Teaching Kids Mindfulness
Why teachers are bringing the practice of being present into the classroom and how parents can use it at home.
Illustration by Dante Terzigni
In schools across the United States, children pause in the middle of their busy days and sit quietly, listening to the sound of their own breathing. They are learning to calm their minds before tests and to focus—to be present—without letting their minds wander. The results? Test scores are rising, and conflict is declining, so much so that some schools have replaced detention with meditation. The trend is changing the tone of your children’s education—one deep breath at a time.
While mindfulness has been a tenet of Buddhism for millennia and hit the West as a New Age fad in the 1970s, bringing it to children and their schools has become an international movement; at its heart is an unassuming brick building in Emeryville. Here, Mindful Schools provides online instruction to teachers on using mindfulness in the classroom. The growth in interest has been exponential, evidenced by a boom in anecdotal feedback and a clamoring for teacher training, says Matthew Brensilver, Ph.D., program director at Mindful Schools. The group began teaching mindfulness in schools in 2007 and launched its online teacher training program in 2012; since then, it has trained more than 14,000 educators and youth workers, impacting more than 750,000 children worldwide. Right here in the East Bay, more than 500 Mindful Schools grads work with your children every day.
We talked to Brensilver about how mindfulness works, why it belongs in the school day, and how it sets children up for greater success in life.
Q: What does mindfulness do for children, and how is it doing it?
A: What we see in the school setting is improved ability to concentrate and pay attention, reduced anxiety even under stress, and greater emotional self-control and compassion toward classmates.
An important component of mindfulness is self-soothing. Just being still helps regulate the nervous system. It helps kids step out of the pressure of needing to be achieving something in every moment. There’s a cumulative pressure that comes from that.
Q: So much learning needs to fit into the school day. Why does mindfulness deserve some of those limited minutes?
A: First, students are asked to pay attention, but they’re never given practical instruction for how to do that. Virtually everyone has room to grow in terms of cultivating concentration. So yes, there is a sacrifice of the two or five or 10 minutes spent on mindfulness exercises, but teachers often feel they get that time back in the efficiency of the classroom during the rest of the day.
Second, kids really want their subjective experience, their feelings, validated. It’s important to acknowledge that we care about their inner life. Yes, school’s emphasis is on knowledge acquisition and critical thinking. But I think there’s value to providing time, even if short, when kids can feel that their emotional experience is meaningful to the adults around them.
Q: What does a child’s version of mindfulness look like?
A: For kids, it’s not intended to be some profound existential journey: It’s about finding ways of settling in the present moment that feel good. Maybe it’s deeper breaths or the hands resting together, or they open their eyes and look outside and find pleasure in just looking at the sky.
A typical classroom mindfulness session may be twice weekly for 15 minutes. The lesson might begin by sitting together or otherwise marking that this is a different way of being together; for example, little ones might be told to “put on your mindful bodies.” There will be some exercise or a mindfulness game, and then reflections and feedback on what the children noticed.
Q: As a parent, how do I model mindfulness and make it part of the family dynamic?
A: I do think successfully teaching one’s children comes out of the parents’ own practice and familiarity with mindfulness. You’re one Google search away from guided mindfulness practices. Mindful Schools has an online course; sample a bit, and see what resonates.
To start a practice, carve out maybe five or 10 minutes each day to do some seated mindfulness practice in stillness, somewhere relatively quiet. It’s an opportunity to let go of the sense of ever-present responsibility to someone or something else. Lavish yourself with your own attention. Take an upright position that is relaxing but alert. Begin by attending to the flow of sensations of the breath; as the abdomen rises and falls, place a hand on your stomach.
As your mind gets ensnared in thoughts of the future or the past, simply imagine putting that thought down, without blame, and gently redirecting your attention back to the rhythm of your abdomen. You could do this when sitting in your car waiting to get the kids.
Q: How do I apply mindfulness at different ages?
A: The amount of time that is doable changes: Little ones may manage one minute or two, whereas with the older kids, you’re taking more care to articulate the relevance of the practice and doing it for a longer period of time.
Q: Is there evidence that forming these self-calming habits early in children’s lives will carry over into their teen years and adulthood?
A: There is data [that] socio-emotional skills that are developed in kindergarten [are] predictive of a lot of important outcomes later in life. For example, having socio-emotional skills in kindergarten predicts improved adult outcomes in the areas of education, employment, crime, substance abuse, and mental health. So, there’s reason to think that cultivating some of these mindfulness capacities is predictive of long-term benefits. mindfulschools.org.
Try It at Home
Here are five ways to practice mindfulness with your kids.
1 Deep Breathing: Sit together in a comfortable but upright position. Place a hand on your belly or chest, and feel your hand rising and falling with each slow breath. Sustain for a count of 10 breaths, or more, depending on the age of your child. Keep it relaxed and lighthearted, says Brensilver: “If it feels heavy, it’s not sustainable.”
2 Staring Contest: Sit across from your child, and look in each other’s eyes—see who can hold the attention longer. The parent can play by looking away—it doesn’t have to be serious. It’s an attempt to really connect.
3 Q&A: Ask a repeated question, and have your child come up with answers. For example, ask, “What brings you joy?” Listen to your child’s answer, and then say, “OK, thank you. What else brings you joy?” Let your child answer again and again. “It’s a soothing repeating rhythm,” says Brensilver, “and it’s a delight to hear what makes this child happy, so it has a reciprocal impact.” You can switch roles after a while and try other questions, such as, “What are you grateful for?” “What matters most to you?”
4 Mindful Walking: Go for a walk with your child, but rather than chatting, make it meditative; direct your attention, moment by moment, to what you notice. Feel the sensation of the soles of your feet hitting the ground and pushing off, or pay attention to what you see. Stay in the moment, and don’t let it lead to a whole chain of associations and thoughts. Even five or 10 minutes of walking around the block can have a soothing effect.
5 Focused Listening: You can also practice mindfulness during conversations. Without your children necessarily noticing, pay close attention to them. Look only at them, and fully take in what they say—focus on their words. “They’re likely to feel that,” says Brensilver. “Children are sensitive to the fragmentation of our attention. It will feel a bit like a gift to them.”