We are often told how mindfulness can benefit us as we live stressed out lives with frantic schedules. Research abounds on the impact of a mindfulness/meditation practice to help us live our best life.
What if we had started this practice as a child? How would our life have been different as we faced teen angst, college stress, landing that first job, going after the partner of our dreams?
I feel confident I would have avoided much of the difficulty I have faced along life’s path had I learned mindfulness so much earlier in life.
As a parent and a teacher, I see the stresses of our chaotic culture impacting our children earlier and earlier in life. Even the lazy days of summer vacation seem packed with camps and sports and tutoring all leading up to yet another stressful academic year.
The practice of mindfulness has been scientifically proven to help. Being mindful and learning to focus on what’s happening right now can reduce anxiety, help our children deal with family, social and academic stress more effectively, improve feelings of gratitude, and bolster mental focus.
Whether you are working with a toddler at home, a classroom of fourth graders, or a teen who is struggling to deal with all of the changes life is tossing at him, mindfulness can help. Here are a few tips and ideas for beginning a mindfulness practice with children.
8 tips for beginning a mindfulness practice with children
1. Teach children how to breathe. Shallow upper chest breathing does little to relax the mind and body. Use deep, diaphragmatic breathing that lifts the whole torso on the in breath. Nothing too strenuous though. Little bodies don’t need to be falling over from exhaustion because breathing is too difficult.
2. Teach mental anchors such as counting the breaths or a simple mantra “I breathe in…I breathe out”. Having something to focus on is a great help when getting started, or when gently bringing your attention back when your mind has wandered.
3. Keep the concept of mindfulness simple and relate it to senses that can be accessed in the present moment: What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you see? What do you feel? What doe you taste? Try ten breaths just listening. Next time, try ten breaths just feeling what the body feels like. That’s enough, ten breaths. The mind was focused, the brain had a brief rest and could linger on the sense, and life feels better now.
4. Teach what you have experienced with mindfulness and the lessons will flow and be received naturally. Always do the exercises with those you are teaching. If you attempt to go beyond your scope of experience, children will naturally sense this. Begin with what you know and learn together if that’s appropriate.
5. Introduce children to mindfulness right now. Training young minds to be present in the moment need not be philosophically stringent or tedious. A bit of attention here and there begins the training. Build as you go. When appropriate, more complex lessons may be introduced.
6. Let mindfulness permeate every activity in life. When washing up in the bathroom, attend to the moment, feel the water, smell the soap, enjoy the feel of damp, clean hands. When standing in line in the cafeteria, smell what the cafeteria chefs have prepared, listen to the sound of lunchroom chatter, see the colors of everyone’s trays and lunch bags. When making your bed in the morning, feel the sheets, see the symmetry of the pillows placed just so, enjoy the softness. Mindfulness is always with us, learn to be present in all situations, not just in a specified mindfulness time.
7. Use mindfulness prompts. This might be a bell that sounds once an hour. It might be a little stone carried in the pocket, when felt, do a brief mindfulness exercise. It might be a verbal prompt for a moment to let the mind be present and unwind. When the prompt is realised, take 10 breaths, let the mind relax, and take time to let the thoughts float by without carrying the thinker away.
8. Make the practice fun and relaxing. Don’t force anyone to sit still for a length of time that may be difficult. If some children are high energy, allow them to do a walking mindfulness exercise where each step is a breath and they move, but very slowly. If a teen is resistant, do a mindfulness relaxation together at bedtime. This is often the time teens are most compliant and relaxed. Make it short at first. They will realize the benefit and you can lengthen the sessions gradually.
Which of these do you feel are within your field of practice right now? Are there areas you might need to work on first before introducing them to others? One of the joys of teaching others is learning where you can grow as well.
For even more work with mindfulness, here are a few books written for children to help them understand and practice being mindful.
Photo by Wil Stewart
Biegel, G. M., Brown, K. W., Shapiro, S. L., & Schubert, C. M. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for the treatment of adolescent psychiatric outpatients: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 77, 855-866.
Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Practical tips for teaching mindfulness to children and adolescents in school-based settings.Education & Health, 32(2), 69-72.