Mindfulness helps children relax

Many parents and teachers struggle with children who they report as having behavioural and academic problems.

Some resort to harsh punishment out of desperation. However, mindfulness practices have been shown to have positive effects on children’s behaviour, psychological and mental processes.

At Toluca Lake school in the USA, certain grades were given mindfulness programme instructions to explore what effects it will have on the children’s behaviour.

The teacher who guides them through the process asks them after the mindfulness class, “What did you notice about your breath this morning?” “Mine was like a dragon,” says Michael. Albert, another child, adds, “I could see mine. It was like smoke.”

The teachers lead the children through 45 minutes of exercises focused on breathing, listening, movement and reflection. At different points, the children are asked to gauge their feelings: calm, neutral or restless. There are no right or wrong answers, just observation.

The session ends with the children lying quietly on their backs, stuffed animals rising and falling on their stomachs, as they contemplate peace within themselves and in their community.

Toluca Lake is one of a growing number of schools that are using “mindfulness trainings” in an effort to combat increasing levels of anxiety, social conflict, and attention disorder among children.

Once a week for 10 to 12 weeks, the pupils at Toluca take time out from their normal curriculum to learn techniques that draw on the Buddhist meditative practice of mindfulness, which is meant to promote greater awareness of one’s self and one’s environment.

According to mindfulness educator Susan Kaiser, bringing this practice into schools is “really about teaching children how to be in a state of attention, where they can perceive thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions without judgement and with curiosity and an open state of mind”.

That such an unconventional practice – with its roots in a religious tradition, no less – has made its way into public schools may come as a surprise to many people.

But schools have been turning to mindfulness for very practical reasons that don’t concern religion, and their efforts have been supported by a recent wave of scientific results.

Steve Reidman first introduced mindfulness practices to Toluca Lake several years ago.

Mr Reidman, a fourth grade teacher at the school, had been experiencing problems with classroom management. Conflicts on the playground were escalating and affecting his students’ ability to settle down and concentrate in class. “I noticed a difference right away,” says Mr Reidman.

“There was less conflict on the playground and less test anxiety. Their general exam results also went up that year.”

News of Mr Reidman’s positive experience spread to other classes at the school and helped launch Ms Kaiser’s career as the founder and director of a new non-profit organisation called InnerKids.

Funded through private grants, its mission is to teach mindful awareness practices to students in public and private schools for little or no cost.

The organisation has served hundreds of schools across the country. A 2004 survey of mindfulness programmes by New York’s Garrison Institute, an organisation that studies and promotes mindfulness and meditation in education, showed that many schools are adopting mindfulness training because the techniques are easy to learn and can help children become “more responsive and less reactive, more focused and less distracted, [and] more calm and less stressed.”

While mindfulness can produce internal benefits to children, the Garrison report also found that it can create a more positive learning environment, where children are primed to pay attention.

InnerKids is one of several mindfulness education programmes that have sprouted up around America.

The mindfulness programmes were inspired by the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Stress Reduction Programme at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Kabat-Zinn was among the first scientists to recognise that mindfulness meditation might have healing benefits for adult patients suffering from chronic pain.

He developed a secular version of the Buddhist practice, which he called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and ran studies demonstrating its effectiveness.

Now, with over a thousand studies published in peer review journals about it, Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR programme has been found to reduce not only chronic pain but also high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Despite the success of MBSR with adults, there has been little corresponding research on children, though that’s starting to change. At the University of British Columbia in Canada, psychologist Kimberly Schonert-Reichl and a graduate student, Molly Stewart Lawlor, recently finished a pilot project on mindfulness in schools, with funding and teacher training provided by the Bright Lights Foundation, which is now called the Goldie Hawn Institute after actress and children’s advocate, Goldie Hawn.

Pupils from fourth to seventh grades in six Vancouver public schools were instructed in mindful awareness techniques and positive thinking skills, then tested for changes in their behaviour, social and emotional competence, moral development, and mood.

The positive response to the programme was almost immediate.

Though some expressed initial concern about how parents might react to the programmes – which, after all, grew out of spiritual traditions – practitioners and researchers say they have successfully removed mindfulness from any religious context.

Still, there’s likely to be controversy around these programmes as they expand, says Goldie Hawn.

“There will always be people who see this as scary, or as some kind of Eastern philosophy that they don’t want for their children.”

But, she adds, most people find research results convincing, and she believes research will eventually show that mindfulness helps children in much the same way it’s already been shown to help adults.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.