Mindfulness: A primer on why it’s vitally important for our kids
A fifth grade girl came up to me one Monday morning to tell me about her weekend. “I stayed at my aunt’s house Saturday night. She cut her hand really bad on a broken glass and was crying like crazy. I showed her how to shut her eyes and take three deep breaths. I had to tell her a bunch of times but she finally did it. Then she calmed down.”
Ever since I began teaching mindful meditation, kids frequently tell me stories like this. They take what they have learned and share it with their friends and families. They have begun to incorporate mindfulness into their lives at home and in the classroom. I always find it amazing how they take ownership of their favorite techniques and teach them to their families.
The world seems to be abuzz with the topic of mindfulness. It is everywhere we turn. In the checkout line at the grocery store mindfulness is on magazine covers, such as Time or National Geographic. It appears on shows ranging from Queer Eye to Sesame Street. There are over 100 TED Talks on the topic. Every time there is an article on mindfulness in school, at least three different friends forward it to me.
Mindfulness is the practice of being present. It is the act of finding your center and returning to it over and over. It frees your mind from worries and stress.
So what is mindfulness and how does it benefit children?
Mindfulness is the practice of being present. It is the act of finding your center and returning to it over and over. It frees your mind from worries and stress. It doesn’t have to take longer than the few moments a long slow breath takes, although it can be much longer if you wish. It can restore energy focus, and allows you to be more relaxed and thoughtful. Studies repeatedly show that mindfulness increases confidence, health, and happiness.
We are hard-wired to respond quickly to our environment. When we practice “slowing our roll” we become more aware of the present moment. It can move us from mind-full to mindful. Each one of us is human and we are not perfect, but practicing mindfulness counters our intuitive flight or fight response to everyday upsets.
Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—giving up, for instance, the idea that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.
This practice allows you to pay attention to all sorts of things. It could be your breath, your location, or where you are feeling emotions in your body. “The essence of mindfulness is just tolerating experiencing sensations that come into your body, other than trying to get (them) to stop immediately,” Jeff Bostic, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Georgetown University says.
This secular practice of mindfulness has entered the American mainstream in recent years, in part through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which he launched at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. Since that time, thousands of studies have documented the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness in general and MBSR in particular, inspiring countless programs to adapt the MBSR model for schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans’ centers, and beyond.
In September, 2019, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital released the results of a survey completed with the Chicago Department of Health. They asked adults with at least one child under 18 what health problems they considered to be the “big problems” for Chicago’s children and youth. The survey was conducted in all areas of the city. Stress tied for the top concern with drug abuse.
Our children’s lives seem to have layers of stress continually added. It can range from stress over school and grades, a family member’s illness, parental discord, worrying about tests, or systemic poverty. These all contribute to anxiety. Sometimes children simply worry because they don’t understand what is going on and they imagine the worst.
In my years in the classroom, I have worked with children who had lost parents to murder or suicide, who have had a sibling die of cancer, and several who have witnessed domestic abuse. I had children abandoned by their parents. These are the extremes, of course. Most kids have smaller stresses. I have seen loving parents who simply aren’t morning people and squabble with their children all the way to school. Moving, divorce, or a new teacher can all affect how kids cope.
Clearly the levels of stress vary, but we all feel it. Everyone, regardless of age, has stress, anxiety, and worry. Some are big concerns. Others are smaller, but as a wise person once told me: Problems are not a contest.
My personal experience has been working with children and their adults, both teachers and parents, to add mindfulness into their daily lives. In many ways, I have been doing this work for over 30 years while not realizing that it was mindfulness. It was an incidental part of my teaching before it became the focus. Many of the techniques I was teaching were the same that are being taught by MBST teachers. As I realized this, I became more deliberate about how I incorporated them.
Two years ago, I worked as a classroom facilitator for a study being conducted by Amanda Moreno at the Erikson Institute looking at the effects of stress reduction on test scores for children ages five to eight. I visited classrooms weekly with my co-facilitators, teaching mindfulness techniques to students in low- income, high- stress communities. We also worked closely with the teachers, providing instruction and support to them. The study results have not yet been published but we collected much anecdotal evidence that showed emotional learning and the students’ utilization of the techniques.
The Benefits of Mindfulness on Children
There have been numerous studies on the effects of mindfulness with adults. New studies on the effects of mindful meditation on children are being published. However, the use of mindfulness is growing faster than the studies are being published.
