Teaching and learning mindfulness with young children
by Noëlle Zrelli on December 21
What is mindfulness?
‘Mindfulness’ has become a bit of a buzz word over the past few years, but what does it really mean? And how can we benefit from it?
The definition of mindfulness is:
A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
So, mindfulness is awareness. But surely, we are all ‘aware’ in our day to day lives?
Well, actually it’s not that simple. Think about the last thirty minutes. What were you doing? Would you say you were fully present, or had autopilot taken over? I expect your mind was racing a million miles, perhaps recalling a situation you could have handled differently or delving into the future, thinking about what you will have for dinner tonight.
Living in the present really has become a thing of the past. With mental health issues on the rise, we know our modern-day living is having a negative impact on our wellbeing and mental health. So, what can we do about it? This is where mindfulness comes in.
How can mindfulness benefit us?
Mindfulness meditation practice is one way to truly experience the current moment and integrate awareness into your everyday life. Breathing and meditation exercises help to bring a calm alertness to one’s thoughts, emotions and physical state. The benefits of mindfulness range from improving concentration and emotional resilience to managing anxiety and stress. Research conducted at Harvard University has shown that regular meditation can reduce the amygdala (the section of the brain in charge of the fight or flight response) resulting in a calm, less stressful living.
What are the benefits of mindfulness for early years children?
We know mindfulness is important for adults, but how can children benefit from mindfulness? The World Health Organisation has shown that depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents and that half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age. With this information in mind, there is a huge need for mindfulness practices to be implemented from an early age.
It is a common misconception that children live only in the present moment and are oblivious to the past and unconcerned about the future. How many times have you been asked; ‘What are we doing next? When is snack time? How many more days until my birthday?’
You can see that it is not only adults who struggle with mindful living, children are also falling victim to the mental chaos that distracts us from the peace of the present. The world has never been more overstimulating, with the use of technology on the rise and instant gratification around every corner, it is proving more and more difficult for children to be content in the current, and grateful for the every day.
Not only can mindfulness support us in becoming more present, it has also been found to change brain structure and function. The main areas that mindfulness can positively impact are; the amygdala (emotions), hippocampus (learning and memory) and prefrontal cortex (self-regulation). These areas are highly important for cognitive, social and emotional development in children.
Mindfulness can also be hugely beneficially as a technique to support behaviour, both at home and in the classroom. Mindfulness not only gives children a tool for calming themselves down, it also allows them the mental space and clarity to process information before reacting.
I have often used mindfulness techniques to support children, particularly those with additional needs, to self- soothe in moments of heightened emotion or anger. The main techniques I use are controlled breathing, or asking the child to verbalise their physical sensations e.g. I am hot, my heart is pumping fast. These techniques allow children to feel and process their emotions in a nonreactive manner.
So, the question is: how do I support children on their mindfulness journey?
Early years children spend much of their time on the move: playing, running, learning and exploring. The areas of their brain which regulate self-control and the ability to focus are still developing. This can make the combination of sitting still, listening and focussing feel extremely challenging.
However, contrary to popular belief, you do not have to sit for hours on end in the lotus position to be more mindful. There are countless ways of incorporating mindfulness techniques into your day to day living, and perhaps much more powerful practices than the typical sitting meditation to support children in their mindfulness journeys.
Before we explore some of the practical ways in which you can support your child or class, firstly reflect on the following tips below and ensure your own preparedness when embarking on mindfulness teaching.
- Manage your expectations
Try to be non-judgemental and have an open mind when introducing your child or children to mindfulness. Try to separate yourself from any outcome, and approach them with an impartial attitude. Mindfulness learning is much like any other new skill, it takes practice to master and they won’t emerge from their first exercise completely enlightened. Have manageable expectations. If they are not engaging immediately, trust in the process and give them, and yourself, freedom and time to progress.
- Teach by example
As with teaching any new skill or idea, you have to be completely on board yourself. We all know children are very good at sniffing out a fraud and the only way you are going to be successful in getting children to engage with mindfulness, is if you are genuinely interested in becoming more mindful yourself. Children learn from imitating their role models, so join the practices and commit yourself to developing your own mindfulness journey.
