by Sarah Davies, School Psychologist
At McGillis, we teach our students mindfulness skills to help them increase their well-being and enable them to meet the stresses of the world with presence, self-compassion, and openness. We give them the tools they need to build confidence, cope with stress, and relate to uncomfortable or challenging moments.
Teaching mindfulness can also help shape three critical skills developed in early childhood:
paying attention and remembering information
shifting back and forth between tasks
behaving appropriately with others
These abilities are known as executive functions and they are essential for more advanced tasks like planning, reasoning, problem-solving, and positive social relationships. Because mindfulness can promote skills that are controlled in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, like the ability to focus and concentrate, it is especially useful for children. At each developmental stage, mindfulness can be a useful tool for decreasing anxiety and promoting happiness. But as parents how do we understand and support the mindfulness tools our children are learning and can they be of benefit to us too?
The practice of mindfulness is very simple. It is simply attending to one’s perceptions in the present moment without thinking, analyzing, or judging. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in bringing mindfulness to the western world, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness is a meditation practice that begins with paying attention to breathing in order to focus on the here and now — not what might have been or what you’re worried could be. The ultimate goal is to give you enough distance from disturbing thoughts and emotions so that you can observe them without immediately reacting to them. And though we can utilize mindfulness at any time throughout our day, setting aside a time to sit and practice mindfulness through meditation is perhaps the best way to train our brain and strengthen our mindfulness muscle. Mindfulness meditation is a very efficient exercise; you can derive most of the benefits of mindfulness just by sitting quietly for five to ten minutes a day.
Unlike most of the conceptual learning that our children engage in during their educational journey, mindfulness has nothing to do with concepts or thinking. It cannot be “taught” like math or science. Mindfulness needs to be modeled and guided by a teacher or parent. As a growing body of scientific research shows the positive effects of mindfulness on mental health and well-being, when caregivers engage in a mindfulness practice they too will reduce their stress and anxiety, and increase their ability to regulate their emotions and to feel compassion and empathy. Over time, and with consistent practice, we become better able to make choices about how we want to engage with or react to our thoughts. This is a very powerful experience because we actually feel more in control, can decrease our stress and anxiety, and can experience happiness more frequently.
Practicing mindfulness begins by finding a comfortable sitting position and paying attention to your breathing. Notice the thoughts and feelings you experience. Simply try to bring your attention to your breath. As your mind wanders, and you can expect that your mind will wander constantly, you bring it back to your breath. Mindfulness is a mental exercise. You work to focus on one thing at a time, in this case, your breath. When you get distracted you start over. And every time you start over, it strengthens your mindfulness muscle. Mindfulness is a practice, not an achievement. The practice is bringing your attention back to your breath, over and over, and again and again. The whole point of mindfulness is not to do away with particular thoughts, including negative ones, but to develop a different, non-judgmental relationship to them—to understand that they are feelings, but they are not you. Or as Dan Harris, author of the book 10% Happier, likes to put it, “Another way to think about it is getting out of your own way. It’s hard to open a jar when every muscle in your arm is tight, and we are constantly doing the mental equivalent of that. We are constantly getting in our own way, tripping ourselves up with these thoughts.” With mindfulness, he says, “They’re going to continue to come, but you can develop a different relationship to them.”
Stress reduction and self-acceptance are two of the major perks of mindfulness.
Mindfulness During A Pandemic
As we journey through this pandemic and the intense uncertainty we experience during COVID, mindfulness can play a significant role in managing anxious or negative thoughts. We develop the ability to step back and look at a thought as just a thought, as opposed to a reality. That, in turn, allows us to create a distance and not necessarily engage in that thought, get agitated about it, or be disrupted because of it. Harris says, “What mindfulness does is act as a kind of kryptonite for these impulses,” allowing us to see what’s going on in our heads without getting carried away by it. Becoming aware of what’s happening, and creating a buffer between the immediate stimulus and our blind reaction to it is, ultimately, the goal of mindfulness.
Practicing Mindfulness at School
At McGillis we engage in mindfulness practices throughout our day. Our social/emotional curriculum involves many activities that promote introspection including the breathing tool, taking time tool, and quiet/safe place tool. Teachers use transitions between activities as a time to breath, regroup, and set intentions around how to transition calmly. In our Wellness classes, we learn the practices of mindfulness, allowing time for sitting practice, as well as learning about how our brain health is impacted by mindfulness.
Many different practices have been taught this year including anchoring on our breath, following the sounds we hear, and practicing distinct breathing techniques that calm our nervous system. Students often end their sitting practice declaring they wish the practice time was longer and indicating they feel “relaxed”. As one young student shared with her parents when asked what Ms. Sarah teaches she claimed, “She teaches calmness”.
Children are uniquely suited to benefit from mindfulness practice. Habits formed early in life will inform behaviors in adulthood, and with mindfulness, we have the opportunity to give our children the habit of being peaceful, kind and accepting.
But adults benefit too and need to find relief now, more than ever before. Harris avoids getting too warm and fuzzy about the subject, however he will say this: “Most mediation clichés make me want to put a pencil through my eye, but there is one cliché that I like, which is that mindfulness teaches you how to respond wisely instead of reacting blindly. That is a super power. It changes the whole game.”
Mindfulness Resources for Parents:
Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment and Your Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Myla Kabat-Zinn
The Mindful Child: How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder, and More Compassionate, by Susan Kaiser Greenland
The Practice of Mindfulness (audio-guided meditation)
UCLA Mindful (mobile app)
MyLife Mediation (mobile app)
Calm (mobile app)
Mindfulness Books for Kids:
Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents), by Eline Snell, Myla Kabat-Zinn, Jon Kabat-Zinn
Breathe Like a Bear: 30 Mindful Moments for Kids to Feel Calm and Focused Anytime, Anywhere, by Kira Willey and Anni Betts