How to raise mindful children
The big adventure of parenthood brings a dazzling array of choices. Every day parents ponder the ever-changing needs of their children as decisions revolve around their physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs.
Exciting choices are now available for parents, educators, therapists and youth workers as attention is increasingly focused on the emotional and spiritual needs of children. What’s becoming clear is that when these needs are nurtured in balance with the physical and intellectual, outcomes for the wellbeing and prosperity of children may be greatly enhanced.
Why teach children to meditate?
Mindful meditation provides a wonderful way to help children of all ages establish a strong, personal foundation. The key skill is to develop self-knowledge. Children can discover how to effectively focus their attention, which is the pre-requisite for learning. By choosing where their attention goes, they can literally change their minds. Recent studies in neuroplasticity reveal the brain is able to change its own structure, responding positively to stimulus, exercise and challenges.
As children mature, needs change and a sometimes challenging developmental phase occur. The mélange of hormonal changes, peer pressure, identity and relationships can become very intense. Technology, too, can exacerbate issues and problems. According to cyber safety expert Susan McLean, “Cyber-bullying is the number-one non-academic issue confronting every student in Australia on any given day.” Successful navigation through adolescence and “cyberia” requires honed life skills: self-awareness, focusing abilities, impulse control, empathy and compassion. Mindfulness and meditation practices develop these skills.
The most recent national study of mental health problems among children was conducted in 1998 and at that time the prevalence of mental health problems among children and adolescents aged 4-17 was 14 per cent. It is sobering to hear Professor Patrick McGorry say that mental illness could affect up to 50 per cent of people at some stage of their lives. In light of this, time devoted to establish life skills such as mindfulness in young people represents a far-sighted investment.
Benefits of mindfulness
Mindfulness practices create opportunities for self-discovery and self-knowledge. So much of life is spent learning about and focusing on external things. Meditation and mindfulness provide chances to rebalance, tune in and connect with inner resources such as centring, monitoring and nurturing qualities of self-efficacy, resilience, patience and kindness.
Cultivating the skill of self-awareness may literally help children shed light on their inner life. With practice they can begin to navigate temporal emotional states, sharpen and sustain focusing abilities, and experience the pleasure of just being calm.
Relaxation versus meditation
Children can relax in a bean bag in front of the television, playing computer games, curled up with a book or hanging out with their friends. The difference between relaxation and mindfulness is related to awareness. Mindful meditation teaches children to bring their attention consciously to the present moment.
Over time, children can consciously learn to relax in preparation for the meditation practice or any task: letting go of tension and allowing the mind to settle and clear.
Meditation exists in a dynamic partnership with mindfulness. When meditating, children can become familiar with themselves. An “incubation” state of being is experienced where attention is refined in rehearsal for the emerging, positive self, as trillions of neural pathways are sculpted. These skills can be practised mindfully throughout the day.
Mastery in any field of human endeavour is the result of years of developing skills and hours of practice. Learning the skills of mindfulness and meditation requires structure and a sequential development of skills, moving from familiarisation with the general tenets of self-awareness to specific practices to enhance subtle focus.
A great place to start is in the here and now, connecting with the body. This complex, magnificent instrument is one that can be taken for granted. It is wonderful to introduce young children to the concept of being good custodians of their own body and mind. Making them aware of simple self-care choices such as posture, alignment, hydration, diet and letting go of tension bring about immediate benefits. Children of all ages enjoy remembering the needs of their bodies and engaging in simple stretching and balancing mindful movements. They also marvel at learning more about the inter-connected brilliance of the systems and cells within them.
Gradually children are able to refine their skills to be aware of breathing, emotions, energy levels and even their own thought processes.
Countless opportunities exist to explore moments of mindfulness with little children. Building on the basic framework of body awareness, a wide range of fun-filled, engaging activities can be pursued. The ability of children even at the tender of age of three to settle and focus is quite remarkable. Magical mindful moments can be shared through the use of simple activities, stories and games, props such as feathers, bubbles and gifts from nature. In a natural and joyful way these experiences engage children and fully absorb their attention.
Even children with special needs can find simple, enjoyable opportunities to calm down and bring their attention to the present moment. Often, as they engage in these activities, immediate behavioural benefits can result.
Basic techniques and strategies can be employed to foster self-awareness and awareness of others, contributing to bonding and harmony within the group. The “talking stick” (which can be an embellished piece of wood or a simple beautiful object) effortlessly engenders respect, patience and active listening. Sitting together in a circle, sharing precious moments of sustained focus in peace and stillness can be a unique, transformative experience for children individually and for the group as a whole.
Tweens and teens
The level of sophistication and scope of concepts can extend for older children to explore a wide range of personal themes. Noticing and understanding the stress response is increasingly relevant as children mature. Realising that a sense of security can come from being able to handle the ups and downs of life can be quite an epiphany! Mindfulness offers a way to do things differently. Gradually children learn to deal with stress in a more skillful way. Impulses and reactions don’t require practice; calm, considered choices do. As self-awareness grows, more conscious, creative choices become possible.