In The New York Times Well Guides, David Gelles explains:
Part of the reason why mindfulness is so effective for children can be explained by the way the brain develops. While our brains are constantly developing throughout our live, connections in the prefrontal circuits are created at the fastest rate during childhood. Mindfulness, which promotes skills that are controlled in the prefrontal cortex, like focus and cognitive control, can therefore have a particular impact on the development of skills including self-regulation, judgment and patience during childhood.
Mindfulness and Stress Reduction
Stress! We teachers and parents know all about it. Living and working with children gives us more reasons than we can count to take a deep breath. We forget about ourselves and put all our energy into whatever stressor is in front of us. Perhaps Skippy just used his scissors on Cinderella’s hair. Maybe someone barfed in as you’re walking out the door. Some days we just can’t seem to find the rhythm to make the day run smoothly. Most likely though, we are simply overwhelmed and exhausted by all the things that need to be completed by the end of the day.
We tend to think of childhood as this carefree part of life but we know that in reality our kids are often overwhelmed with social and academic stress. Social stress could be the developmentally appropriate friend drama or it could be family stress.
Data shows that mindfulness and meditation reduces stress, fear and anxiety. It literally lowers stress. Research published in the journal Health Psychology shows that mindfulness is not only associated with feeling less stressed, it’s also linked with decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Increasing Focus and Clarity with Mindfulness
One warm spring day, the windows in my classroom were wide open. The class was taking a math test. This particular group had a collection of boys who lived to bring hilarity to the world. Everyone was working quietly until a fly darted in through the window, buzzing loudly.
“A fly!!” shouted my best wiggler.
“Tony the Fly!” replied his best friend, the future stand-up comedian.
Focus seemed to fly out the window when Tony the Fly flew in. Everyone was laughing, their math tests completely forgotten. I took a few breaths and was deciding how to shift the class attention back to the work at hand. During that brief moment, another fly joined Tony. “Look!” they all chorused.
I grounded myself with a calming breath and said, “It’s his dad. He is here to remind Tony he has work to do.” Then with my best teacher voice, “Now, close your eyes and take a deep breath.” It took several moments but I waited patiently. Finally, the class complied.
“Sit up straight. Breathe in slowly.” As the class settled, I could feel their energy shift and calm returned. Thankfully, Tony and his dad seemed to have left. After about a minute of quiet, I asked the class to take a deep breath in and open their eyes. They were able to refocus and get back to their test.
Most mindfulness in the classroom includes techniques that practice focus. They teach you to focus on your breath or an object such as your hand or a tree. Sometimes, you are asked to focus on the sounds in your environment. Or it can be a class activity that requires a concentrated group effort to complete, such as trying to pass a ringing chime around the room before it stops vibrating.
We know that many schools are bringing mindfulness practices to students. Studies have shown it helps children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, especially if practiced regularly with a parent. Another study found an increase in working memory, cognitive control and math scores after participating in a four- month meditation program.
There is a joke that shows up on Facebook frequently. It goes something like: I promise that today there will be no yelling, no crying, no foot stamping, and no whining in the classroom. I hope the kids can do it, too.
Mindfulness is a tool that everyone can use when they feel out of control. Parents and teachers benefit from this as much as the students. I, personally, use it to control my natural sarcasm, to keep from laughing at the absurdity of it all, or to keep my temper in check. I even talk my way through the techniques out loud so that my children can see how I use mindfulness myself.
As my students began to internalize mindfulness, I observed they were better able to self-reflect. They could move their desk to a quieter place to get work done. Some made the choice to sit outside of the circle on the rug if they knew they couldn’t handle the temptation of talking or touching the person next to them. It gave them the power to be in charge of their own behavior. Children also began to recognize what had worked for them in the past and use it to calm down.
Mindfulness in the classroom or mindfulness at home gives children the ability to check their feelings, and use the strategies they have learned to evaluate how to reset. It is not foolproof. Even as adults, we know we have moments when it is hard to get ourselves in control of our emotions. Still, learning to use mindful meditation, both in longer stretches of quiet time and quick snatches, helps move children back to the present situation so they can make better choices.
