Kids put their minds to mindfulness
ON a Tuesday morning at Lafayette Primary School in Washington, Sofia Parodi took a seat at the head of the classroom and asked a fellow Grade 4 pupil to switch off the lights.
“Close your eyes and take three deep breaths,” she instructed her classmates, who fell into a familiar rhythm of silently counting their breaths, then sharing their experience with their classmates.
Parodi was the day’s mindfulness helper, a temporary apprentice to Linda Ryden. Ryden is the school’s peace teacher (yes, that’s her title), who leads about 500 of the school’s pupils in weekly courses on mindfulness – a practice aimed at enhancing self-awareness and reducing stress by focusing on the moment.
The idea behind mindfulness is to provide a sort of mental reset button, freeing yourself from distraction, swell of anger or fears and regrets. Exercises such as counting breaths or focusing on one of the five senses become anchors to turn to when your thoughts wander.
At its best, the practice works like a rewarding timeout for all ages.
David Trachtenberg is the pro- gramme director of Minds, a group that formed two years ago to teach mindfulness, primarily at public schools in the US.
The group, which has worked with 3 000 pupils, aims to boost kids’ emotional awareness and resilience.
With tests beginning in school, busy afternoons and pressure to do more demanding extracurricular activities at ever-younger ages, kids are feeling overwhelmed. Mindfulness advocates hope the practice can help them cope with demands.
“There’s a lot of pressure on kids, I think, to do activities that can be reported on your CV and not a lot of support for just hanging out in your back yard,” Ryden says. “One of the things that mindfulness is giving the kids is a little space.”
Trisha Stotler, a meditation teacher who works with Minds, agrees. “Kids are really stressed out,” she says.
Stotler leads Minds’ programme for teens and believes mindfulness is a tool for stress management.
Pupils who have lower levels of stress are also better able to learn, according to practitioners.
“You can do the best lesson in the world, but if the student’s upset or angry or is preoccupied with something else, that great lesson’s going to be wasted,” says Frankie Engelking, director of student and community wellness at the McLean School, which has made mindfulness a core aspect of its culture.
How does one teach mindfulness to children? The idea of getting squirmy kids to sit still or angst- ridden teens to meditate might seem far-fetched. But kids often take to it. “When I’m mad, and I get into a fight with my brother or anyone in my family, I go up to my room and I start breathing, doing mindfulness, and it calms me down a little so things get back to normal,” says Jacopo Cascone, one of Ryden’s Grade 4 pupils.
Jacopo’s classmate, Virginia Burke, says that when she has trouble sleeping, she’ll count her breaths and listen to the ticking of her watch to relax.
“Kids are very in touch with their bodies,” which is the access point for mindfulness, says Stotler, who is helping to develop the children’s curriculum for Minds.
“I almost wish it was called ‘bodyfulness,’ because tuning into the body taps into emotional awareness,” she says. Physical tightness, for example, might signal stress.
At the McLean School, many classes routinely start with a brief mindfulness practice. On a recent day, a teacher led a handful of Grade 6 boys in a visualisation exercise. She asked them to picture a room painted a favourite colour, then fill it with people who make them feel safe. One boy said he imagined his dad.
“Many of our students have anxiety or challenges focusing,” says Michael Saxenian, who began the programme at the McLean School when he became head of school two years ago. “Mindfulness allows them to regain that focus.”
And it’s catching on: pupils and parents have begun asking for the practice, according to Engelking.
“I thought it was weird at first,” says Bella Gleim, 14, a Grade 9 girl at McLean. Now, she says, “I realised that it totally helped... with everything in my life.”
A minute of breathing, and Bella can overcome the anxiety of blanking out during a test, she says. “Then I’m totally focused, the answers are coming back, and that way I can finish my test confidently.” At a recent volleyball match, she opted for a timeout instead of getting angry with her losing team.
“I was about to yell at them for not doing the right thing, and then it would’ve gotten into a mess,” she says.
When it comes to younger children, props seem to help.
At a recent class for families, volunteers used visual aids to teach mindfulness.
Instructor Ofosu Jones-Quartey walked around the room blowing bubbles. Children followed, leaping at the bubbles and popping them. Jones-Quartey repeated the exercise but asked the children to simply observe the bubbles, allowing them to pop on their own.
Shafer Bergman, a Grade 5 boy at McLean School, says he used to twiddle his thumbs and look around the room during mindfulness work. But eventually, “I got real good at it,” he says. “It’s not something physical. It’s something in here,” he says, tapping his temple, “that you can always do.” – Washington Post