Kids put their minds to mind­ful­ness

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOODPOSTER -

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

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