If you’ve been following The Mindfulness and Psychotherapy Blog, you’ve read and interacted around the psychology and neuroscience of mindfulness in relation to stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, trauma, and so much more. Today, I have the honor of interviewing, Megan Cowan, Co-founder and Executive Director of Mindful Schools bringing mindfulness to children. Megan will be speaking at the upcoming Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth at UCSD February 4-5 2012.
Today Megan talks to us about why mindfulness helps children and gives us some tips to begin working with our kids at school and at home.
Elisha: A couple years ago the video below came out via ABC News with some amazing responses captured by the children who were touched by Mindful Schools. Looking at this video, what is it about what you do that leads to these results?
Megan: Mindfulness, or bringing attention to one’s experience, can be very empowering. Mindfulness strengthens self-awareness, the ability to recognize how you are feeling or what you are thinking in any given moment. When you have this ability, you are in a much more empowered place of choice. You can choose how to respond to anger, fear, anxiety, sadness, excitement, etc. rather than reacting automatically.
Oddly, this capacity of self-awareness is not generally cultivated in people. We don’t put an emphasis on this being an important tool in our culture today. But, it is relatively simple and the ability is so natural that children often immediately understand how to use mindfulness and begin applying it to their experiences.
The children in the video mentioned being happier, calmer, and better able to deal with difficulty. This is because they have created some space between their thoughts/emotions and how they typically respond to them. They have accessed the place of impulse or reactivity inside themselves and cultivated a spaciousness around their experience, allowing them to respond differently, or view their experience with more balance.
Elisha: Give us a couple key practices that we can start using now with our kids to help them integrate more calm, ease and focus.
Megan: When we teach young people mindfulness, we are teaching them in two ways: directly and indirectly. The key thing that adults, parents, educators, mentors, etc. will want to remember about integrating mindfulness into their work with kids is that their own personal embodiment and understanding of mindfulness will be the most powerful teacher to young people. As a parent or educator, the way you respond to your own stress, impatience, disappointment, etc. is teaching just as much (if not more) as what you tell your children/students to do. The more you establish your own mindfulness practice, the more you will be able to impart, both through your presence and through your words.
Keeping that in mind, there are some simple mindfulness applications anyone can introduce to the young people they work with. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
- Set aside a few minutes everyday with your child or students
- Establish an environment that is quiet if possible
- Encourage children to let their bodies become still, relaxed and quiet
- Invite children to close their eyes if that is comfortable for them
- Ring a bell and instruct children to listen to the entire sound from beginning to end, raising their hand when the sound has faded completely (alternatively, you can simply listen to the sounds around you for a minute or so)
- Have children bring both hands to their lap or belly
- Take a few breaths together, guiding children by saying “breathing in, breathing out”, and then allow some time for them to do this silently
- You can do this for 1-3 minutes or more, depending on how the children respond to it
Keep things short and simple. More curriculum ideas can be found at trainings with Mindful Schools, or other similar organizations, or at conferences like the upcoming Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth at UCSD.
Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from a parent or teacher who was struggling with a highly rambunctious child, what advice would you give them?
Megan: I was sitting in a café this morning and a mother was there with her three-year-old son. She was quietly eating while he fluctuated between sitting quietly alongside her, and bursting out in random tears or mild tantrums. She remained the same throughout! Sometimes she spoke quietly to him, but there was no sense of speaking in order to get him to stop. He eventually settled into a routine of his own and things were peaceful until they left.
There’s no one right answer to what to do with a highly rambunctious child, but there is something mindful about neutrally allowing the child to have their process without you trying to change or control it. This, again, is where your personal mindfulness practice informs how to handle difficulty. Because when the child is rambunctious, who is really having the difficulty?
Remember, mindfulness is not about being calm. Calm is just a common natural side effect. Mindfulness is about learning how to become more aware of our entire spectrum of experience. It’s easy to forget this when you see a classroom of still, calm, quiet children doing mindfulness, or when you have a sweet mindful moment before bed with your child, and it’s natural to want to recreate this, especially when you are feeling chaotic.
Understanding that, if you want to help the child utilize mindfulness, you can inquire about their experience. If you have already introduced them to mindfulness, you can ask if there is anything they’ve learned in mindfulness that might be useful at that moment. Or you can essentially be mindful for them by saying “wow, you sure have a lot of energy right now.” You can also ask them where in their body they feel all that excitement or energy. Ask them if it is in their belly, their chest, their feet, etc. This helps focus their mind, even if only momentarily. It helps them check into their actual physical experience and begin to navigate it with more awareness. It also puts them in more control of their experience, rather than you having to manage it.
Thank you so much for your wisdom on this Megan. May your work go on to touch the lives of many parents and children and in the process, be a source of positive change to our society.
Schoolgirl photo available at Shutterstock