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OTS 92: Incorporating Mindfulness as a School-Based OT Practitioner with Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi


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Welcome to the show notes for Episode 92 of the OT Schoolhouse Podcast.


In this episode of the OT schoolhouse podcast, we are discussing mindfulness in school-based OT with Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi of TheMindfulSchoolOT.com


Deirdre is an experience school-based OT who has been incorporating mindful

practices into her life both personally and professionally. She uses mindfulness to support students, teachers, and administrators in her school district and has seen the benefits of doing so.


If you are unsure what mindfulness fully entails or are already on board the mindfulness train and want to get some insight into how you can incorporate it into your sessions, be sure to listen to this episode.


Links to Show References:



Transcript

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Amazing Narrator

Hello and welcome to the OT Schoolhouse podcast, your source for school-based occupational therapy tips, interviews, and professional development. Now to get the conversation started, here's your host, Jayson Davies. Class is officially in session.


Jayson Davies

Hello, everyone. Welcome to Episode 92 of the OT Schoolhouse podcast. Thank you so much for being here today. Today, the day that this podcast is actually dropping is Valentine's Day is February 14, 2022. And so before we jump into our topic for today, which is going to be mindfulness, I figured I'd share a little story. You know Valentine's Day is an important date for so many people. And like those people, it is for me as well. My wife and I actually started dating on February 9. So for about five years, I think it was the while we were dating February 9, it was our anniversary day. And so when it came around for February every year, we'd kind of split the difference split the responsibilities, one of us would plan the anniversary, the other would plan, Valentine's Day, or some years we'd get lazy, and we just kind of combine them. And we do our anniversary and Valentine's Day on February 9, that way we could avoid the hassle of trying to go out to dinner on February 14, when the rest of the world was also trying to go out to dinner. Anyways, about five years into our relationship when the time came to propose. I used it to my advantage. That year, I was planning our anniversary on February 9, and she was in charge of planning Valentine's Day. So she knew that a proposal was likely coming soon. And she really thought it was coming on February 9. But I made sure that wasn't the case. And actually I "hijacked" her date night of February 14, and ended up proposing to her on February 14, with her family there, her parents, and her brother and sister. And it was a very happy moment. And you know, now four years later, after our marriage, we are expecting our first child. So it's been a good, good life since that day. And even before then, I just wanted to share that with you real quick. I hope you all are having or had a great Valentine's Day and continue to have good Valentine's Days in the future. All right, so let's go ahead and jump into the purpose of this podcast. You know, maybe you wanna hear a little bit about me, but I know you want to hear about mindfulness today. And that's exactly what we are talking about. We have on a very special guest. Her name is Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi and she is from themindful schoolot.com. That's her website. And Deirdre is an experienced school-based OT who has been incorporating mindful practices into both her personal and professional life for a very long time. She uses mindfulness to support our students, teachers, and even the administrators at her schools. And so she's been doing this, she's seen the benefits. But not only has she seen the benefits, but the people that really have a say in what she does on campus, are also seeing the benefits, which he's going to share with us. And you're going to see how you can use it to your advantage as well. Now, if you're unsure about kind of the definition of mindfulness, don't worry, we are going to go over that today. We're also going to go over some of the research and how Dierdre uses mindfulness in our practice to support all those individuals that I just spoke about. So if you haven't already, go ahead, put that phone in your pocket, stop hitting that button that fasts forward 30 seconds, you don't need it anymore. Please help me to welcome Dr. Dierdre as a party to the OT schoolhouse podcast. Enjoy the rest of the episode. Hey, Dr. Dierdre. Welcome to the OT Schoolhouse podcast. How are you doing today? Right.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

It's a day off. I had time to do a full yoga practice and meditation before we started. So I'm feeling


Jayson Davies

Oh, that is wonderful. Yes. And today is Martin Luther King Day as we record this, of course, when it goes out it'll probably be in February sometime. But yes, thank you all for being here with us today. Actually, you know what you just mentioned a little bit about yoga and mindfulness, which is kind of where we're going with this topic today. Why don't you share actually just kind of, to let us get to know you? What is the kind of your morning routine with mindfulness and yoga?


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Oh, wow, this is good. Cool. So my morning routine is I never miss a meditation practice. I started my meditation practice when I was getting my adult yoga certification. It's kind of part of the deal is that you do that you now start to kind of embody these practices. So that's been about six years that I've done a daily practice. So I never missed my meditation practice in the morning and I always do some kind of movement. It might be I'm doing a tree pose while I'm waiting for my coffee to be made. So it's not necessarily it depends on the day. I'm having a really good day. I usually try to do at least half an hour before I get off to school.


Jayson Davies

That is amazing. That's kind of my goal is to get up in the morning and get a little movement in. But it doesn't always work out that way. So congratulations, I guess I should say, for you to actually have prioritized that in your life to make sure that you at least get something in the morning. That's awesome. So,


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

yeah, well, I realized that it changed the way that I showed up at work and showed up for kids. So, you know, when I really realized that, I was like, oh, you know, I feel a lot better the days that I do that. So it's real, it's not always so easy. So


