Mindfulness has become a buzzword for calm and confident living, and it’s starting to find its way into family life and schools. Yet what is mindfulness? Is it something that we need in our lives right now? Importantly, should we teach it to our kids?
1. What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness was popularised in the 1970s by molecular biologist and Zen Buddhist John Kabat-Zinn, author of bestselling book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness (1994). Kabat-Zinn understood the benefits of Buddhist meditation but made it more accessible to a wider audience by developing a secular practice called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
Since then, mindfulness has entered the mainstream. While mindfulness is not a panacea for stress, one of its greatest appeals is that it may help people to better negotiate the constantly shifting terrain of fast-paced modern life. It does this by helping you to stay focused in the present. In this video, Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as ‘living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.’
2. The Benefits of Mindfulness
If the size of an industry indicates that it has hit upon a solution to a problem (the Global Wellness Institute values the mindfulness industry at $3.72 trillion), then the research is compelling too. Studies show that mindfulness interventions have a positive impact on children’s mental health. For instance, regular practice may help them regulate emotions and respond to stress in a calm way. It can also support children’s learning in the classroom.
A review of 14 mindfulness programs in schools, published in the journal Mindfulness, suggests that students demonstrated not only lower anxiety and fatigue along with better mood, but also improvements in everything from memory and attention to academic and social skills. The same review highlighted the benefits of mindfulness for teachers. Not only did it boost their sense of self-efficacy, but it helped them manage classroom behaviour more easily and build positive relationships with students.
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3. Mindfulness in Practice
So, what does mindfulness involve? Mindfulness teacher Shinzen Young describes two key techniques of mindfulness practice – noting and scanning.
This is turning your attention inwards and noting, or noticing, what thoughts, feelings and sensations arise. In its simplest form, noticing and naming the breath as it comes in (‘I am breathing in’), and the breath as it goes out (‘I am breathing out’). This concentrates awareness in the present moment and helps you to label experiences without judgment.
ii) Body scanning
This is the practice of noting and naming different regions of the body. Scanning can be used to notice sensory experiences throughout the day, such as the feel of the warmth of sun on your skin or the taste of food in your mouth. Again, this can help you to stay focused in the present.
A third important technique is ‘loving kindness,’ practising compassion for yourself and others. This is often assisted with a specific meditation, such as the one described in this video on Meditating with Kids by Christine Carter of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley University of California.
4. The Neuroscience of Mindfulness
Meditation can change the way our brain processes experiences. Instead of internalising responses to stress, mindfulness can help us to notice when we are stressed and temper our response to a perceived threat.
‘Our brains process information less actively when we meditate,’ says Ken A Verni, consultant editor of Practical Mindfulness: A Step-by-Step Guide (Dorling Kingsley, 2015). ‘Meditation subtly re-engineers the brain, weakening some neural connections and strengthening others, and affecting areas associated with the sense of self, empathy, and stress.’ Thus, long-term mindfulness practice may help to create new neural pathways that can serve you well for life.
5. Teaching Mindfulness to Kids
How, then, do we teach mindfulness to kids? Eline Snel, author of Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercise for Kids (and Their Parents), says: ‘By practising mindful presence, kids learn to pause for a moment to get a sense of what they need at this moment in time. This allows them to move out of automatic pilot and learn to accept that not all things in life are nice or cool. They learn to bring friendly attention to everything they do.’
Try these exercises devised by Snel with your kids or students. Notice how the children respond – and the effect the practices have on you!
a) Sitting Still Like a Frog (Noting)
Frogs are amazing – they can leap high, but they can also sit incredibly still and watch everything around them without reacting straight away. Can you sit still like a frog? Can you feel your belly rise and fall with your breath as you watch everything around you? Just sit and watch, quietly and peacefully.
b) Stretching and Breathing (Body Scanning)
Stand up. How far can you reach your arm into the air? What’s your limit? How can you tell? Pay attention to what’s happening to your breath and body. Lower your arms and notice how it feels. Does it feel any different to the other arm? Now, gently wake up your whole body by tapping your legs, belly, chest, arms, neck, shoulders. Give your face and head a gentle massage. How do you feel?
c) I Like You Because… (Loving Kindness)
Do this with your family. Give each person a list of the people in your family. After each name, write a really kind thing about that person. Save these pieces of paper to give as a gift. People don’t often hear how people love them just for being themselves; they will love reading the notes.
Mindfulness can be fun with children, especially when combined with the movement, imagination and storytelling that makes yoga for kids such a great resource for parents and educators too. Experiment with what works for your children, and what doesn’t. Be creative, and concentrate on exercises that have a positive effect on energy, mood and focus. Try it and see what a difference a moment of calm can make!
Jessica Adams is a writer, yoga teacher and mother of two. She has over nine years’ experience of raising boys and a lifelong love of learning, play and creativity.