Mindfulness and Play in Supporting Children with ADHD
Did you know that ADHD impacts millions of children worldwide and that many use mindfulness to help manage challenges related to ADHD?
Mindfulness is quickly gaining recognition as a beneficial tool for children and adolescents with ADHD, as well as those facing anxiety, autism, depression, and stress.
At its essence, mindfulness helps children with ADHD by developing two key skills: first, cultivating awareness of thoughts, emotions, and sensory experiences; and second, enhancing the ability to regulate reactions to these experiences.
Additionally, mindfulness practices inherently improve focus by teaching children to direct and maintain their attention on the present moment.
If you’d like to understand the positive link between mindfulness practice and ADHD and why mindfulness is considered such a good tool for children to manage ADHD related challenges, you can read more here.
This article on children’s mindfulness and ADHD shows you how easy-to-do mindfulness activities combined with a fun way of describing the brain can be used with children diagnosed with ADHD.
Next, I’ll introduce you to my fun and engaging approach known as ‘The Brain Team’, designed to explain important brain functions relevant to ADHD in a way that’s easy to understand.
You’ll find a free gift for you at the end of this article!
I’m giving away fun “Brain Team” printables including finger puppets for each Brain Team character and a child-friendly Brain Team mindfulness game so that you can talk about brain functions in a playful manner and get the Brain Team working together as a team, while training self-regulation skills for focus and calm. Win win win!
Transforming Challenges into Opportunities
The reason I decided to write this article is that I’m going to meet a family and their 4th grader diagnosed with ADHD. They’re eager to embrace mindful tools to help manage ADHD and I can’t wait to share the Brain Team approach which has already brought so much joy and understanding to many kids. I’m hoping it will spark the same curiosity and excitement for this 4th grader!
But… why would you want to explain the brain to young children?
The importance is in understanding and embracing our unique brain processes. By demystifying these processes we’re not just simplifying complex concepts for children but also fostering an environment of acceptance and curiosity.
The Brain Team serves as a friendly and relatable guide helping children understand why they might feel or behave in certain ways. This understanding is key to nurturing a positive self-image and emotional wellbeing in children. It encourages them to explore their own minds with kindness and empathy laying a foundation for lifelong emotional resilience and mental health.
It’s been wonderful to hear about the success of my Brain Team concept in making neurological challenges more approachable and understandable for children. Here’s what a wonderful foster family support worker wrote to me:
“Teaching caregivers, youth and children about the brain with regards to trauma and the resulting behaviours can often be frustrating and confusing concepts to grasp…
But Chris from Blissful Kids has come up with a way to engage a variety of age groups into conversations about the brain with the creation of his “brain team”.
I am so thankful that I found this creative and fun way to talk about the brain to youth, children and caregivers to help them understand how each of the “characters” help to protect the youth / child from “perceived or real threats”.
You can never go wrong with introducing superheroes when trying to explain concepts to young people so I’m excited to be able to introduce the “brain team” of Amy, Tex and Hippo to the people I work with.”
— Cassandra Williams, Foster Family Support Worker
Meet the Brain Team: A Creative Way to Understand ADHD
Mindfulness exercises typically involve selecting a focal point, such as one’s breath, and directing sustained attention towards it. Thus the real challenge lies in making these practices interesting and engaging for children. After all, even adults can find the idea of focusing on breath rather boring, and the scientific concepts behind brain functioning can be complex to grasp for anyone.
So, how do we normalise and transform mindfulness and ADHD into an exciting and understandable journey for kids?
Here’s my playful approach…
The Brain Team is Your Friendly Guide in the World of Neuroscience for Kids!
💡 Tex represents the prefrontal cortex and executive functioning.
💡 Amy represents the amygdala.
💡 Hippo represents the hippocampus.
Each character represents a different brain function and actual part of the brain, helping children understand the inner workings in a fun, scientific and memorable way.
TEX — The Smart Sheriff
Tex, the sheriff and team captain, is responsible for planning, good decision-making, and maintaining focus.
Tex represents the pre-frontal cortex and executive functioning. The prefrontal cortex is associated with various functions including self-awareness, making decisions, exercising judgment, gaining insight, empathy, and regulating emotions and behaviors.
🧠 When Tex is strong and focused she helps you solve problems and make good choices. She’s like your own “brain-sheriff”:
With ADHD (and otherwise), Tex sometimes gets a bit sleepy or distracted, making it harder to stay focused, remember instructions, or think before acting.
🧠 When Tex is distracted or sleepy it’s tough to focus:
So, we want to help our brain sheriff to stay strong and help us solve problems and make good decisions.
💡 The cool part is that you can train Tex to become stronger and a better problem solver!
Studies indicate that ADHD is linked to reduced functionality in the prefrontal cortex. These findings shed light on the challenges commonly faced by individuals with ADHD, including difficulties in making beneficial decisions, planning ahead, managing time effectively, procrastination, and struggles with social interactions and relationship maintenance.