Jayson Davies

absolutely, I understand. Alright, so before we get into mindfulness, I actually want to give you a moment to talk a little bit about your OT career and kind of how you got to where you are today.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Okay, so I've been an OT since the dark ages a long time now. So 30 years, the, and when I started, I always you know, was have always worked in pediatrics, doing it in every capacity could do it in. So I've done private practice, I've done a clinic-based, you know, kind of work, and a lot of work in the schools. In the last 15-16 years, I've been full-time in a school district in my own school district, which is really an interesting thing, right? Because you become very connected, you know, to the children, because it's like your own community. And my own son got special education through our school districts. So I take my job very, very personally, whether that's good or bad, I'm not sure. So over the years, what I've noticed through my career, so during this time that I've had my undergraduate and OT because you could do with them, I went back and I got my master's in psychology because the mental health aspect of OT really has always interested me. And somehow, when we get to the schools, a lot of that stuff kind of goes away, because we've gotten very sort of pigeonholed into certain areas. But I really was interested in that. So I went back to school, and I got a psychology degree was contemplating becoming a school psychologist, and then remembered how much I hate paperwork, dropped that I stopped, I didn't go as far as getting the actual certification, but I got a master's in psychology, okay. And then kind of fell in love back was my OT practice. And when and I did get a doctorate in OT, and what my project was bad. And what I realized, in terms of my own job and career is that the things that I did in my own life, in my whole, you know, my home life impacted the way that I was at work. So I really got into exercise as a way to regulate, I started to notice that like, I was just a better human being when I exercise, so straight-up exercise. And I was like, you know, I work with a lot of kids who have regulation challenges, who are anxious and all this other stuff. I bet there's some research out there for straight-up exercise to help kids in school. And there is, and there is, so I really started getting interested in the idea of habits like What habits can we help foster with kids so that they're not just learning these IEP goals right here right now? What can we help them to use for the rest of their life that will help them, you know, in the entirety of their lives, and especially was interested in school because I loved the idea of an even playing ground like they didn't have to go to an SI clinic. This was like the place where any kid could learn these things. So that's really been the focus of my life is things that are really habits that just help people with their mental well-being.


Jayson Davies

Yeah, and you're definitely in the right field to be able to do that. I mean, occupational therapy habits are so important to everything that we do as OT. So that's great that you're able to use your practice as an OT as well as, your insights and your education from being a psychologist to help foster habit-building within the kids. And like you said, on an even playing field, within the schools, in schools is that place where we get to help everyone doesn't matter what their socio-economic statuses or whatnot, everyone's at school, aside from the people that are at maybe a private school, if something but people the general public is that schools and we get to support them. So that's awesome. Great.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Yeah. And I love the idea. Also, I love the idea that school is sort of a microcosm of life. You know, it's the natural social environment for kids. So I just think we should never squander the opportunity that we have as practitioners to help people in their natural social environment. So that's why I don't like when we become so pigeonholed because then we're just sort of like a clinic-based therapist in school or a medically based therapist in school. But we can do much better than that, and broader and bigger. So yeah.


Jayson Davies

Great. So let's go ahead and talk a little bit about mindfulness then. I guess my first question is really, how do you describe mindfulness to someone who's never really heard that term? Mean? We often kind of think of that elevator pitch right? About like, what is OT? What would we say if someone asked us about OT? But what about mindfulness? What's that kind of elevator pitch you have when someone asks you about mindfulness.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

So I love to use Jon Kabat Zinn's definition, he's kind of the father of mindfulness here in the West. And that's just paying attention, on purpose, right, purposefully paying attention in the present moment. So right now, and in a non-judgmental or a kind way, sort of not adding any story to what's happening at the moment, just really being aware of what's happening right now, here. And it's so impactful, because, you know, a lot of our lives we're not really present for. And one thing, I really believe the reason that many of us are so attracted to kids, right? Is that, especially when they're really young, that's all they are, they're present. They're open, they're curious, they're available, you know, they're attentive to the moment. And as adults, we kind of screw that up for them. Because we are not all of those things. But mindfulness is the invitation to go back to that place where we, we know we feel good. And we know that that's really where we should be really hard to do all the time. But so it's really a practice. It's a practice. And a lot of the mindfulness that I learned was really through my yoga practice, which I also bring tickets to. Oh, my God.


Jayson Davies

Yes, yes, that's awesome. And you know, I recently shared, you know, that, that I'm having my first child coming soon, and that's one thing that has been on the forefront of my mind is being present, and getting the phone away. Even now, when I try and work in my office, I leave my phone. Okay, I shouldn't say all the time, but I tried to make sure to leave my phone outside of these four walls because you just lose your presence. And the phone is just so distracting. And the same thing, we end up sharing that with our kids, and we end up using an iPad as a babysitter or something. And just about to be a parent, I'm being trying to be a little bit more mindful of that. And when we bring in life into this world, so absolutely.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

That's wonderful. I mean, you're bringing in an intention before this baby even gets here, which is just beautiful. I did not do any of those things when I had my children. But my mindfulness practice has helped with the teenage years for sure. And yeah, and so there was a great, great, great study hit by I'm going to think it's called Kilinger, or Kiplinger, I might have gotten that wrong. But anyway, he did this really awesome study, I had this massive amount of data points, I think it was like 250,000 data points because 5,000 people were in the study because it was a very simple study. They just did it through an app on a phone. And they said right now, how are you feeling? Like what's your, emotional state, like, right now? Are you actually present? Are you paying attention? And like, what are you thinking about? And so what they found was basically a wandering mind where when you're not really present in your body is an unhappy mind. And doesn't matter what the person was doing. So that was what was really kind of funny about it. It could be a mundane task. But if you're actually present for it, you tend to be happier. Oh, yeah. So it was kind of a really cool study. So just in general, yeah, we're, we're happier when we're actually present.


Jayson Davies

Awesome. Yeah, we'll have to grab that resource. So we can post it on the show notes for others to have a look at if they like it, awesome. All right. So we kind of got your little gist on mindfulness. Now, let's take that a step further. How do you follow that up when people ask how do you use mindfulness in the schools?


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

So I use it in a bunch of different ways, the first most important way is actually using it for myself so that I remember to bring it in with kids, and to teach all the adults it's about the adults. Right. So adults are, I don't know about you, but I've heard that schools are a little stressful, right?


Jayson Davies

Just a bit


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Just a bit. And especially since the pandemic.


Jayson Davies

Absolutely.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

You know, we've brought this enormous level of fear into the schools and kids are just soaking that up. I have never seen anything like the number of kids with very significant anxiety issues. Okay, so so we can just start right there, kids with disabilities, anxiety is in this was a lot of what my doctoral research was on, you know, for an autistic child to say, or to autism, or an autistic child by the time they reach adolescence or adulthood. It's about something like upwards of around 50% Have enough symptomatology to also have an anxiety disorder. So I think, let's work backward. We know that's going to happen. We know that's going to happen that's been happening for years and years and years. How can we help kids to have some tools to deal with anxiety now, as they are younger? So anyway, so it starts for me. First, who do I come in with at school, then the teachers, then the kids. So there are lots of studies to show that if you just work with the teachers, and help them to reduce their levels of stress, help them to model self-regulation help them to be good co-regulators, that kids respond just from that, just from that. And then you bring it to kids. I use it in lots of different ways. And I do tier-one supports where I work with the whole class teaching kids yoga and mindfulness as a community. And then I also do moments of mindfulness in my sessions. So I might start with like, a quick breath. Or I might end a class with a breath, you know, depends on what's happening in the situation.


