August SEL Champion of the Month: Gia Nelson
Here at iMPACTFUL, we’ve started an initiative to highlight leaders making an impact within the Social Emotional Learning sphere. Our focus is to highlight what we like to call “SEL Champions” and we nominate one per month! We pick our champions by finding people who are doing great work and carrying the conversations forward. Our SEL Champion of the Month for August is Gia Nelson, a trailblazer in the school setting, paving the way for mindfulness in and outside of the classroom.
Gia Nelson has been working in education since 1989. She is a paraeducator, a credentialed teacher, mindfulness and wellness coach, as well as also specializing in clinical EFT for the classroom.
Gia started her career working in special education, eventually transitioning into a kindergarten teacher. After working in the public sector for some time, Gia transitioned to the private sector, teaching at a church. Here, Gia was in charge of programming, and continued to teach kids in the ministry. After deciding to leave the church, Gia found her way back to the classroom, and begin teaching at schools once again.
After some challenging events in her personal life, in 2016, Gia decided her true passion was in Social Emotional Learning. For Gia, this includes mindfulness, and the important connection between the brain and the body. Her switch into SEL learning/teaching was in fact ignited by Gia’s own personal journey with depression. Through her recovery, she learned an array of tools + techniques she wished she would've known earlier. Instead of saying, "oh well!" Gia made it her mission to teach kids, students, and parents alike what she learned in recovery.
Inspired by a conference she attended in 2017 about brain functions, the realities of neurodiversity, and the complexities of our nervous systems, Gia created wellness rooms for her kindergarten class. In these wellness rooms, Gia teaches kids to self-regulate their brains, the basics of their nervous systems, mental health, and overall health. Amazing, right?
Now you might be asking, "How do you translate this high level information in a way kindergarteners can understand? How can one bring this to a place that’s palatable?"
Gia says the first thing she does when trying to teach mindfulness to children, is to create a simulation. She gives meaning to the “thing” we all feel within us, usually anxiety, and describes it through song, music, repetition, and other tangible things for a kindergartener. Even Disney! For example. Pinching your arm hurts, when you ask a kindergartener to pinch themselves, they feel the pain. From that example, bigger chain reaction feelings in our bodies are a little more understandable to a child's brain.
In addition to offering wellness rooms for her students, Gia recently began involving what’s called the NP Expansion Mindful Parenting Series through the University of Laverne’s Neurodiversity Learning and Wellness Center. This program teaches breath-work, breathing techniques, tips for taking care of the mind, body, soul, and spirit, as well as how to implement these practices in homes. Now, not only are students learning this amazing knowledge at school, it's also being taught at home through real life implementation.
Teachers supporting their students, parents supporting their children, and children supporting themselves. Everyone is working, and everyone is held accountable.
For parents interested in implementing mindfulness practices into their homes, Gia suggests to begin during “calm moments” in your home. Do not not when a child is visibly stressed or overwhelmed. She says “like riding a bike, you have to practice, practice, practice before mom and dad can let go of that bike” (Gia Nelson). Gia’s advice to parents? “Don’t be afraid to practice with your kids what you’re learning. Show them you’re learning [too]. Allow them to join you on the journey, because you guys are all in this together, you all live in the four walls of your own home and we have to be careful judging ourselves because it’s all new information and we can’t be so critical” (Gia Nelson).
“No judgment, absolutely no judgment” says Gia in regards to parents/people alike learning and implementing mindfulness practices into their homes and lives.
Gia touched on the effects of Covid-19 on children's mental health and nervous systems. Everything about the classroom setting changed during the pandemic and students had to learn anew. Social cues gone due to mask usage, low stamina, higher impulse control, raised screen time, traditional classroom rules, like sitting during class and raising your hand to go to the bathroom, to name a few.
Mindfulness has been a great tool for combating the changes described above. When students and teachers practice mindfulness in the classroom, they are able to understand their own emotional capacity and extend their emotional vocabulary. When students are learning Social Emotional Learning and teachers and parents are teaching it, the academics will follow.
Gia says that she “thinks the more we normalize [mindfulness and the importance of mind, body, soul and spirit connection] the more we empower kids to understand that they have the control” (Gia Nelson). She also mentioned that “In our society we numb our feelings and we don’t really talk about them, we run a muck when we don’t understand them, but the more that we build that emotional vocabulary and we kind of separate ourselves from the emotion itself and label it..” (Nelson) the more we understand that we can do something about it, and the more we can help our students.
Gia Nelson is soon releasing a children's book all about mindfulness, and the tools children can learn and take with them through their lives. Stay tuned for its release date! Thank you so much for reading and we will see you next month for our next SEL Champion.
To nominate an SEL Champion in your community please fill out the form linked HERE!