- Make it fun and engaging
Remove your own bias of what you believe mindfulness and meditation to be. Think outside the box and keep in mind that, whatever your intention, the practice has to be pleasurable and fun for children to want to regularly engage.
Practical ways to teach mindfulness
The advantages of yoga for children are extensive, from strengthening and improving flexibility to helping them achieve a sense of calm and improved clarity. I recommend Cosmic Kids Yoga, which is available for free on YouTube. It uses an interactive storytelling approach to teaching children’s yoga and has a variety of themes based on children’s current interests. They have videos aimed towards toddlers, infants and tweens.
You will find numerous, free guided meditations for children online. Simply browse YouTube, Google or Spotify for a meditation that best suits your child’s interests or needs. Some meditations are audio only, others have animations as well. I recommend using an audio only if possible, as the animation can distract from the point of the practice. Guided meditations are a wonderful way of improving attention and concentration, stimulating creativity and imagination, encouraging self-awareness, and helping achieve a greater sense of calm.
Mindful breathing is a great technique for adults and children alike. It is also particularly good for helping children to calm themselves down. The best and most simple breathing practice is a technique called Four Square Breathing. Simply breathe in for a count of four. Hold the breath for a count of four. Breathe out for a count of four. Hold the breath for a count of four. Complete several rounds and return to normal breathing.
To support children with this breathing technique, in this instance I would recommend using a visual prompt. There are great videos on YouTube that use child friendly animations. This exercise can be tricky at first, so it is probably more suitable for children towards the end of the EYFS.
For younger children, try introducing a breathing buddy. A breathing buddy can be an array of different objects, but a toy Teddy works well. A simple exercise using a breathing buddy can be asking the child to lie down on their back with their buddy on their tummy. Then asking them to focus their attention on the rise and fall of the Teddy as they breathe in and out. This physical sensation supports them in focusing their attention, and in turn encourages them to breathe more slowly.
Engaging your senses
Mindful walking, eating or listening are amongst some of the ways that you can use a child’s senses to help them feel more present and aware. You can simply take a walk and list some of the sights, sounds and smells along your way, or ask them to lie down on their back with their eyes closed and focus on the sounds around them. This listening task is also great for developing children’s phonics skills as they are learning to isolate sounds from the noise around them. Mindful eating is a super way of teaching children to pay attention to, and savour, their food, and by extension, the present moment. There are lots of mindful eating practices online and these are especially helpful for children who struggle to understand their hunger levels or to identify when they are full.
Gratitude is a fundamental part of mindfulness, and teaching children to appreciate the abundance in their lives can help them to feel more grounded and grateful. Try either starting or ending the day with a gratitude routine. This can be as simple as naming one thing you are grateful for, such as: food, family or love. This encourages children to look beyond their material belongings and to develop an understanding of the things that really matter in life. Creating a gratitude jar and filling it with your child’s answers can be a visual way of reminding them of the positives they have in their lives. You can also read them out to your child when they are feeling down or upset, to lift their mood.
Recording children’s mindfulness journeys
As with learning any new skill, the progress may not be linear and bumps in the road are bound to occur. A great way of monitoring your children’s mindfulness journey is by recording their progress using a diary or an online tool such as Tapestry. Adding observations and documenting what worked well and what was less effective, is a great way of finding out which techniques are best suited to the individual needs of your children.
I have found that the introduction of mindfulness teaching in my classroom not only increases the children’s wellbeing, it also positively impacts children’s PSED (personal, social and emotional development). I have noticed that the introduction of yoga, gratitude, and meditation supports children to make huge progress with self-confidence, self-awareness, managing feelings/ behaviours and building positive relationships.
I have also seen improvements in communication and language levels as children become more comfortable and competent in verbalising their thoughts and feelings.
Logging children’s mindfulness journeys both at home and in school is a great way of building a comprehensive understanding of each unique child, and the ways in which you can best support them in their development.