Jayson Davies

That's awesome. I love that you have that kind of top-down approach, you know that it starts with the top, not going directly to the students necessarily, but starting with the people that have an impact on the students and the teachers. And I know some people even go as far as working with the administrator, because, gosh, we all know that they are stressed out as well. And sometimes they need a little bit. And then


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

I've done that for sure I've done that I've done like in a whole administrator. Yeah, for sure. And then they understand what it feels like. A lot of like, you know, what we do is very, very cognitive, right? And we think that we actually act from this cognitive place. So we're constantly teaching kids all of this cognitive stuff. But the truth is, we all act from a very emotional place.


Jayson Davies

Yeah.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

And then we justify it with, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah. But that's why some of the self-regulation programs don't work. Right. Because if we're teaching self-regulation, or from a cognitive place, we've missed the boat, it has to also be felt, it has to be felt a child's emotion has to be felt in their body, the way to teach a child to use breath, right. So say use breath as a way to regulate is I practice it, I take time to actually be present, understanding how it feels in my body, all of those things have to happen for the child to be able to then bring it in when the brain is not working. Right? When those executive functions are not there when the child is actually being hijacked by stress, you have to have had practice beforehand. So that's why some of these, you know, and you see it over and over on the Facebook groups, right? The kid knows every zone. But they don't use it. Yeah, they don't use it. And that's because you have to have a practice of using these things that you have a groove in your brain. Oh, hold on a second. I can do that.


Jayson Davies

Yeah. And so actually, I want to kind of continue on, though, you know, we have a lot of questions to get you today. But I want to continue with where you're going. And you're talking about practicing with them. But do you see a difference between when you practice with them in the classroom as a whole class? Versus when you practice with them? Maybe in an individual session? Do you see more carryover and one setting versus the other? Or do you see more impact on the child when you do it in one setting? Or the other setting?


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Absolutely. If I do it in the classroom, and the teacher buys in it game changer? Well, it's when the teachers because they practice, right, and the teacher keeps going back to it. And the other the peers model it, right. So sometimes when you're teaching these things, kids are like, I'm not doing that, right, especially like we are all so fast. We're all moving, moving, moving, moving, moving, moving. And, you know, thinking about trauma, just which pretty much all kids you know, disabled folks that have had trauma, right? Trauma, just trauma alone. Sometimes things like breath are really scary for a kid. So you explore lots of different ways to use mindfulness. Mindfulness always has to have an anchor, it doesn't have to just be breath, that's when we think about it can be a sensation, listening, seeing, it can be touchback can be where your anchor for your mindfulness practices, that's where you attend something in your body. So feeling my body. I'll just give you a quick example. You can do it right now. So you can feel it. There's a nice practice called the soles of the feet. So if you just take one minute just to take a breath and just kind of feel that breath, just helps to help your belly to just expand. And then relax. Just right now just putting some attention on your feet. Maybe just noticing your toes. Now maybe just note the arch of your foot. Now maybe just noticing your heel Yeah, so just taking a moment just to notice your feet, maybe they splay out, maybe they feel like they're melting a little bit. Okay. So that's just a quick little practice to think about your feet. Right? So thinking about your feet tends to be something that's very neutral. For some kids, if you do breath, and they've had traumatic experiences, that might not be the right place, you know, so we play with different ways to use it. But when teachers use it, and they see their friends using it, and their peers, it's just a different atmosphere. And then kids can breathe. I've seen four-year-olds bring it in, in the moment of upset where they needed it because they've practiced it.


Jayson Davies

So then, do you see actually those four-year-olds or any kids requesting that their teacher do some mindfulness because they actually feel themselves start to need that?


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Yes. Yes. Parents have told me. Parents have told me like, the funniest stories are parents who say, I was in the car, I was getting really stressed out. And my kid said to me, you know, Mom, why don't we just do some breaths? Because then we'll feel better when we get to school? Yeah, so I've seen a lot of different things. But what if it's not practiced, just like any kind of thing, right? If we don't practice it, and we keep it all up here as a cognitive thing, and we don't embody it, we have to embody it ourselves. Yeah. So when we embody it ourselves, we send the message that this is a real thing. And that's, you know, with anything, especially want to deal with like a teenager, you know, a teenager can read your BS meter very, very.


Jayson Davies

Absolutely. And, you know, you kind of mentioned, and this is for all of us, we kind of tend to think with our emotions, as opposed to at a cognitive level. And I think there's something to be said, when these kids teenagers are carrying this over, because, like you said, thinking with emotion versus cognitive. So they must be feeling an emotional response from this mindfulness, in order for them to want to carry it over. Because I doubt they're thinking, you know, this is going to make me calm down. So I want to use it, no, they're not thinking that way. I think they're thinking more of a this is going to make me feel better. So I want to use it, not that it's going to make my head clear, they don't potentially even understand that concept. But they understand how it makes them feel.



Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Exactly. So like just that little practice for the soles of the feet. It's like if somebody so they've done studies on this if somebody is very, very upset, right? Your mind starts to you start to get entangled in it, you know, I'm so upset. The last time I was upset, blah, blah, blah, and like, you know, they just start to go down the hamster wheel, if we can quickly help kids to just bring their attention to their feet, we can neutralize the situation a little bit. Right. So that's, again, something you have to practice, you have to practice. And usually and I don't know if you noticed it when you put your attention into something like just your feet or your breath, you have a natural relaxation response. When we focus our attention, and maybe at that moment, you didn't, and that's okay, too. So we talk to kids about like, all feelings are really actually okay. We're just exploring. We're being curious. We're being curious. So that's the curiosity is the most important aspect, really, of mindfulness, is being curious about your experience.


