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It's All In Your Mind

The ancient practice of mindfulness is helping children stress less and focus better — in school and at home.

By Lynne Ticknor, M.A. | null , null

Nine-year-old Nick Morro, of San Mateo, CA, was struggling to beat a difficult level of his favorite video game, and he was getting frustrated. Very frustrated. Instead of giving up — or screaming at the top of his lungs (which he knew would lead to his mom taking away his Xbox) — he set the controller aside, plopped down on the floor, and began taking slow, deep breaths. After a few minutes, he stood up and resumed his game with a relaxed smile and a calmer mind. Nick lost a few more rounds, but he never lost his cool, and eventually he conquered the challenging level.

Focus on Success
Nick’s breathing break was a little trick he learned in school. More and more, schools are teaching such techniques to help students focus on their work, better handle frustration, stave off stress, and even smooth out rocky social relationships.

Generally referred to as “mindfulness,” this emerging school movement is an approach based in the philosophy of Buddhism. But it’s not a religion, and as part of a school curriculum, there are no spiritual overtones. Instead, lessons and exercises help kids work on key life skills like paying attention to detail, active listening, thinking before they act or speak, identifying and controlling intense emotions such as fear and anger, and understanding the perspectives of others.

Think about it. Kids are constantly told by teachers, parents, coaches, and other adults to pay attention, but they’re rarely taught how to do so. In a mindful classroom, students learn how to focus on being in the moment rather than agonizing over the past (having not done so well on that math test, being teased about a new haircut) or worrying about the future (the upcoming spelling bee, striking out at the game on Saturday). Once kids are able to clear their minds of such distractions, they can better focus on the task at hand and thus have more success at completing it. It’s a lesson that many adults can benefit from, as well. “Honestly, I’m working as hard at being mindful as my children are,” says one second-grade teacher.

Breathe Deep, Develop Your Brain
Scientists have discovered that mindful practices can have very real physical, psychological, and emotional benefits—from actually growing the areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, and emotions, to boosting the immune system.

So what are these mindful practices? A key one is to teach children to focus on their breathing, an age-old exercise in finding calm and balance—or their “center.” “The breath is the core,” says Shefali Tsabary, Ph.D., author of The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children. “It’s an elegant tool. We can use it to take us immediately into the present moment.”

Taking deep breaths at a stressful moment helps children to step back and think over the best action to take, rather then lashing out from pure emotion. Such considered response is the epitome of mindfulness—and it’s also empowering for kids, who discover that they have more ability to control their reactions (to everything from a difficult homework assignment to a bully) than they may have thought.

In addition to deep breathing, other classroom exercises that support mindfulness include:
• miming (acting out feelings without using words);

• visualization (imagining yourself in a peaceful, calm location, such as on a beach listening to the waves);

• keeping a journal;

• free play dramatization (acting out situations); and

• movement (dancing or just moving to music).

When teaching mindfulness, some educators may play a meditation CD or launch an iPad/iPhone app called BellyBio that helps to regulate breathing rhythms.

For exercises and tips on bringing mindfulness to your children's lives at home, click here.

About the Author

Lynne Ticknor, M.A., is a certified parent educator and a freelance writer specializing in child development, parenting, and family issues.

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