School is often stressful for kids. Fortunately, our little ones can benefit from practising mindfulness during the school day.
Being in the moment. Practising mindfulness. Staying present. We’ve heard the powerful benefits this simple practice can bring to our lives. Mindfulness is about fully experiencing, without judgment, whatever is occurring in the present moment. But how can this practice help our children?
Although children are inherently attuned to open-minded curiosity and acceptance while enjoying experiences in the moment, external stresses and chaotic lifestyles can make it difficult for them to know how to relax, or even how to notice and understand their emotions.
Schools across the nation as well as around the world have recognized these growing challenges, and as a result, many are incorporating the practice of mindfulness within their curricula. New developments are also emerging outside of mainstream classrooms, including programs in community centres and hospitals.
Education beyond schools
Victor Chan, who co-founded the Dalai Lama Centre for Peace and Education (DLC) in Vancouver, says the centre focuses on the “heart-mind” development of young children. The centre holds annual conferences bringing together educators, parents, scientists, and researchers pioneering the rapidly growing movement toward a shared vision of what they call “educating the hearts” of children.
“These days, too many people, young and old, are stressed out due to a combination of digital and sensory overload and a hyper-busy lifestyle. Anxiety and depression are rampant. The DLC’s core vision is based on a simple premise: to be mindful allows us to be more in tune with our inner lives, our feelings, and our emotions.”
BC Children’s Hospital, through its Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre, is also developing a program based on mindfulness techniques for adolescents with chronic health conditions and/or depression.
Benefits of mindfulness
In a corresponding movement to keep abreast of the rapidly developing and voluminous research supporting the benefits of mindfulness in youths, there are organizations dedicated to compiling this information within a searchable database.
One such nonprofit group is the Ontario-based Discover Mindfulness, which is developing a “school finder” system to map all mindfulness activity within institutions throughout Canada. Users will be able to connect with parents, educators, and research data specifically geared toward the development of mindfulness-based practices.
Their compilation of research has found that mindfulness
- reduces stress
- significantly alleviates depression
- fosters compassion and connectivity with others
- improves cognitive abilities and focus
- enhances a sense of well-being and peace
- promotes less emotional reactivity
There is a strong unanimity among mindfulness teachers about the importance of educators having their own personal practice. James Gibbs, head of training for a youth-oriented curriculum created by the nonprofit organization Mindfulness in Schools Project, agrees.
“I wouldn’t want to teach mindfulness to students if I wasn’t practising it myself. It just wouldn’t feel right. Anyone can pick up a book about mindfulness, read it through, and then communicate it from a cognitive viewpoint.
“But to be feeling a sense of presence myself as I am teaching mindfulness makes the whole experience more meaningful to me, and I feel it enables others to absorb the essence of mindfulness on a different level entirely.”
Yet, this is the responsibility of not only the educators and instructors, but also of the parents and caregivers. Susan Kaiser Greenland is the author of The Mindful Child (Atria Books, 2010), a ground-breaking book in which she shares her restructuring of what she terms the “new ABCs: Attention, Balance, and Compassion,” which is taught in an integrative way using games, activities, and sharing.
According to Greenland, cultivating a sense of calm and connectivity is paramount in the development of these qualities, not with judgment or force, but with gentle encouragement and validation of the child’s experience.
Kid-friendly mindfulness tips
Create a quiet, peaceful space or a special corner away from computers, televisions, or phones. Add a cushion or two, and ensure your child is in comfortable, non-restrictive clothes. The room or space should be kept solely for practice, viewed as a special sanctuary for the child.
Ask children to describe the sensation of their breath as it enters and exits the body. Is it warm? Cool? Do they notice any other sensations? Encourage them to focus on what a deep breath feels like throughout the body. Do they notice any other effects this may have on tightness they may be holding onto elsewhere? It might also be helpful for younger kids to visualize their breath, adding colours or textures, and to encourage their creative experience without directing it.
Introduce mindful eating with a raisin or other fruit. Have them hold one, and really feel it, looking closely at the ridges and colours. Then have them hold it on their tongue, tasting it without immediately biting into it, before chewing. This teaches how we often quickly chew our food without really experiencing the taste and texture or noticing when we are full. Using all of the senses in this exercise also teaches children to fully engage with the pleasurable process of eating.
Have kids stand and stretch their body with their arms raised up high, imagining they are literally reaching for the stars or the moon, or have them share their own creative visualization. Ask them how it feels to stretch one’s body fully.
Then with feet planted firmly on the ground, and arms by their sides, have them move their bodies side by side, allowing their arms to swing where they may. This is a natural tension easer, and may elicit giggles or comments about feeling like a “washing machine” or tree. Keep it fun; this is a shared process that is joyful in expression.
Each child is unique, and there are no hard rules to follow or goals to be achieved. Some days children may be strongly engaged and keen, while on others they may be disinterested. These variables need to be met with patience while maintaining trust in results that may not be immediate or obvious at the outset.
Encouragement comes from the children themselves, who are among the most vocal in their recognition of the positive effects of a mindfulness practice in their lives. As one 13-year-old current student of mindfulness said, “How I noticed [practising] mindfulness has helped is in doing my homework. I have found that I am more efficient with my time. Also in dealing with my brother. I used to have lots of arguments with my brother, but now I have become more tolerant.”