Jayson Davies

Yeah, and you know, it's you mentioned breathing. And that's one thing that I really focus on before I even understood the concept of mindfulness. Well, mindfulness was, when I would go to sleep, you know, my head would be racing. And I found that if I just focus on my breathing a little bit, that would help me to actually fall asleep. And that was something that worked for me, you know, I'd be lying in bed. And as soon as I started to focus on my breathing, but then a few minutes, I can pass out. And so it's a very powerful experience that you just focus on one thing. And so I want to ask you, what are some of the things that you focus on? You mentioned breathing, you mentioned kind of focusing on one part of your body, but are there particular areas that you tend to focus on when it comes to mindfulness.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

So I definitely do the breath a lot. And I use visuals to use the breath. So I might use my body like bringing my hands up, bringing my hands down to show like inhaling and exhaling so that kids understand and you could do it so that you really slow it down. Right? Now, you don't always have to slow down your breath, you can quickly new breath, you can change the way because not all the time. Do you want to be slow, right? Actually, like after lunch? Maybe you want to wake up? How can you use a mindfulness practice to wake up there are lots of ways to use the breath to wake up. So I definitely use the breath. I use a lot of movement practices. Just a quick one like opening and closing your hand opening and closing your hand opening and closing your hands, feeling those prepositions to close your eyes, notice a difference between two sides of your body. You know, things like that. So you can use proprioception, vestibular, you can move, notice what it feels like to have that little bit of dizziness, like what does that feel like? pleasant, unpleasant, not good, bad, but just feeling it. So anytime we just felt so many of the sensations, what a really great one that most kids are very, it's easily accessible. It's so simple, is one minute of listening, you just put the time around, you sit quietly, and just listen to what's happening around the environment. That's it, you could just say, listen to something that's happening outside of the classroom outside the window. It's so simple. It's so powerful. It's like because we're all living in virtual reality, we live inside our thoughts. And we think we are those thoughts. And we're just kind of going and going and going and going and going. And it's like, oh, I'm actually a human being in a body, hearing something, and it's one minute and the whole room changes. And that's the other thing I do with kids is just talking about, what just did anyone notice what happened in this room? Just by one minute of just settling and listening? Like what happened in your body? What happened in the room? What do you know? So it's really it can be so simple, like one minute?


Jayson Davies

Yeah, I mean, even in the what you had me breathe and pay attention to my feet, you had us all do it for, what, 20 seconds or so maybe 30 seconds. And I was able to, you know, focus my energy on the toes that the arch in the sole. And as I did that, I realized that half my foot is on my standing mat and half my foot off my standing mat. And I actually at one point started to almost lose my balance a little bit because I was actually focusing so much. And so yeah, you really do start to feel just your body in space and to understand your body a little bit more. So thank you.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

And that's why I started a lot of this because I started, you know, creating some courses around this kind of stuff. Because just what you just said, we talked about body awareness, right? And we teach it a lot of times through sensory integration, right? We teach it through a bottom-up approach. But what if we put all of it together? So we teach it? And then we're saying, think about it? What just happened? What just happened in your body? Then the insula, right, they've done studies on this, they look at the insula, which is our body awareness part of our brain, that's part of body awareness. When we do those embodied practices where we actually pay attention to your body in space in time, that insula lights up. So that's body awareness, the part of our brain that creates body awareness. interoception. So interoception, that's very hot right now, the interoception stuff, which is great. interoception is the one way to really the evidence-based way to have improved interoception. is mindfulness. An extra big way.


Jayson Davies

Yeah. to understanding your body.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Yes. So bring it all together, you have the bottom-up approach from sensory integration, thinking about, you know, giving lots of sensory information to a child, and at the same time, we take a minute to be aware of it. So we bring in this other part that just adds like all that mind, body, and spirit. So I think that's what OTs are the experts in mind, body, and spirit. We're experts in all three, and how those integrate together. Oh, can't just leave all that just, you know, some of our body stuff is over here. And our mind-stuff is over here. But it's that spirit to all three together.


Jayson Davies

Gotcha. Great. Thank you for sharing that as well. You're just dropping knowledge bombs like crazy today. I love it. All right. So you've already mentioned a little bit of research, and I was going to ask you, I hate putting people on the spot, because I know if someone asked me, What's the research for something? Like I don't know, I don't keep I have 20 articles in a binder that I can refer to at any point. But you've already mentioned a few. Are there any other particular pieces of research out there that you'd like to share?



Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Yeah, oh, there's so much though. It's a mindfulness practice. There's a lot of research, which is really nice, you know, 20 years now of research with adults, then, you know, going towards disabled population and adults. Now a lot with kids, neurotypical kids. Now starting with more disabled kids, which is really, really exciting for our field. There's a lot of adult research where parents of autistic kids when we give them these practices, it help them to learn how to parent a little bit differently or even just take care of themselves. And then things like kids' behavior improves, which is just crazy without even not doing anything to the child. But there's no there's a lot of nice research, there's Mindful Schools did a nice research project with kids out there in California Mindful Schools with some of the California School Districts, some of the urban districts, and things like improved attention, increased empathy, improvement in behavior, improvement in their stress levels. So lots of lots of different research things coming out. So pretty exciting. Pretty exciting stuff.


Jayson Davies

Awesome. And I have a feeling that it's not all OTs looking at mindfulness, because, well, I just don't think there's no, as far as I know, there's no degree in mindfulness, maybe there is, or there's no specific one profession that's looking at mindfulness. So when you're looking through these articles, who do you see is actually doing the research? I'm sure there are in fact, I know there's some from OTs, but who else do you see completing this research?


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

So OT is pretty limited. Not too many OTs are doing it, but OTs definitely are involved in it. For sure. Most of the research comes out of the psychological community, right? Because I think psychologists have realized that you know, only talk therapy is not enough that we have to bring embodiment into therapy. So for sure, psychologists are probably the number one area neurologists are doing it umm, certainly physicians are doing it. So I just think as OTs we have to get out of our own practice because not enough OTs are doing research, right? So we have to really look at other professions to see a lot of the research teachers are doing it. There are a lot of different professions doing it because it really touches on everything. Yeah, like pain management. You know, there's a lot of research and mindfulness and pain management. You know, there's it touches on so many different areas.


