As summer’s end yields school-time excitement, students and families can feel pressure and stress from the new routines and hectic pace. It’s hard to remember to slow down and be present, but what a tremendous gift it can be, just to be able to focus on what’s happening right now. Mindful practice can help make that happen.
Mindfulness has become a buzzword in recent years, but it is rooted in traditional Buddhist practices and is far from a passing fad. Now, more and more schools are employing mindful practices to provide children with a toolkit for self-regulation and awareness.
My son’s first-grade teacher made simple, calming activities part of daily routines. For example, they would hold up a finger in front of their faces and pretend to “smell a flower” (slow deep inhale) then “blow out a candle” (slow complete exhale). Other mindful practices such as taking inventory of feelings or pausing before reacting in a stressful situation became embedded in the language and flow of the classroom. I am glad those simple coping mechanisms already feel natural to him.
So, what about the rest of us? I asked mindfulness educator Tawanna Kane with the Baltimore-based Inner Resources Project how all students (and parents) can benefit from mindfulness meditation and practices.
Coping in a challenging world
“Children and adults are experiencing stress at unprecedented levels,” Kane says. “Increasing stress may result in anger, anxiety, depression and externalizing behaviors as well as low self-esteem and self-confidence.” Offering mindfulness techniques to students, she says, “can not only increase their focus and attention in the classroom, but encourage them to become more aware of their actions and their impact on others, in particular the school community.”
We all let our emotions get the best of us from time to time, and that can be overwhelming. However, mindfulness “addresses the core components of social-emotional learning,” Kane explains. “Children can become more skillful in navigating the challenges of life — whether that’s not being chosen to be the line leader, not having a friend to play with on the playground, an upcoming test or the trials of puberty. Mindfulness gives children of all ages an opportunity to slow down, so that they can see and think more clearly.”
Choosing tune-in over time-out
In some mindful classrooms, Kane says, the punitive “time-out” has evolved into a “tune-in”— a space where students who feel overwhelmed can listen to quiet music, use a fidget device, lie down or mindfully draw as a means of regaining composure and focus so they can better return to learning.
“I have seen remarkable decreases in self-criticism, negativity and aggressive behaviors toward self and others” with these techniques, she says. “But also subtle changes — like the ability to not become anxious when it’s time to transition or a student taking three breaths when they start to get emotional.”
Benefits in school and beyond
Kane works with local researchers and has found in controlled trials that mindfulness in schools has produced “reduced anxiety, reduced rumination, an attenuated cortisol response and less anger reactivity.”
Interestingly, they have also seen an increase in Maryland School Assessment (MSA) scores in middle school students. Kane believes so strongly in the importance of bringing mindfulness to schools that she collaborated with Johns Hopkins University to create a free website (destressmonday.org/teachers-program), which teachers can use to integrate mindfulness into their classrooms as well as to help combat job stress and burnout for themselves. (Non-teachers will find great tips there, too.)
One important step anyone can take in creating positivity for the year ahead is to declare intent.
“Intention setting is a powerful practice,” Kane says. An intention is a guiding principle that brings your heart and mind into alignment and evokes feeling and purpose (i.e., practice being nonjudgmental of oneself and others or let go of fear). “It gives children an opportunity to create a sense of purpose in the school year,” Kane explains. When they commit and focus deeply on a specific intention, it helps turn that thought into reality.
Everyone can benefit
Like with learning a new language, can younger children pick up on mindfulness practices more readily? Not so, it seems. Everyone can benefit from being mindful, if they’ll give it a chance. Formal, structured practice may work best with children, and consistency and repetition help establish practice as habit.
Older students may be more likely to recognize and appreciate the benefits of the strategies, which may motivate them to practice more often.
“Certainly adolescents are a bit more skeptical,” Kane says. “Also, the social pressures of peers may influence their willingness to try. But I have worked with 2-year-olds through 18-year-olds and find that these practices can help all of them reduce anxiety, find greater ease in their development and, overall, just be happier individuals.” And it’s not just those who seem like they would need it the most who benefit from mindfulness. Creating a calmer, more positive classroom climate helps all students.
Give it a try
Here is one short practice you can try with your children to incorporate mindfulness into your lives:
“Research shows that when humans feel short on time, the first human attribute to go is kindness,” says Kane. “A simple practice to cultivate kindness for oneself and others is the practice of peace wishes. This is a beautiful practice to share with your child that can be done upon rising, at the dinner table, at bedtime or anytime.
Place your hands on your heart, say out loud to yourself:
May I be peaceful. May I be happy. May I be safe.
(Pause between the three statements, so the child can repeat them.)
Next, tell your child “Let’s send our peace wishes to one another,” and say: May you be peaceful. May you be happy. May you be safe.
Think of the whole world, everyone and everything, and say: May all beings be peaceful. May all beings be happy. May all beings be safe.
Then, close your eyes for just a moment, and take a breath. You have wished the whole world, including yourself, peace.