Imagine a classroom retreat where kids can go when they’re feeling frustrated, distracted, worried, or mad. Instead of giving up on a challenging task, withdrawing, or lashing out, children head to that hideaway to make themselves feel better. They may do breathing exercises or shake a jar of glitter water and watch the sparkles slowly settle. Whatever they do, when kids return to their seats, they’re calm, positive, and ready to learn.
Quiet spaces like these are popping up nationwide as more schools adopt curriculums that teach children the practice of mindfulness. Encompassing a variety of stress-relieving techniques, mindfulness helps kids focus on the present moment in order to boost self-awareness and control, even in the youngest grades.
Such skills are critical to school success — especially in an era when kids are under increasing pressure to achieve. “Across the board, kids are overwhelmed and exhausted,” says Megan Cowan, co-founder of Mindful Schools in Emeryville, CA, which offers online mindfulness training courses for teachers and parents. Yet serving kids’ emotional lives through mindfulness training “seems to provide a missing ingredient,” she says. “It has a significant impact on how kids learn and behave.”
Whether kids are breathing deeply, listening to chimes, or doing yoga, mindfulness teaches them to focus only on what they’re experiencing, like their bellies filling with air or the sound of the chime.
Because none of these things require conscious effort, it’s natural for the mind to wander, explains Susan Smalley, Ph.D., the founding director of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. Bringing your thoughts back to the sensation takes work, however. The more kids (or adults) do it, the more they build up their “executive attention network,” the brain regions that regulate thoughts, emotions, and responses.
The payoff? An improved ability to ignore distractions (an especially important skill in this age of constant digital disruption) or short-circuit a peer- or test-induced freakout. Over time, these practices become not only a habit but an important tool kids can use to navigate all kinds of potentially stressful situations, Smalley says.
Mindfulness also empowers kids by teaching them self-awareness, including how to identify their feelings and how to control big, upsetting reactions.
Experts say that kids who can process their feelings in a positive way tend to behave better in class. That’s one reason students at the Bridport Central School in Bridport, VT, start each day with breathing exercises. “As they do the routines, we ask, ‘What do you want to happen today? What do you want to let go of?’” says the principal, Kathleen Kilbourne.
After two years of the practice, Kilbourne has found that students are more apt to use their words to work out problems instead of their hands. Learning to pause and collect their thoughts helps kids realize that they do have options and control over what happens next, she says.
To help kids visualize the connection between the brain and their emotions, many schools, like the ones in the Beach Cities school district in California, teach students some neuroscience. This year, its roughly 5,500 elementary and middle-school students learned how different parts of the brain control emotional responses.
For instance, through role-playing activities, they learn that they can tap into the prefrontal cortex when they need to pull back from an impending meltdown. This “thinking about thinking” helps kids grasp that they have a choice of reactions in any given situation, says Sandi Conley, the behavioral health coordinator for the district. Four days into the program, a first-grader who cried every day at drop-off was able to calm herself down within a minute, she reports.
Another way mindfulness seems to help students is by boosting their compassion. Early findings by researchers at the University of Wisconsin’s Health Mind Institute suggest that after lessons that include belly breathing and reading books about feelings (like When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry), preschoolers are more likely to take turns, play fair, and share.
Bonnie Levine, who teaches third and fourth-graders in New York City, has noticed similar results with her students. In an exercise she calls “friendly wishes,” she asks them to close their eyes, think about a person they see daily, and send them good thoughts. Next, she invites students to share their feelings. This often sparks a moment of connection, say when a child shares that he thought about his mom and that he misses her — and another student pipes up to admit that she feels the same way.
A sharper focus
You don’t need an expert to tell you that most kids have a lot going on in their lives, which makes it all the more difficult to concentrate on schoolwork. But because mindfulness techniques are about paying attention to the here and now, they can be the perfect antidote to the fray.
Case in point: Recent research revealed that after third-graders completed an eight-week mindfulness program that included yoga, meditation, and breathing, teachers noted a significant improvement in the students’ ability to focus. The benefits endured even two months after the course ended, says Maryanna D. Klatt, Ph.D., an associate professor at Ohio State University’s College of Medicine and co-author of the study.
Such findings wouldn’t surprise Heather Bryant, director of the Momentous School, which serves Dallas students in pre-K to fifth grade. For the past three years, her students have listened to chimes while focusing on their breath three times a day. A comparison of teacher evaluations and grades has revealed improvement in problem-solving, planning, and organizational skills across all grade levels, Bryant says. Test scores have also gotten a boost.
Even better, the kids’ parents are seeing a difference at home. Yesika Medina’s 10-year-old son, Israel, now uses mindfulness to help him manage homework stress. “He’ll say, ‘I’m going to breathe for a few minutes,’” says Medina. “Then he goes to his room, sits on the floor, and starts stretching and breathing. He’ll come back and say, ‘I feel better, Mommy. I’m going to try one more time, and this time I’m going to get it right!’”
Mindfulness at Any Hour
Kids learn best by example, so do these techniques along with them, says Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child. Your mantra: “Short times, many times.” Aim to do these simple activities for a couple of minutes a few times a day to heighten awareness of what’s happening in and around you so you can ground yourself, explains Kaiser Greenland. Kids are usually game as long as the emphasis is on fun. But if yours can’t concentrate, try again another time.
In the morning
Before you rush out the door, take a few deep breaths together — a trick Kaiser Greenland discovered when her kids were little. It will help you collect yourselves as you face the day, she says.
In the car
If you’re stuck in traffic and everyone’s getting tense, ask kids to focus their gaze on the horizon for a few seconds. Or to relax any parts of their bodies (shoulders, jaws) that feel stiff.
Tell your family that for a couple seconds, you all are going to pay attention only to what you’re feeling or hearing: your rear on the chair, the breeze through the window, the neighbor’s dog barking.
“Practicing at night helps kids fall asleep more easily,” says Kaiser Greenland. Put a stuffed animal on your child's belly and have him feel it move up and down as he breathes.
Download Peace of Mind
These apps can guide your kids (and you) to a state of calm.
Stop, Breathe & Think
Kids can identify their mood from icons and hear a customized meditation. iOS, free. All ages.
Download it here
My First Yoga
Pick an animal from a set of 12 cards, and the app will walk your kid through the pose. iOS, free. Ages 3 to 6.
Download it here
Super Stretch Yoga
Grade-schoolers will gravitate to these videos of kids doing yoga while a cartoon superhero narrates the steps. iOS, free. Ages 6 to 8.
Download it here
This app can grow with your child — it features age-appropriate exercises, like breathing while picturing bubbles. iOS and Android, free. Ages 7+
Download it here
If you don’t have time to make a glitter jar, download one. Listen to the gong, then watch the sparkles settle as your child breathes. iOS, $2. All ages.
Download it here
Inner Peace for Kids
Kids can listen to meditations, read affirmations, and create a Zen garden. iOS and Android, $2. Ages 5+
Download it here
Setting up a class practice
Talk to your principal or PTO president
Go armed with studies that show mindfulness programs are worth making time for. Find them at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (Marc.ucla.edu).
Partner with a teacher
A teacher who is a mindfulness pro can convince the school to try a program, at least in one class. That’s how the program at Bridport came about.
Take a course and offer to teach an afterschool session. Check at Mindfulschools.org.