Jayson Davies

Absolutely. Great. Well, thank you for sharing a little bit about the research. Moving on to our next little, I guess the topic we wanted to discuss is mindfulness and executive function. You've already talked a little bit about how you're seeing improved attention a little bit. But can you talk a little bit about how they interact more, maybe even specifically, in the brain? You talked a little bit about the insula. But yeah, what else do you know about that?


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Mindfulness impacts the prefrontal cortex. And so the prefrontal cortex is the seat of executive functioning. Right? So the prefrontal cortex is what grows as we get older, especially big rapid growth in the adolescent years through 25. And what executive functioning is thinking about our thinking, so it just makes sense that because mindfulness is stopping to notice what's happening in the present moment, it's really thinking about your thinking. So practicing mindfulness is practicing attention, practicing emotional regulation, practicing flexibility, all of those things are executive function, you know, and that's what the research shows, the research shows that especially they've done a lot of research on, like, you know, expert meditators, you know, like, Buddhist monks and stuff like that. Yeah, they have extremely well-developed prefrontal cortexes. Yeah, so very, very important. Because a lot of times, we also again, go to this very, like, thinking place about how we're going to improve executive functioning. But really, a lot of it is about our feelings. And a lot of it is about that space, the space between, you know, something happens, and our reaction. And what we want to help kids to do is increase and put a space in there. Because what we see, right, what is ADHD, impulse, impulse, impulse, we just react. We want to help kids to learn how to respond. So responding means you have to have a little space to teach kids that there's a space. But you have to embody that because a lot of us don't have space. Right? A lot of times, we're just in this place where we're always reacting, reacting, reacting. So yeah, so we just teach it. But yeah, it's really nice research on that. And it could just simply, simply be that you just do one breath practice that you remember every day. And that's it. You don't have to do 1000 different things. And that's what I love about mindfulness, too. It's simple. It's not necessary to go to 75 classes and learn it. You know, you could just learn some simple techniques that you if you practice them enough, they'll become part of your routine, and then you bring it together.


Jayson Davies

Yeah, you know, and with that real quick, what would you say like the top two practices that you like to teach teachers to help them in their classrooms are?


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

For sure, that the one that I was just talking about the listening, that's such a simple one. It's such an easy one.


Jayson Davies

You're talking about, like, listening to the silence for a minute or so. Right?


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Yeah, just one minute. We're just gonna listen. That's a great one. Another one is to count out 10 breaths. Counting out 10 breaths. You just have a kid Kids do a little like a turtle shell on their desk, or they could do it on the floor depending on the age of the kids. So you just like, you know, take away the visual stimulation, and you count out every exhale for 10 breaths, which is one minute. If you do the counting, you don't want the kid. Yeah, so if the kids do the counting, they tend to count much quicker. But yeah, it's so simple. I do that a lot. The other one I do a lot is visuals, I might very, very simple. I have here, you know, the tip of a pencil is not a pencil, but just, you're gonna have kids just look at the tip of the pencil. And just keep their eyes focused on the tip of the pencil. And you just play around them, do lots of things, clap, jump around all the stuff and just have them keep paying attention to this tip of the pencil. And they'll notice quickly that your body becomes really centered and focused. And it's really fun. But again, it's just keeping our point of focus instead of everywhere in just one place. So that's a nice simple practice that teachers can do as well.


Jayson Davies

Awesome. Great. Now, obviously, mindfulness is a pretty big trend right now. It's been incorporated a lot more it is kind of a, it's a buzzword for good reason. But that hasn't always been the case. Where do you see that districts started to realize that they need to start incorporating mindfulness? And what do you think that they were doing before that? If anything?


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

What a great question. Yeah, I think what they started to realize is that heads were Yeah, there was just this enormous amount of stress in the schools. And you know, there was just a lot of stress teachers, and just, I think some of it was, you know, self-imposed because I think schools started really putting all of this extra pressure on teachers to fill up every second of every day, with more content, and more testing and more judgments. I mean, poor teachers are being judged every second. And I think so I think they created the situation for everyone to be really stressed. And then they were like, Oh, we got to do something about this. So there's the conundrum. We don't want to just put a mindfulness bandaid on something when there's a gaping hole of you know, these poor teachers, like what are we doing to these kids? Yeah, so I think, I think that people do understand now, I think that's where the social-emotional learning curriculums, you know, started to be mandatory, right, didn't use to be mandatory. didn't use to be mandatory. But now it's mandatory, right, that that, like kids have to have some exposure to social-emotional learning curriculum. Because you know, that we realize that the mental health of children impacts how they learn. Yeah, yeah. So I think all of that came out of needing some tools to help kids. But again, we have a lot of work to do. It can't just be a mindfulness tool. It has to be, you know, we're looking at why Why are kids so stressed out, to begin with?


Jayson Davies

Yeah. And so as an occupational therapist in the schools, I do know, especially here in California, we do have that SEL component that is mandatory. At least I'm pretty sure it's mandatory has been in the districts that I've been in for a while now. But SEL and mindfulness are two very different terms. So I guess I want to ask you because I know very little about the SEL programs is, do all SEL programs include some sort of mindfulness, is mindfulness inherently built into SEL programs? Or are they two completely opposing? Even ideas? Potentially, I just don't know what those look like.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Awesome. I'm glad you asked me that question. So I really became super involved in the social-emotional learning curriculum in my district, because I wanted to know, right, so I actually did the training or social-emotional learning for is the one that we used like I was the only therapist, there were all teachers, and most of them do now. They didn't always. Yeah, right. They've also come to realize, again, that just like the self-regulation programs, if we don't add an embodied experiential component, they just become another piece of curriculum that's very cognitive. So a lot of them actually do now is the short answer. And I think OTs need another social-emotional learning curriculum, because the STL curriculums what the studies have shown, this is what I learned when I went to, you know, take these classes is that if not everybody does it. Like the bus driver needs to know what you know what it is. Everybody needs to know what the curriculum is. And when everybody does it, and we use the same language, then actually, kids can use it experientially, but what we do we tend to do in schools, and this is what we do in our own lives. Like everything that we do as adults. We just jump on to kids. We overcomplicate everything. We're so distracted ourselves that teachers bring in 20 different socio-emotional learning programs. Like, it's the school one, and then the one I brought in, and then somebody brought it down the street. And it's like, it doesn't matter necessarily which one I think a lot of them have. So Castle is big where, you know, warehouse, I should say, I don't know, like a governing body over SEL. And basically, there's like 100-200 of curriculums been, and they all have these, you know, basic components. So it doesn't necessarily matter. It's just that we have to keep it consistent. Because nobody again, is going to be able to bring this into the moment unless they've practiced it. And everybody talks, the same talk, but I just see everybody overcomplicating it. And yeah, and then we just make everybody crazy and more stressed. So the SEL program becomes another thing to be stressed about.