Additionally, this may contribute to externalizing behaviors like disruptive, aggressive, and defiant actions, as well as issues with impulse control and disorganization (8).
Amy — The Jumpy Superhero
Amy is another important part of your brain! Amy is your brain’s superhero. She’s incredibly quick in responding to dangerous situations. She’s always on the lookout for trouble and ready to sound the alarm.
The amygdala is commonly linked to the experience of emotions, particularly fear and aggression. It plays a role in identifying threats and triggering corresponding fear-related responses.
🧠 Imagine Amy in your brain like a superhero who can make you fight, hide, or just freeze when she thinks there’s danger around.
Like if a car is zooming super fast towards you, Amy might set off a big alarm in your head to stop you from crossing the street. Whenever Amy believes you might be in danger, she rings that alarm really loud and takes over to keep you safe.
But Amy often mistakes big emotions for danger and jumps into action to protect you. Stress and excitement can make her feel overwhelmed. So, Amy might sound the alarm by mistake and make you do something you’ll regret soon afterwards.
🧠 Imagine if your friend trips and accidentally steps on your foot, and it makes you feel really mad.
Amy in your brain might think that big mad feeling is a danger, like a superhero getting ready to save the day. So, you might end up yelling at your friend, saying something not so nice, or even pushing them away without meaning to.
🧠 When Amy reacts this strongly and takes charge she will not let Tex think and respond in a mindful manner.
It makes things tough for Tex, our brain’s decision-maker and planner. Tex tries her best to focus and make good decisions, but when Amy is in full alarm-mode, it’s like trying to think clearly in the middle of a loud rock concert.
The intensity Amy brings to the table can overshadow Tex’s ability to stay on track, making focus and decision-making more challenging.
When the amygdala classifies sensory input as “dangerous”, it will not let the information be properly processed by the pre-frontal cortex, and instead reacts instinctively – often triggering the fight flight freeze response.
This is why we might sometimes yell, say something unkind, walk out of a discussion, or even act out violently. By the way, here’s my article that explains the workings of the amygdala during a stress response in more detail.
In children with ADHD, Amy’s reactions can be especially quick and powerful. This heightened sensitivity means that emotions don’t just feel big; they can feel enormous and sometimes overwhelming.
It’s like having a superhero in your brain who’s a little too eager to help, turning even small emotional ripples into full alarm-mode.
Emotional dysregulation, a core deficit in executive functioning associated with ADHD, is marked by rapid and intense mood fluctuations. This could stem from variations in the amygdala, leading to challenges in regulating emotions (8).
💡 The cool bit is that you can train Amy to become less jumpy about emotions, and help make Tex stronger so that she’ll be in charge more often!
Hippo — The Wise Librarian
Finally we have Hippo, the librarian or memory keeper. Hippo stores and recalls past experiences.
The hippocampus is linked to both long-term and working memory. Working memory involves retaining information in your memory while engaging in other activities, a capability frequently utilized when following directions, focusing, or recalling information required in the immediate moment.
🧠 Hippo is really good at learning and remembering when Amy is calm and Tex feels strong.
🧠 But, when Amy is overwhelmed and Tex is tired Hippo struggles with retrieving information and storing new memories.
This means that it’s difficult to learn or to remember things when Amy is upset. In ADHD (and otherwise), Hippo can get overwhelmed and struggle with holding onto things like homework or recent activities, especially when Tex is tired and Amy is overwhelmed with emotion.
💡 However, we can practice mindfulness to support Amy and Tex so that Hippo can remember and store memories.
To sum it up:
By personifying these key parts of the brain, with this fun approach, we can turn abstract concepts into relatable characters, making it easier for kids to understand and connect with the information.
And perhaps most importantly…
We can normalize behavior, empowering children to understand that they are NOT “stupid” or “mean”.
And we can offer them concrete tools that can help them when they struggle the most.
Indeed, here’s the best part …
Empowering the Brain Team: Engaging Tex and Amy
This is the truly thrilling part! Yes, we can actively and effectively support Tex, Amy, and Hippo with simple and playful mindfulness activities!
Imagine them as members of a dynamic team, capable of learning, growing, and enhancing their skills with the right mix of practice, guidance, and even a few clever strategies.
🧠 By training mindfulness skills, such as mindful breathin, you can help the Brain Team feel better and work better together, while making Amy less jumpy and Tex stronger.
Now, if you like this approach…
I want you to take action and try this out :)
I’m excited to share printable Brain Team puppets with you and a simple mindful breathing game. It’s unlike most mindfulness exercises in that it is visual, tactile and actually reasonably fun to do.
1. Use the Brain Team finger puppets to explain the key brain functions. You can use the puppets to act out various role-playing scenarios that trigger Amy and demonstrate how each character reacts to them. And then show what you can do to calm down Amy and find a peaceful solution. It’s lots of fun and memorable for kids :-)
2. Play the breathing game to learn mindful deep breathing that will help make Tex stronger and Amy less jumpy.
Did you know that studies have shown how taking a few deep breaths significantly reduces children’s physiological arousal? But that telling them to “take a deep breath” may not be enough because it is not intuitive for young children, and that children are more successful if they have a visual guide. (9) That’s why our breathing games are so great for children!