Gaining a Sense of Well- Being Using Mindfulness
In a second grade classroom in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, a notoriously tough area, I sat listening to students talk about how and when they used mindfulness, and how it made them feel. I had been visiting this classroom for the entire school year. The teacher used mindfulness techniques daily with her class.
Some students shared how their parents would request that they do that “breathing thing” when their siblings got “crazy.” They reported they used the techniques at home to calm themselves if they get hurt on the playground. One girl explained, “When I’m calm, I have hope.”
One crucial part of mindfulness is the understanding that all emotions are okay. It is how we respond to those emotions that matters.
Erica Siblinga, a pediatrician, and her colleagues at Johns Hopkins have been conducting well-controlled trials, using mindfulness in some of Baltimore’s poorest public schools with fifth through eighth-graders. Half the students received 12 weeks of mindfulness instruction and the remainder received health instruction. They selected instructors for each group that were matched in engagement and skill level.
“On depression, (students) moved from the borderline concerning levels to the normal level,” Siblinga explains. “Does that mean each kid in the intervention group has moved? No, it doesn’t. But the average moved.” The study found similar improvements in anxiety levels, self-hostility, coping, and post-traumatic symptoms.
How Mindfulness Helps Interpersonal Relationships
School, just like our adult workplaces, is full of interpersonal connections. There are always people you like and dislike. There are days you don’t want to be bothered by anyone. Everyone has a good friend that doesn’t make a good work partner because you want to goof around together. Growing up means being independent and recognizing how we respond to others.
The gift of mindfulness is that children are able to work through their frustrations with peers. They are able to realize that fair doesn’t mean equal. They also realized that generosity feels good. I call this wisdom.
Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child, says “Wisdom doesn’t come from being perfect. Wisdom comes from being present.”
Several years ago, I had a troubled girl in my room. She was having multiple petit mal seizures each day. Her mother didn’t tell her what was going on with her. Worse, she coddled her and let her do as she pleased with no consequences. She frequently stole from her classmates and from me including the entire set of classroom scissors and all the staples from my desk. She was a difficult member in our classroom.
Mindfulness didn’t solve her problems. The gift it did give, however, was to help her classmates cope with her uneasy presence in the room. Nearly everyday, I saw students use mindfulness techniques during interactions with her. They would stop and breathe when she was bugging them. Most of the class treated her with absolute kindness. The others who just couldn’t stay patient with her kept their distance rather than engaging with her. She was always the outlier among the class but the other students just saw her as part of the classroom puzzle that was who we were that year.
In surveys completed in classrooms using mindfulness, teachers reported a 76 percent increase in compassion. Child participants in studies that measured compassion tended to be more compassionate and less self-judgmental than the controls.
Mindfulness in the classroom isn’t just for elementary students either. Susan Kaiser Greenland thinks this is especially important for teenagers. “Relational mindfulness becomes a very important part of the practice.” By using mindfulness, children can learn to stay present, listen with intention, and speak in a kind and honest way.
Mindfulness may go even further to change our interpersonal relationships. A 2015 adult study done at Central Michigan University had participants listen to either a mindfulness or control audio lesson. The results showed a decrease in implicit racial and age biases. This decrease continued even when the person wasn’t actively meditating.
What It All Means
One morning at a school on Chicago’s South Side, a school assistant walked down the stairs with a kindergarten boy. The school assistant was a big man, and we mindfulness facilitators thought of him as Mr. Teddy Bear. He was often sent to the classrooms at that school to help out, but the children knew he was a big softie and took complete advantage of his kindness.
“Good morning, ladies,” Mr. Teddy Bear said. “I sure could use some calm this morning.”
I looked at the kindergartner, who was well known to us for his impish behavior. “Well, show him what you’ve got,” I suggested to him.
The little boy, only thigh high to Mr. Teddy Bear, leaned his head back to look up at him. “Put your hands under your chin like this.” He interlaced his fingers and placed them under his chin. “Take a deep breath in and lift your elbows. Now, breathe out slowly.” He demonstrated and then he nodded his approval as Mr. Teddy Bear followed his instructions.
“Wow! That feels good. I’ll have to stop by and have you show me that again.”
With a cocked head, the boy looked at him. “It’s called the Butterfly Breath. Me and my whole class know how to do it.”