Jayson Davies

Yeah, so I think if there's an OT or an OTA listening right now, I think that's an important concept that you just mentioned, good to know, whatever your district's SEL program is because the last thing you want to do, and this was something kind of said by the bed, Moscow is in a previous episode, and I've said it, too. If we bring more work to teachers, they're going to say, No, thanks. And so we need to get on board. And you know, what, maybe that SEL program is the greatest program in the world, it might not be, but it's better than three or four different programs happening at the same time. And so I need to get on board with it. And we can make it better by being a part of it.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

That's right. 100%, no, 100% Because then, then, like, so what I did with this particular SEL program is I said to one teaching, I mean, listen, because we're all so busy, you know, and so we're all crazy. I said can I was only like 15 minutes, twice a week, I think that's when they did this SEL program. So just think about like, you know, how much time they're putting into it. But 30 minutes twice a week, I said, Can I do it? Is it can do your SEL? Can I do this one thing? Like I would love to do it? And then maybe incorporate? And she was like, yes, yes, you can. Yes, please, anything to take something off my plate? Yeah. So then you take something off a teacher's plate, and they feel like wow, and then if you add some fun pieces to it, because you're an OT, and you like to use movement, and you add that piece to it, instead of making it very like, again, as a script, a lot of them are a script. And the kids give the right answer just like our SEL. I mean, just like a lot of our self-regulation programs give the right answer, spit back to the adult what they want. But when you make it more fun, and kids start to really get connected to their bodies, you know, and then through that, you can connect to the social-emotional learning. But yeah, it's really important that you know what, the program is not inside and out. But just know some of the lingoes. Yeah, you know, like our District uses on uses thing they call like, dangerous. Is it dangerous? Oh, gosh, dangerous, like, like telling each other, you know, like, the whole telling on each other thing, you know, like kids are always telling each other. Yeah, right. So that tattletale, it's like, if it's not dangerous or destructive, you're not supposed to tell. But like, I need to know that dangerous. So that's a language I can use. Like, if I'm with kids, and they're telling each other is dangerous and destructive, it's not dangerous, destructive, I don't want to know.



Jayson Davies

Yeah, and I mean, I know, we're not necessarily talking about the zones of regulation today. But I do know that the zones of regulation have like a one-sheet, a one-pager that the very first thing you're supposed to do is send that one page or out to the teachers and the parents when you use it because it has some of that lingo that we're going to use. And my guess is that most SEL programs have something like that. And that needs to go out to the OT to the PT to the speech therapist, to the parents. So that, as you said, we're all using that same lingo, and kind of at least know, some of the concepts so that we can reinforce and, and use those when we're working with the students. So absolutely.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

And especially for our disabled students, because a lot of times the times that they're being pulled for all their stuff is during the social-emotional learning curriculum time. And the other thing is, is that a lot of our kids, you know, the majority of the kids that we work with have language challenges. And so what is the language because we don't want to be adding a new language? Yeah, because the language that they're using is already so challenging. True? Yeah. So but you know, for all the above reasons, we want to kind of know, what the program is.


Jayson Davies

So you mentioned using a kind of starting small with one teacher, and kind of getting in there that way, mind sharing a little bit more about that maybe what grade it was and how it worked out for you.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Yeah, so I've done a lot of different things. I did this one thing where I said to the superintendent, can I go to every kindergarten in the entire district and teach them 10 lessons? And then I'll go away. I'll do it by lunchtime. I'll do it. So you know, I killed myself. It was really hard. Because we have a big district we have six elementaries and so six elementaries. And there were like, three or four kindergartens and every elementary so you do the math was a lot of classes, a lot of kids. But the most joyful experience I've ever had was so amazing. You know, I only had to do 10 lessons. So it was like I did like two schools at a time. And then I did it over time. Yeah, it was really no, I did it twice a week, I did it twice a week. So it's five weeks, five weeks in each school. So it took me like a whole, I don't even know how long maybe a year or something to do it. But it was really wonderful, really getting to know the kids getting to know, getting to know what kindergarten was, like, getting to know what different classrooms were like, and what different was just really a fascinating experience. And you know, I haven't been able to do it since because it was, it was like, I don't have enough time anymore to do it. But yeah, if you can get a teacher, you know, go for the low-hanging fruit. For the teachers already interested in it. I do a lot of professional development, who shows up to so we can pick you can pick like I do a lot of professional development in my district, they can pick my class, my class,


Jayson Davies

Is that something like the district provides at the beginning of the school year before kids come back or?


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Yeah, both like they've done everything like we've done, like PD days, you know, professional development days, and my system superintendent asked if I wanted to do some presenting? Sure. And yeah, so the teachers who actually show up to my class must be somewhat interested because they have like, say, 25 choices of classes they can go to.


Jayson Davies

Great.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

So they just showed up. So like them, yeah, then that those, those are the ones that we can practice with.


