Morning Zen

Mindfulness Programs for Children

October 12, 2018

Mindfulness programs for children are popping up around the United States and in Europe. Most programs are school-based and are being offered to children in grades K-12. What exactly is Mindfulness and what benefits does it offer to our children?

The current Mindfulness programs for children are based on the work by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program almost 40 years ago to help adults dealing with chronic pain and chronic health conditions. The program showed great success in reducing anxiety and stress, and increasing well-being. MBSR has been broadly researched and a wealth of sound, scientific evidence exists to support its benefits for adults. It was a natural progression to begin using the same Mindfulness-based techniques with children.

K abat-Zinn defined Mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” That means that we pay attention, without defining it as good or bad, to what is happening right now, in this present moment. Mindfulness teaches the ability to pause, recognize how you feel, and create an appropriate response. This ability to recognize emotions and feelings as something we can control, and to choose how, or if, we respond, is very empowering, even for young children, perhaps, especially for young children.

Mindfulness-based techniques have been shown to increase attention; improve self-regulation and self-esteem; increase coping; decrease levels of depressive symptoms, stress, and anxiety; and create a sense of calm in children of all ages. While research on Mindfulness programs for children is in its early stages, the results so far have been promising, and programs have been expanding in many areas around the United States.

Most Mindfulness programs are school-based. Schools are the ideal place to teach Mindfulness. School-based Mindfulness programs reach more children than one-on-one counseling sessions. They are cost-effective, the skills are easy to learn, non-intrusive, and the lessons are designed to fit easily into the daily school routine. Children find Mindfulness empowering because they are in control. Mindfulness is one of the contemplative practices along with meditation, yoga, and Tai Chi. In fact, many of the programs combine Mindfulness with movements like those found in yoga or Tai Chi for greater effectiveness. Teachers also benefit from these Mindfulness programs creating a calmer classroom environment with children exhibiting greater self-regulation and increased attention. This fosters a better learning environment.

Why do our children need to learn Mindfulness? Rising expectations of students to perform well in school places increased demands on their attention and executive functioning, or ability for critical thinking. However, with all the reading, writing, and arithmetic we teach our children, we rarely teach them how to pay attention. Additionally, the World Health Organization’s Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020 stated that 10-20% of children and adolescents worldwide endure some form of mental health issue or disorder. Mental health and behavioral conditions left untreated severely impact a child’s growth and development, cognition, educational advancement, and the ability to become productive adults. Mindfulness provides a proactive, preventative way to provide children with the skills to cope with the stress of wanting to succeed at school, fit in with peers, and the larger childhood traumas of food insecurity, family and economic instability, and abuse or neglect.

One of the primary and most effective techniques of Mindfulness is “Mindful Breathing.” Focusing on our breathing is simple, it is something we can all do, and it helps to calm the body and the mind. This exercise involves sitting comfortably, breathing deeply and slowly in and out, and counting our breaths. By focusing on the counting of our breaths, we clear our minds to be fully present in the moment. Mindfulness teaches that if your mind wanders, that’s okay. Mindfulness is focused on being non-judgmental and teaches us to be kind and non-judgmental to others and, just as importantly, to ourselves. Children use this exercise to get calm and focused throughout their school day. Teachers may take a few moments to practice mindful breathing at the beginning of the day or after lunch to get the children settled to begin learning. It is also especially useful before an exam to help relieve test-stress. All the lessons are simple, inclusive, and may be modified to be age appropriate for all school grades.

We will be sharing a series of articles on innovative Mindfulness programs around the country, highlighting the people who run these programs, the specific approaches employed, and the impact on the children they serve.

Suggested Readings for Additional Information

School-based mindfulness training may reduce stress, trauma, By Andrew M. Seaman. Reuters Health News

Mindfulness in the Classroom: How it helps kids regulate behavior and focus on learning. By Juliann Garey.  Child Mind Institute.

Teachers: Use Mindfulness to Help Students’ Academics, By Alexandra Pannoni, Staff Writer |Jan. 1, 2018. US News & World Report.

Mindfulness for kids: Learning emotional regulation in school, By Lisa Van De Geyn | Apr. 6, 2017.  Today’s Parent.

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About the Author

Melissa V. Sirola

How Mindfulness Impacts Mental Health and Wellbeing of Children
Melissa V. Sirola is a registered nurse with over 20 years of experience in the healthcare field. Melissa has worked as a staff nurse, a nurse administrator, and an educator, teaching nursing leadership at several local universities. Melissa is currently pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice in Leadership and Health Care Innovations at the University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing. For her internship with the Children’s Mental Health Network, Melissa is researching the effects of Mindfulness on behavioral and mental health issues with children in rural primary school settings. Melissa is excited for the opportunity to work with the Children’s Mental Health Network to research, explore, and report on innovative Mindfulness programs that exist in various parts of the country and around the world.

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