Lie down, relax and take a deep breath. Feel the air, fill your lungs as you pay attention to what is happening in the moment, right now. Feel your toes, one by one, think about your feet and your legs, are they heavy, or light? Tired or rested? Move your way up, and think about each part of your body. If you feel a sudden emotion, experience it fully and then let it go. If a thought enters your mind, recognize it and let it go. Pay attention, to the present moment, deliberately and without judgement.
What is Mindfulness?
This simple exercise is part of what is called a body scan, a standard activity in mindfulness courses and trainings. Mindfulness is a way of thinking that promotes moment-to-moment attention to yourself and the environment. Often, but not always, mindfulness takes the form of meditation and has been used in the medical world to reduce stress, anxiety and pain. Recently, mindfulness practice has become more common as people incorporate it into their daily lives, as well as their children’s.
Mindfulness promotes reflection and body and mental awareness. Practicing mindfulness with children helps improve their Executive Function (EF) skills as well as emotional regulation and pro-social skills such as empathy. Getting children in the habit of becoming aware of themselves, their feelings, how their attention wanders, and the details of the world around them helps them better engage in regulating their thoughts and actions through their EF skills.
The Need for Mindful Environments
Children constantly interact with adults (teachers/parents), other peers (students/siblings), and objects in the environment. While they do this, they need to keep in mind classroom/home rules (e.g., no running, no yelling, etc.) and social rules (e.g., sharing, responding to others’ emotions, etc.) and change their behavior to follow those rules. At the same time, children have their own internal thoughts and emotions motivating them to act. Sometimes these impulsive influences are stronger than the thoughtful EF skills needed to regulate them. For example, a child might know how to play in a group and take turns, but one day the same child might have had a bad night of sleep and skipped breakfast and gets off on the “wrong foot.” The child then acts aggressively in a situation where he or she would typically be kind and cooperative. Situations like these happen when feelings like excitement, stress, and hunger, override self-regulatory skills which are still under-developed in childhood.
Mindfulness practice helps train people to recognize and accept their emotions and thoughts and thereby reduce the impact that bottom-up influences might have in our day-to-day lives.
For example, being mindful of your thoughts and emotions might help you recognize that your hunger is making you more impulsive and less regulated than usual (such as being more likely to get angry with your kids). In response, you could learn to take a few deep breaths before making decisions to allow for a pause and reflect moment and your “best self” takes back the reins from the stress response.
Mindfulness in the Classroom
Mindfulness practice in the classroom takes many forms. Programs like the MindUP curriculum offer a mix of standard mindfulness activities such as deep breathing exercises and meditation as well as lessons on perspective-taking and empathy. It was created in response to the global epidemic of childhood aggression, anxiety, depression, and suicide and developed by a team of experts focusing on four pillars: neuroscience, social-emotional learning (SEL), positive psychology and mindful awareness. MindUP has been shown to improve student’s EF skills, their prosocial skills and even academic achievement.
Mindfulness At Home
It can be easy to engage in simple mindfulness activities at home to help yourself and your child. It might sound strange, but mindful eating can be very effective. Use this activity with younger children. Have the child reflect on various aspects of a food before tasting it. “What does the food look like?” “What does the food feel like?” “Does the food remind you of anything you’ve seen/felt before?” For added benefit, try it with a snack that is a particular favorite of the child, like a marshmallow.
With older children try mindful belly breathing. Lay down on the floor next to your child, place a small stuffed animal on your child’s belly, tell them to breathe deeply so that the animal rises and falls with every breath. They should also breathe slowly enough so that the animal does not fall off their belly. Have children count their breaths from 1 to 10 and then start over again at 1. Do this for 5-10 minutes or however long feels comfortable. After these mindfulness activities, talk with your child and ask them what they thought about and how they felt. Be sure to share your own experience with them
Reflecting on thoughts and emotions is an essential component of being able to regulate your behavior and flexibly adapt to a changing environment. If we help children recognize their thoughts and reflect upon them, it might make it easier for them to act in a way that is less impulsive and more deliberate.
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About the Author:
Andrei Semenov is currently earning his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Institute of Child Development. His primary research interests are in how reflection and mindfulness training can help improve executive functions and self-regulation. Currently, Andrei is working on developing a program that promotes high quality parent-child routines that promote reflection and collaborative problem solving between parents and children. Additionally, Andrei is a research consultant with the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing where he helps develop and evaluate programs that promote mindfulness for teachers and educators. Andrei earned his B.A. in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of Colorado, Boulder where he studied how overscheduling children into extra-curricular activities may be associated with changes in their executive function skills. He has written and presented his work at academic conferences as well as in peer-reviewed academic journals