Jayson Davies

Yeah, and you know, I just want to speak to that real quick, because districts have no idea what to do with us on professional development days. Sometimes they might try and just tell us to get some busy work done, then get caught up on stuff. But I do advocate for every occupational therapist and OTA out there, to not just use a PD day when teachers are going to PD, just to catch up on an IEP or two, that applies to you too. And either, you know, speak up and ask if you can sign up for a professional development course online or whatever it might be? Or do you like what you just said, and offer your experiences and offer your ability to actually be one of the teachers of professional development, I've done that as well? And it is great for the profession is great for you as a person within the district because you're going to get to know so many of the teachers just buy that really quick one-hour professional development that you do. And you're going to have contacts and like, Deirdre was just saying, you know, that tells you who's interested in what you're doing. And from there, you can make your next moves. Like what she was just saying, you know, finding that one teacher that's going to let you come into the classroom. So that's awesome. Good for you.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Yeah, no, so fun. Yeah, it's really, really fun. I really enjoy actually doing that.


Jayson Davies

Yeah. Awesome. So you talked a little bit about the kindergarten level, I get a lot of questions about what to do at the middle and high school level, have you been able to incorporate mindfulness at those levels? And what does it look like? A little bit?


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Yes. When you do mindfulness training, when you take the classes, it's really a deep dive to really think about your own stuff, and your own emotions and your own practices and how you think about things and how you think about children. The first thing that I had to be really cognizant of is that, you know, teenagers are going to be maybe a little embarrassed by these practices, they might feel a little bit vulnerable, which is a tough place to be when you're a teenager, that the practice is when you take the training is really like making sure that you don't take it any of it personally, it's not really about you and you presenting this is supposed to be about them. Okay, well, caveat there. You might have a class where there's a lot of giggling and that kind of stuff. Buy-in for a class, if you're going to teach mindfulness is to tell them all of the rich and famous people that are major meditators. Yeah, LeBron James has like a whole like now he's doing tons of meditation practices that he's online, you can do with him, LeBron James, Steve Jobs, people that have said that they are mindfulness meditation practice is like influential is the basis of their success. Howard Stern, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, you know. So that's like a great way you get kids to buy in when they see like, there are these famous people that have used meditation practices to help them to learn how to be better at focusing, and better at their jobs, and better people in general. So that's like one of the best ways to do it. A lot of times, you'll get, you know, just a few kids who will do, and then you'll get a bunch of giggles but I always tell this quick story about middle school just to let people know that it doesn't matter what they're doing in the class at the time, they're still taking it in. I had a student I did a whole group, I did like a 10 lesson thing very similar. I did a 10 lesson thing with, like a learning-based language disability class. So it was a self-contained class. And, you know, it was rough. You know, some of the kids were really having a hard time doing the practices. And you know, again, I tried not to take any of it personally, it had nothing to do with me. And so I went off into the sunset and I was walking down the hallway one day The teacher was standing there with this particular student who did not say one word during the whole time, acted like he was being tortured out of his mind, and did nothing right did not like did not anything during this time. So I thought he got absolutely nothing. I felt bad about it. This is when I was teaching whole lessons. This is not necessarily like something that you might do when you're brand new at all this. But so the teacher said, Oh, tell Mrs. Azzopardi, what happened. And he's like, Oh, I was taking a really high stakes test. I remember the things that you taught us, I use the techniques, and I got through the test because I was really anxious and getting nervous. And I didn't think I'd get through the test. But I used what you taught us and I was like, what I ever heard ever in my life. The kids are taking it in, kids are taking it in. So, embody the practices. If you learn these things you can in again, you can just do a simple, two-minute breath practice at the beginning of a thing like, listen, people use this to help them to attend. Have you ever been told, to pay attention? Yes, every kid will raise their hand. This is how you learn how to pay attention.


Jayson Davies

That's great. You know, I really love your idea that where you kind of started with is, is getting the students to realize that other people are using it. And because you know, they don't want to be told that their teachers using mindfulness, they don't want to be told that their OT is using mindfulness, they want to know that the people that they really look up to and want to be in the future are using it. And so I could think that that could be great if you do a 10, 10 session whatever lesson right over 10 weeks, or five weeks, whatever it is. And Lesson number one could be to find someone who uses mindfulness online, someone that you look up to. And I can imagine that being a great first experience and getting them interested. And because then they're probably going to go home. And they're going to look up what LeBron James actually does. And what Katy Perry actually does in their mindfulness practice. And then instead of just learning from 10 sessions from you, they're going to learn forever from LeBron James and forever, from Katy Perry. Which that's pretty awesome. That's a great thing. Yeah, we're gonna


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Yeah, well, even I think like the Chicago Bulls, I think, you know, when they had Michael jet, I mean, Michael Jackson, Michael, Michael Jordan. But when they had like, their winning, winning this winning,


Jayson Davies

yeah, winning, Phil Jackson's Phil Jackson was really big on like, huge.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

He was a huge meditator. And he taught all of them. And I know, you know, the late Kobe Bryant was a big meditator also. And they, they said it was a big part of their success. They felt like they changed things up a lot when they started to use mindfulness practices.


Jayson Davies

Yeah, and for anyone who's not a basketball person, Phil Jackson was the coach of the bulls when they were winning. And then he was also the coach of the Lakers with Kobe Bryant when they were winning. And I do believe that is Phil Jackson that really introduced many of those players to mindfulness and really attributes that a lot to the championships that they won. I think Phil Jackson has like 11 championships or something like that is crazy as a coach. But yeah, that's awesome. I love that I do. Alright, so I can't leave out the rest of OT, in this conversation. Because OT cannot just be about mindfulness, there are other needs that kids have. And so I want to ask you when you're working on other skills, you know, some of the more traditional fine motor visual motor skills? Do you incorporate mindfulness into those? Or do you kind of separate it out? Or how do you work on both a little bit? I guess.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Yeah, so simple ways to do it is if you're going to be doing something like was with an older child who's doing some kind of writing, anything, you know, you can incorporate, like a minute of doing a mindfulness practice, and then bringing in some of these, like social-emotional learning themes into the writing, you know, which could be about, you know, making friends or about things like you know, how your body feels, or whatever you can, there's a lot of different ways to kind of just bring in some of this stuff, instead of talking about it, they could do writing about it, right? Typing about it, whatever you want to do. Yeah, for sure I use so like I use, like the little visual thing as I did before, you could do that with something that you're using, you're going to use as a fine motor skill. So I work with a lot of preschoolers, I use these little fuzzy ball things. So we first we just watched them, we might blow them like using them, right to do a breath practice. And then we might use our tongue and put them in something. So those are simple ways that you can bring both in at the same time. A lot of my mindfulness practices just take one or two minutes. So it might be like the beginning of the session and the end of the session.


