all throughout the day, especially when I’m teaching, is I just remember, it’s like the remembering piece. To just pause for a microsecond and check in, and notice — just doing like a quick scan of my chest and my abdomen. And what I often notice is that there’s a holding and like a tightening, and I’m not fully breathing. And when I notice that, all I have to do is just kind of become aware and — take a deep breath, and I find that that — it’s like a reset. And I can respond with a lot more compassion to children or to myself even, or to whoever I’m talking to.
So I will definitely offer some more ideas, but I just wanted to say that I think it can be that simple. It can be as simple as just practicing remembering the breath, and whatever that might be for you, whatever kind of reminder you might give yourself, you know? Like writing it on your computer screen or whatever it might be. But just that remembering can be so, so powerful. I think that there is also a lot of — it can be really incredible to come together as a family to do this practice. You know, you don’t need a singing bowl, you don’t need anything, you have your breath.
And I think coming together in the morning, you know, over breakfast or whatever it might be, whatever moment for your family when you are all together before your days go in separate ways, you know, you could take turns leading each other in some breaths. And just kind of grounding together. And the other piece that I want to offer that might sound a little out there, a little hokey, but it’s so true to me. And speaking from the heart, that this is really a practice that has supported me. I think that there is a lot in speaking aloud what you want to cultivate as a family, just in the same way that I spoke about the words that we choose to highlight in our classroom and say, “this is what’s important to us as a classroom community.”
I think that doing that as a family is pretty incredible. If you say, you know, as a family we are kind, we are generous, we are — whatever it might be, you know, that you decide these are the words that feel right. It might be picking a word to focus on as a family that day, just like I was sharing I do in my own practice and that we do in our classroom. Saying, “today let’s just see what happens if we all hold this quality or this word in mind, and see if we can notice that in each other today.” And then, you know, just checking in about it throughout the day.
It really helps the goodness shine through all day long. There’s so much out there, it’s so easy to go to the negative right now, and I’m not saying all of this to brush that under the rug, because that’s not what this is about. But it’s highlighting, it’s bringing out the goodness. Because there is so much good, too, and we can bring that out in each other. And I think it’s almost like a responsibility to do that right now, to support each other in finding ways to bring that out in each other and in ourselves. And so having a touchstone like that can be really, really supportive. Like, checking in, am I bringing gentleness into this moment, you know? Or how could I change what I’m doing to — how could I shift that to bring gentleness, or whatever that word might be, into this moment.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Absolutely. And I so appreciate what you’re saying as coming from a parent as well, right? That it isn’t as a parent that we’re telling our child to embody this thing as much as inviting this quality into our whole family’s framework. So you know, I could be telling myself that as much as I’m sort of asking questions to pull my family into that question as well.
ANNABELLE BAYLIN: Yeah, right, right. And like saying — naming aloud, you know, this is what we value as a family. Like this is what’s important to us. It’s that it’s not just about me or you, but taking time to also create those as a family, right? Like everybody’s naming what those qualities are, what those things are, that are important.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Yeah, that feels incredibly useful to me. As you were just talking, I was thinking about the connection between these practices and something that I’ve noticed in the students in your classes. And I’ve seen you teach a few different grades, a few different ages of children. But regardless of their age, it seems that each child is sort of moved to raise their voice, to affect change, to have a real point of view about the things that matter most to them. You know, I’ve seen students in your classes advocate for participating in climate marches or revamping the materials used for your lunch program, or think about building a well. Like, you know, there’s a real call to see where they can be of use. I wonder if you draw a line between those impulses that your students are having and this practice that you’re doing with them.
ANNABELLE BAYLIN: Yeah, I love that question. I definitely think it’s all tied together. I think that when you name what’s important to you as a class and as human beings, I think it starts to become obvious that you want to make things fair for others or for all, you know? That for example, like one of the words that we talk about is integrity. And the way we define it is, integrity is when you’re doing the right thing even when no one is looking. So, that’s integrity, right? That you’re acting —
DAWN WILLIAMS: Such a good definition.
ANNABELLE BAYLIN: You’re acting in a way that’s aligned with your values no matter who’s paying attention, you know? And so for example, this is very concrete to four and five year olds, but when children notice someone throwing trash on the ground, they say, “That’s not integrity,” you know? And they want to take an action to make sure that that doesn’t happen again. You know, “We need to tell people this is not right and take an action.” And so I think — yeah, I think it’s all — it’s all very much aligned. I think the tuning in and talking about emotions also, of course, you know, starting with the self-awareness, and then extending that to become empathy and compassion towards other people. I think that sort of directly translates into wanting to take action for others.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Thank you so much for that. Yes, it does feel like a real direct line. And I appreciate you sort of putting it the way you just did. I can’t tell you how lovely it’s been to talk with you for the past half hour. I feel like half way through you had a moment where you invited a breath, and invited a noticing into, you know, checking out the tension in your shoulders and I know that I took a deep breath there with you, and I appreciate that and all of these words that you’ve shared today. Thank you so much for spending time sharing your thinking.
ANNABELLE BAYLIN: Thank you so much. This has been wonderful.
DAWN WILLIAMS: If you share Blue School’s vision of a balanced approach to learning and living so that children can be courageous and innovative thinkers, please take a moment to subscribe and listen-in on our weekly discussions. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook @blueschoolnyc or visit blueschool.org for more in depth content.
We’re sending support and strength to you and your loved ones as you endeavor to create balance.