This demonstrates how even young children can internalize mindfulness strategies. Being able to teach an adult what they have learned means that it engages them and that it is relevant to their lives. It also shows mastery of a technique when you are able to teach it to others from memory. Clearly, the butterfly breath was a favorite of this kindergarten boy as he was able to pull it out of his hat so quickly.
There is a criticism that mindful meditation is it is too vague. That it seems to incorporate so many ways of accomplishing the goal of “letting go.” Siblinga admits, “It may look like it’s all over the place. But it may be what’s changing is upstream of all those things.” She is referring to the overall systemic changes in the brain and patterns of thinking. “We know our whole body and brain and mind function together.” The how is the question. “It makes me think we need to explore it further,” she says.
There are many ways of practicing mindfulness. Most often it is quiet and involves paying attention to your breath. There are many other ways to practice it, though. I love to talk to myself about the sky. It is a thing I do everyday, often in the car. It is amazingly useful when I am frustrated about something. It just stops the dialogue running through my head. I have to be in the moment to look at the clouds. Fortunately, in the day of hands-free cell phones, no one wonders why I’m talking to myself.
These activities are often repetitive. It is, put simply, whatever soothes or distracts you while requiring an underlying focus. Mindfulness can be hopping up from a chair when a great song comes on Pandora, and dancing around the room. Just dancing. Not thinking too much about it. It is the same feeling when you sing along with your phone. For some people, it can come with cooking, gardening, washing dishes, or mowing the lawn. Jigsaw puzzles are like a vacuum cleaner for my anxiety.
Bringing It Home
Children are most likely to incorporate mindfulness into their daily lives if you practice with them. We know modeling behavior works, children mimic their adults. A preschooler will copy your mannerisms, both good and bad. Then they look for your reactions. By putting on your mindful oxygen mask first, you let them see how you manage your emotions. Gelles reminds us that “mindfulness isn’t something that can be sourced.”
A Portuguese self-report questionnaire looks at self-compassion, parenting stress, and perceived stress. It found significant correlations between mindful parenting by mothers and compassion for the child. The study showed that mindful parenting can be measured through the assessment of listening with full attention, compassion for the child, non-judgmental acceptance of parental functioning, self-regulation in parenting and emotional awareness of the child.
We know the old adage: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. We don’t teach a person to fish by just giving him a hook. We teach him to fish by sitting next to him, showing how to find likely fishing holes in the stream, and how to sit and wait patiently.
One day, your child will be teaching you new techniques or reminding you to use mindfulness when you are losing it. Many times a child has whispered to me, “Do the shark fin, Ms. Meredith” or “Put your hand on your heart and breathe.”
The Dalai Lama claims that “If every child in the world is taught meditation, we would eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” I don’t know if that is true but I recall the little girl who said being calm gives her hope. That is the thing I think about most often when teaching children and their adults mindful meditation. It seems to me that hope can push away stress and worry better than any platitudes we can dole out. Isn’t teaching our children the skill of letting go and giving the gift of hope a pretty marvelous thing?
At Chicago Home Tutor, we love to incorporate mindfulness strategies into our tutoring sessions to support focus and calm around learning. Contact us today if you’d like to discuss this further!
Naht Hanh, Thich, (2011) Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children. Berkeley: Parallax Press
Willard, Christopher, (2016) Growing Up Mindful: Essential Practices to Help Children, Teens, and Families Find Balance, Calm, and Resilience. Boulder: Sounds True
Grossman, L., Alvarez, A, et al. (2016) Master of Mindfulness: How to Be Your Own Superhero in Times of Stress. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications
Gelles,David NY Times Mindfulness for Children https://www.nytimes.com/guides/well/mindfulness-for-children?utm_source=sharetools&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=website&emc=eta1
US National Library of Medicine
Suttie, Jill Greater Good Magazine https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/three_ways_mindfulness_can_make_you_less_biased
About the author:
Lee-Ann Meredith is a joyful and passionate teacherpreneur. She is a veteran Chicago Public School teacher with over fifteen years in the classroom. Lee-Ann has been a mindfulness practioner for more than 25 years. She is the author of Angels in My Classroom: How Second Graders Saved My Life. Her articles and blogs have appeared in several periodicals including The Washington Post, and The Educator’s Room e-magazine. She is the owner of Wise Mindful Meditation which teaches kids, parents, and teachers how to incorporate mindfulness into their daily lives. Lee-Ann is also a Usui Reiki Master-Teacher.