Jayson Davies

Great.



Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

So the mindfulness is in the session, the session, the goal of the session isn't the mindfulness. The goal is whatever the goal is,


Jayson Davies

yeah, whatever their IEP goals are, yeah, great. And you know what, I think that's also another reason to better understand the SEL program that the schools use because that will also give you ideas about how you can incorporate it into your sessions. So, as we did earlier,


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

I mean, like friendship, just think about friendship. Think about how many of the students that we work with are extremely lonely. Right? It's really sad. But a lot of you know, kids disabled kids are really lonely. Like you can bring in some of those friendship things, talking about friendship, about how to be a friend how to make a friend into your work as an OT, like why not? You writing about?


Jayson Davies

And you jumped the gun on my next question actually was talking about inclusion? I know you're a big advocate for inclusion. So I'll let you continue on, like, how does mindfulness lead to the inclusion of students?


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Wow, so inclusion? You know, I, so I'm going to back up a little bit. Yeah, and just think about, and this is, you know, something that I think about a lot as I get older, and being somebody like who's, you know, thinking about the intersection of like, Special Education And Spirituality, and thinking about like, just by virtue of separating a child and putting them into a separate classroom? What is the inherent message that we're sending about their worthiness? You know, like being in the deficit game, we're kind of in the deficit game, as therapists, we know, our evaluations are deficit-based schools are deficit, like getting into special education is a deficit game. So just thinking about that always that we're part of that system that says to kids that you know, and it's all unconscious, we don't mean to say this, but that they're sort of less than the others. Here's the mainstream, you're over there. Why are you over there wiring on the mainstream? So I just think, we have to think about that, as therapists and a lot of therapists, a lot of there and me for a long time, I've changed my mind over time, and we can all change over time. A lot of therapists are gatekeepers to kids getting into the mainstream, a lot of therapists say things like kids aren't ready. Kids aren't ready. And so like this idea that kids aren't ready, and they have to do something to get into the mainstream. Yeah, is a big issue that we have to really think about. Because you know, people live in society, and we all belong. And when we do mindfulness practices, especially when we do with a class, and we do it in an inclusive way, there's something called Dan Siegel talks about the eighth sense, he doesn't talk about interoception. But he says the eighth sense is interconnectedness, right? That feeling of connection with each other. And you can really foster that feeling through mindfulness practice when you're with a whole class together. So if you have, you know, an integrated class with disabled and neurotypical kids, that sense of connection really is palpable, really can be quite beautiful.


Jayson Davies

Can you say that name one more time for the interconnectedness,


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

interconnectedness, interconnectedness?


Jayson Davies

And who was the or did you say the author,


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Dr. Dan Siegel?


Jayson Davies

Okay. I've heard the name okay.


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

Yeah, he's a psychologist, or he's a doctor. I'm not even really sure. But he's a tremendous amount. He's written a tremendous amount about the brain. He's the one who does the hand model of the brain, you know, with the prefrontal. I don't know if you've ever seen that.


Jayson Davies

Yes, yes. I have


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

the hand model of the brain. Yeah. So he, yeah, he talks about that felt sense of connection and ideal that very, very much when I do whole class, especially, there's this like, feeling of family in a classroom, that is really quite beautiful that we don't get if we're doing this pullout stuff all the time. Yeah,


Jayson Davies

agree. Well, Deirdre, I want to say thank you so much for coming to the show. This has been a very insightful conversation. And I know it's going to help everyone because you have helped me today to better understand mindfulness. So thank you so much. I really do feel like I have a better understanding of mindfulness than I did one hour ago. So thank you for that. And I want to ask you, where can people who want to learn more about you and mindfulness find more?


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

I have a website called themindfulschoolot.com. And, yeah, I have some courses. I have one specifically for school-based therapists, that is, you know, just bringing some simple practices into your work, and hopefully into your life. I hope I convinced one or two people to bring more of this into our busy lives because we impact children greatly. We have a lot of power over children, so we have to use it for them.



Jayson Davies

Awesome. I love it. Well, everyone head on over to the mindful school. ot.com If you want to learn more about Deirdre and more about mindfulness, it is a great place to start, I believe. And I really, I think that's going to be great for you because you are a skull base OT both you as the person listening right now and Deirdre. And you know, it's one thing to learn mindfulness. It's another thing Well, anything It's one thing to learn anything. And then so it's another to learn about that specifically as it relates to school-based OT. And I think that's what Deidre's just going to be able to offer you over at the mindful school ot.com. So be sure to check that out. So yeah, one last time. Thank you so much, Deirdre, for joining us on the podcast. I appreciate it


Dr. Deirdre Azzopardi

was super fun, Jason.


Jayson Davies

Thank you. And we'll definitely keep in touch. All right. Take care and have a great rest of your day. Bye. Alright, thank you all so much for listening in on this episode about mindfulness with Dr. Azzopardi, I learned so much from this episode, this conversation that I had with her and I hope you did as well. Thank you for sticking in there with me when I shared a few minutes about my personal life. Hope you enjoyed learning a little bit about me, my wife, and even more so I hope you enjoyed learning about mindfulness. Let me know in the comments, or down below where you rate the podcast on Apple podcast, what you learned from this episode, and maybe also a little bit about how you are using mindfulness in your schools, or maybe how you plan to use mindfulness in your schools. I'd love to hear that. All right. Take care. Have a rest of your Have a great rest of your Valentine's Day or any other day that you're listening to this podcast. I will see you next time on the OT Schoolhouse podcast. Take care. Bye.


Amazing Narrator

Thank you for listening to the OT Schoolhouse podcast. For more ways to help you and your students succeed right now. Head on over to otschoolhouse.com Until next time, class is dismissed.




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