Our breathing games turn calming mindful breaths into fun, hands-on activities, making it easy for kids to learn self-regulation. Children can easily learn mindful breathing and use it to self-regulate.
A Gift for You:
Brain Team Finger Puppets and Hot Cocoa Breathing Game with Amy
Dive into a playful brain adventure with our free Brain Team finger puppets and Amy’s Hot Chocolate Breathing Game!
💡 Capture children’s interest and focus.
💡 Offer visual and tactile experiences for all types of learners.
💡 Engage even those kids who think meditation isn’t their thing.
Just remember to practice the game when the children are calm. Once they get the hang of it, you can prompt them to try it when they start feeling a bit worried. You can even turn it into a game of ‘noticing when Amy is getting a little worried’ and see if the breathing game helps. It’s a great way to put what they’ve learned into practice!
By downloading the printables you’ll also be informed when our Brain Team materials and our comprehensive brain-based mindfulness program is ready :)
Thank you for reading this far :)
I hope you enjoyed this fun approach to explaining brain functions to children with ADHD.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on mindfulness and ADHD, especially if you have experience with diagnosed children.
Let me know in the comments or email me if you’d like to get a specific ADHD package with Brain Team materials including videos that explain the concept to kids in a playful way.
Founder of Blissful Kids
For more insights into ADHD, visit ADDitude Magazine’s wonderful website.
Chris Bergstrom is a bestselling mindfulness author, a leader in the field of mindfulness, and the founder of BlissfulKids.com, a community of parents, educators, and therapists dedicated to children’s mindfulness and psychology, with over 15 years of experience facilitating meditation and psychological interventions to people of all ages.
Chris is a certified mindfulness facilitator, trained to teach mindfulness to students in K-12, and has received psychology and mindfulness training from UPenn, UCLA, UNC, Mindful Schools, and Mindfulness Without Borders.
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(2) Vekety, B., Logemann, H. N. A., & Takacs, Z. K. (2021). The effect of mindfulness-based interventions on inattentive and hyperactive–impulsive behavior in childhood: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 45(2), 133-145.
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(4) Burke, C. A. (2010). Mindfulness-based approaches with children and adolescents: A preliminary review of current research in an emergent field. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19(2), 133-144. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-009-9282-x. Greenberg, M., & Harris, A. (2012). Nurturing mindfulness in children and youth: Current state of research. Child Development Perspectives, 6, 161-166. Viglas, M., & Perlman, M. (2018). Effects of a mindfulness-based program on young children’s self-regulation, prosocial behavior and hyperactivity. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27(4), 1150-1161. doi:10.1007/s10826-017-0971-6.
(5) Emerson, L. M., Rowse, G., & Sills, J. (2017). Developing a mindfulness-based program for infant schools: feasibility, acceptability, and initial effects. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 31(4), 465-477. https://doi.org/10.1080/02568543.2017. 1343211. Napoli, M., Krech, P. R., & Holley, L. C. (2005). Mindfulness training for elementary school students: The attention academy. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 21, 99-125. http://dx.doi.org/10.1300/J370v21n01_05. Saltzman, A., & Goldin, P. (2008). Mindfulness based stress reduction for school-age children. In S. C. Hayes & L. A. Greco (Eds.), Acceptance and mindfulness interventions for children adolescents and families (pp. 139-161). Oakland, CA: Context Press/New Harbinger. Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & Lawlor, M. S. (2010). The effects of a mindfulness-based education program on pre-and early adolescents’ well-being and social and emotional competence. Mindfulness, 1(3), 137-151. https://doi.org/10.1007/ s12671-010-0011-8
(6) Napoli, M., Krech, P. R., & Holley, L. C. (2005). Mindfulness training for elementary school students: The attention academy. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 21, 99-125. http://dx.doi.org/10.1300/J370v21n01_05. Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & Lawlor, M. S. (2010). The effects of a mindfulness-based education program on pre-and early adolescents’ well-being and social and emotional competence. Mindfulness, 1(3), 137-151. https://doi.org/10.1007/ s12671-010-0011-8. Viglas, M., & Perlman, M. (2018). Effects of a mindfulness-based program on young children’s self-regulation, prosocial behavior and hyperactivity. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27(4), 1150-1161. doi:10.1007/s10826-017-0971-6.
(7) Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2014). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
(8) Kaufman, J. (2021, December 14). 7 ways ADHD can be seen in the brain. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-reality-of-gen-z/202112/7-ways-adhd-can-be-seen-in-the-brain
(9) Obradović J, Sulik MJ, Armstrong-Carter E. Taking a few deep breaths significantly reduces children’s physiological arousal in everyday settings: Results of a preregistered video intervention. Dev Psychobiol. 2021 Dec;63(8):e22214. doi: 10.1002/dev.22214. PMID: 34813098.