Mindfulness to Improve Children’s Wellbeing

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As more children adopt demanding schedules with increased academic work loads and an abundance of extracurricular activities, some react by showing signs of increased stress and anxiety.1 Our academic system has accelerated so children are now expected to complete school work previously given to children in higher grade levels. Early education has become less play focused and children receive a more academically rigorous curriculum. This change is evident by the amount of time children spend preparing for 3rd grade exams that measure performance in math and reading.  On average, 77% kindergarteners received 90 minutes of daily reading instruction in 2010 whereas only 32% received daily reading instruction in 1998.2 With increased academic demands and busy schedules, children may need to take an intentional break in the day to relax and recharge. The practice of mindfulness is quickly gaining recognition as an activity to help children manage feelings of stress and anxiety.

Mindfulness can be practiced during breaks at school, between homework assignments, before bedtime, and when children may be experiencing heightened feelings of stress or anxiety. Families can initiate a mindfulness session by sitting in a relaxing environment and concentrating on their sensory perceptions such as how they feel when taking deep breaths.3 This form of relaxation allows children to temporarily let go of distractions in their lives and focus only on a sensation of their choosing without overreacting or feeling overwhelmed. With practice, children can benefit from mindfulness both behaviorally and developmentally by learning how to process and understand their thoughts, emotions, and surrounding environment. The activity is a form of reflection, which can improve their well-being.4,5

Since mindfulness is an emerging topic, much of the research published evaluates adult populations. However, studies on children have revealed similar results that connect the practice of mindfulness to positive states of mind. Teaching children to be mindful can improve their:

  • Ability to manage anxiety 6
  • Executive function skills 4
  • Attention capabilities 7

One of the important executive functions children build through mindfulness is emotional control. Mindful children are more equipped to process their feelings instead of resorting to a habit or impulse response.4 A 2014 study conducted in Richmond, CA observed the implementation of the Mindful Schools program where teachers worked with children to practice mindfulness over the course of 7 weeks. Students in 17 different classrooms participated in 15 minute mindfulness sessions, and teachers used a rubric to report their behavior. Results indicated that practicing mindfulness improved students’ ability to pay attention in class, maintain self-control, respect others, and participate in classroom activities.7

The benefits of children practicing mindfulness can also be observed in very young children, possibly as young as preschool aged. Data from a 2015 study measuring preschoolers’ inhibition responses revealed that mindful yoga improved their ability to manage impulses. The study used a series of assessments including asking the children to not watch while an adult wrapped a gift, asking children to not touch the present after it was wrapped, and asking children to play ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes’ by performing the opposite motion as the interviewer. The children who studied mindful yoga performed better on the assessments by showing a greater ability to delay gratification and control both behavior impulses and attentional impulsivity.8

Ultimately, the goal of introducing children to mindfulness is to improve their self-reflection outside of designated times when they’re focused on breathing—to gain a greater awareness about their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Caregivers who are interested in helping their children practice mindfulness at home can follow these three tips:

  • Use mindfulness to focus on different types of sensations: Although basic mindfulness helps children concentrate on their breathing, they can also focus on how their legs or arms feel or on scents such as the smell of an orange peel. Focusing on sounds is another good mindfulness exercise. Children can concentrate on the sound of a fan rotating, birds chirping outside, or another sound that is part of the environment where they are practicing.3,9
  • Practice mindfulness during activities that require movement: This helps children incorporate mindfulness into everyday activities. Walking can be a good way to start because children focus on the physical sensation of how their legs or feet feel while moving.10, 11
  • Make time for mindfulness as a family: Families can dedicate an area of the house to practice mindfulness together and they can also set aside a time of day such as before bedtime. Both caregivers and children should talk about how they felt throughout the day or what they focused on to help become more mindful.

[1] Ginsburg, Kenneth R. “The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds.” Pediatrics. Jan 2007; 182.

[2] Bowdon J. The Common Core’s first casualty: Playful learning. The Phi Delta Kappan. May 2015; (98)8: 33-37.

[3] Getting Started with Mindfulness. Mindful. 8 Oct 2014. www.mindful.org.

[4] Teper at el. Inside the Mindful Mind. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 3 Dec 2013; 22(6): 449-454.

[5] Satlof-Bedrick E, C Johnson. Children’s metacognition and mindful awareness of breathing and thinking. Cognitive Development. Dec 2015; 36: 83-92.

[6] Research on Mindfulness. Mindful Schools. www.mindfulschools.org. Accessed 24 Jan 2017.

[7] Black D, R Fernanado. Mindfulness Training and Classroom Behavior Among Lower-Income and Ethnic Minority Elementary School Children. Journal of Child and Family Studies. Oct 2014; 23(7): 1242-1246.

[8] Razza et al. Enhancing Preschoolers’ Self-Regulation Via Mindful Yoga. Journal of Child and Family Studies. Feb 2015; 24(2): 372-385.

[9] Chapman S. Practice Mindfulness with Everyday Sounds. Mindful. 29 May 2013. www.mindful.org.

[10] Sofer O. The Practice of Walking. Mindful Schools. 8 Nov 2016. www.mindfulschools.org.

[11] Sofer O. Mindfulness as a Way of Life. Mindful Schools. 26 Sept 2016. www.mindfulschools.org.

 

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