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Mindfulness: Take a Moment and Breathe

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 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 in their daily lives, including with their children.

Mindfulness promotes reflection, body and mental awareness. Practicing mindfulness with children helps improve their executive function (EF) skills as well as emotion 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

In the classroom and home, children 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 bottom-up influences are stronger than the top-down 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 bottom-up influences, like excitement, stress, and hunger, override top-down cognitive control 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 top-down regulation and your “best self” to take back the reins from the stress response.

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. MindUP has been shown to improve student’s EF skills, their prosocial skills and even academic achievement.


Example of Mindful Activities At Home

At home, you can engage in simple mindfulness activities to help yourself and your child. Try mindful eating, during this activity, reflect upon various aspects of a food before tasting it. What does the food look like, what does it feel like, does it remind you of anything you’ve seen/felt before?  Try this activity with your child, and for added benefit try it with a snack that is particularly favored by 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, how they feel and share your own experience.

Reflecting upon your own 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.

Together with Jessie Forston of Learning Tree Yoga, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota researchers and Reflection Sciences Co-Founders Stephanie M. Carlson, PhD and Phil Zelazo, PhD have created a curriculum for teaching the art of mindfulness and reflection to young children. To see the Mindfulness Intervention video, click here.


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.

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