A growing level of awareness can include noticing the power of words. A daily abundance of words is fed through the internet, text messages, conversation, radio, newspapers and books. Their power is potent. Emotional buttons connecting to pleasurable or painful memories or fanciful or fearful projections into the future are pressed in an instant. Beliefs, attitudes and choices can be influenced. These can be woven into salient discussions and activities about image, self-worth and relationships. As children progress with the skills of awareness, they can discover the extraordinary in the “ordinary” experiences of sensual connection. Quietly focusing on smell, touch, taste, seeing and hearing can open up a new realm of knowing and being “in flow”, experienced by great thinkers, writers, artists, scientists and musicians.
Mindful practices and meditation can be interpreted individually and creatively. Students can find which focus and approach suits them best. Meditation and moments of mindfulness create opportunities to practise the art of living well. Sitting, lying or practising walking meditation involves the refinement of awareness as billions of neural networks respond.
Irrespective of cultural background or beliefs, meditation and mindfulness practices serve physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs. A portal to the richness of spiritual connection is created, which is so often lacking in the busyness of life.
Ultimately, the ability to be a silent, compassionate witness of the self emerges. The skill to notice the transitory patterns of thoughts and emotions develops. A pathway is then formed to allow the body and mind to effortlessly respond to innate self-regulating properties. Children can begin to develop a refined sense of inner knowing. This brings exciting possibilities … a sense of being the master of their own universe.
Mindful awareness techniques are rapidly gaining acceptance around the world. Millions of adults have benefitted from mindful practices and there is now increasing international research into the benefits of mindfulness for children.
In America, The Goldie Hawn Foundation was established to promote the Mind Up programs in schools. The aim of this foundation is “equipping children with the social and emotional skills they need to lead smarter, healthier and happier lives”. Also in the US, Susan Kaiser Greenland, in affiliation with UCLA, has developed a program of Mindfulness Education for children.
Research and development of mindfulness programs in education are also underway in England. Trials and programs are being developed in various universities, including work undertaken by Professor Felicia Huppert from the University of Cambridge and the growth of the Mindfulness In Schools program.
The Phuket International Academy Day School has established a Mind Centre and is undertaking mindfulness programs for students at primary and secondary levels. They are drawing on programs developed by Susan Kaiser Greenland as well as my Meditation Capsules program.
There is much progress in Australia, too, with Positive Education programs developed by Professor Martin Seligman underway in many schools across the country. An increasing number of Australian universities are researching mindfulness-based programs for children, in both therapeutic and educational settings.
Mindfulness in schools
The life skills of mindfulness support learning. Consequently, educators are waking up to the huge contribution mindful and meditation practices have to offer. Just as a pencil that is not regularly sharpened will become blunt and useless, mindfulness, in conjunction with meditation, requires commitment and practice to regularly “sharpen” the mind and the senses.
Opportunities for mindfulness practice can be scheduled for children, such as meditation, but any moment can be a mindful one. Some classrooms choose to use a bell, signalling a moment to be still. Moments can be taken to bring attention to the present, creating chances to re-frame and re-focus. Mindful practices can be related to any aspect of the curriculum, with optimal outcomes in academic, musical, sporting and social interactions.
An alternative to focusing on anti-bullying strategies in schools is to focus on ways to promote kindness. There are many possibilities to remind students of the benefits of mutual respect, understanding, forgiveness, empathy, gratitude and compassion. Conscious, considered and kind choices meet everyone’s needs and help create harmonious, productive classrooms.
Mindfulness at home
It is wonderful to hear how children relate mindful practices to their personal life. They enthusiastically report how these skills and a meditation practice can help them with relationships, getting to sleep, preparing for tests and exams, facing fears, recovering from setbacks and even focusing and centring while lining up in front of football goal posts.
It’s also great to hear from parents who delight in sharing mindful moments with their children. Parents can begin to model the “practice of pausing” to their children … moments to breathe … consider … and calm down, before responding to a situation.
Endless opportunities exist to insert mindful “punctuation” into daily life. A sense of letting go of pressure and allowing oneself to be in the present moment means the richness of experience is heightened. Boundless opportunities exist: the precious embrace of a hug, active listening, the joy of sharing a meal and conversation; noticing the extraordinary in the ordinary, such as exquisite details in nature, aromas, tastes; being aware of random funny moments in the day and simple acts of kindness and gratitude.
As Rob Moodie, Professor of Global Health, Nossal Institute of Global Health, says, “Teaching our children how to be mindful, to appreciate quiet, and to have inner peace is one of the greatest gifts that we can bestow on them.”
When parents, family members, teachers, therapists and anyone else who cares for children choose to share the skills of mindfulness and meditation, they are sharing the joyful gift of a powerful personal tool. Mindfulness skills allow children to be in good hands — their own.
Janet Etty-Leal works as a Mindful Meditation consultant and is the author of Meditation Capsules: A Mindfulness Program for Children. Her main focus is to provide services for children and teachers in primary and secondary schools. W: meditationcapsules.com