Stories from the Field: We’re Never Too Young for a Check-in
Jakob Tandrup Esbensen is a teacher at Maglegaardsskolen, a primary public school in Gentofte, Denmark, and a master practitioner in the Compassionate Systems program, from the class of 2019-2020.
For years, I have noticed that students, regardless of their age or socio-economic background, struggle with the same challenge every day: shifting from one context to another. You can see it in primary school at the end of recess. During this 40-minute break from classroom instruction, the kids’ “social compass” is on overdrive. Some educators think of recess as a pause in the day’s routine, that gives the brain a chance to rest: students can recharge their minds. But recess is itself a period of intensive experience, where students expend great amounts of physical, mental and emotional energy. They play games, react to the emotions associated with winning and losing, worry about social threats, connect with friends, try not to be alone, and experience the release of adrenaline, dopamine and endorphins. Their emotions are still running hot when they return to the classroom. This charged state can easily interfere with their concentration and learning.
As teachers who act compassionately toward our students, what can we do about this challenge?
We can provide exercises which give students space to settle back into the classroom and become mentally present. In the classroom where I teach, we call this exercise the Check-in.
A check-in is a short contemplative guided conversation that the whole group engages in together. It evolved through the practice of dialogue. There are many variations (see The Check-In), but they all share this basic recipe: People share and listen. They speak in turn, with no interruptions. All must wait to interact until everyone has had an opportunity to speak. The topic of conversation reflects some internal aspect: we create a space to check in with ourselves first and then with everyone else in the room.
I had learned about this practice from attending the Compassionate Systems program, where check-ins open and close every session. But I did not know any other teachers who had introduced this exercise regularly into primary school classrooms. In my experiments, I have found that check-ins serve several valuable functions. First, they provide a transition for quieting down and getting ready for mental activity, which is beneficial in an academic setting. Second, many students are still learning to become aware of their own emotions and not to be overwhelmed by them. A check-in helps accelerate this in a shared context. Third, they help students learn to navigate more thoughtfully in the complex field of social relationships. Finally, they fulfill a fundamental need for every child: to feel seen, heard and comfortable in class.
When I first experimented with classroom Check-ins, I reorganized the room from a traditional line-up of desks to an arrangement where we quickly could make a circle, so all students faced each other. I saw that some students felt uncomfortable at first, being on display before everyone else. But I asked all of them to face the group, even if they were feeling poorly that day. This allowed everyone to realize that other students had bad days too – and that it was acceptable to have a hard day or challenging moment. This shift in the physical environment also helped students build their capacity to hold space for one another, and to accept everybody just as they were.
We adopted a number of check-in variations. In a Color Check-in, I asked students to notice how they felt and convert that into color codes. Green meant they were happy and had positive energy. Yellow indicated they were moody or tired. Red signified negative emotions. It was also possible to feel a mix of colors, or to describe their moods as a sunny, cloudy, or rainy day. By sharing their current color or weather pattern and listening to others do the same, students became more aware of their own emotions. They also understood more about one another’s emotions, and that made it easier, they said, to approach a friend.
Another variation was the Break Check-in, which helped students deal with any conflicts that occurred during recess. We took time to reflect on our own recent actions and emotions we had felt, and to extend loving kindness towards others and ourselves at once. I might lead off with, “If you had a good break, think of someone who contributed to making it good and hold that person in your mind. If you had a difficult break, think of what your role was in the conflict and what you could have done differently. Consider if it was a big problem or minor problem.” After making space for the students to reflect on the situation, the conversation that followed among the students was easier and more respectful . Students might start talking, for example, about how an argument had started. They would often go on from there to talk about what they could do now to improve things. The result was almost always a positive outcome.
There was also a more Reflective Check-in, in which we took more time. The purpose here was to grow the students’ capacities for reflection and awareness. We would practice skills like deep listening, a practice developed by composer Pauline Oliveros, in which people pay attention to all sounds and the spaces and relationships among sounds, not just to words. On some days we conduct body scan exercises, in which students focus their attention on different physical sensations, from their feet to their scalp. On other days, I ask students to reflect on how their morning has been so far and how they would like it to continue – for example, how they would like their friends to act if their friends have been distracting them.
When I first introduced check-ins to the class, some students really liked it. They even wanted to lead the check-ins themselves. Other students were uncomfortable. They said it felt weird to sit in silence with their friends and share emotions. Some of them didn’t want to open up about their negative feelings. They were worried about what other students might think of them.
All of this was perfectly okay. I said that any student could come to me after check-in, if he or she needed to talk privately about something that came up. I also explained that all emotions are valid; there is no “wrong” emotion; and that by learning to notice and express what we are feeling, we can better ‘show up’ authentically and act on our emotions. This makes us less likely to do things we regret or that hurt ourselves or others.
After a month or two, I noticed some children changing their attitude. More students were sitting with closed eyes in the contemplative practice, and more were sharing their emotions in the circle. “I think it’s very nice to share with friends because then you get it out, said a student, a third-grader. “It doesn’t feel good to carry it all day.”
Once during a Color Check-in, a student shared that she was showing up “red” and began crying heavily. She explained that earlier that morning, her dog had gotten free from its leash and ran towards a busy road. She had thrown herself over the dog to prevent it from being hit by a car. She sat with tears running down her face while the rest of the class sat holding space for her in the circle.
Some teachers or parents have questioned the time spent on the practice of check-in. They say that with a crowded school schedule, checking in after each break takes too much time away from academic learning. But I have found that the practice makes sense, even in terms of classroom efficiency. When students start a class period in the conventional way, by sitting and facing the blackboard, they tend to feel disconnected. It becomes too easy to hide in the back, rather than feeling like a part of the whole with the rest of the group, with your voice in the room. After a check-in, most students are far more mentally ready for their assignments. I don’t have to repeat myself several times when I give them instructions, and they feel and act much more engaged with the material.
After a few months of facilitating Check-ins, the students themselves began to insist on having them. They would ask, “Do we have time for a Color Check-in today?” or “I really need to share something with the class.” And when I spent a week away from the class at a Compassionate Systems session, I really learned the value of this exercise. My colleague, who taught another 3rd grade next to my classroom, sent a video of my students organizing their own check-in while waiting for the substitute teacher to come. They sat in a circle, sharing how they felt, and listening carefully to each other. They didn’t need a teacher all the time to organize this for them; they could do it for themselves.
Any classroom teacher can organize check-ins in this way; it can even be done on Zoom or other virtual sessions (although it is better in person). And it can also be organized with older students in secondary school classrooms. There are of course challenges with older students. The social arena in the class is more complex. It’s important as a teacher to sense the dynamic among the students. Your first step might be to make the class sit in silence for 60 seconds. Then gradually progress week by week, until they are very glad to have Check-ins at the start of a class.
Students of all ages, in order to grow, need to be seen and heard. In fact, so do the rest of us. That is why we’re never too young – or too old – to Check-in.
By Jakob Tandrup Esbensen
Editor: Art Kleiner