Dr. Susan Mathison, Inforum:
Our kids are back to the routine of school. The energy is high as we walk through the hallways, with lots of chatter and sharing events from the prior day. But high energy doesn’t always translate well to listening and focusing on tasks at hand in the classroom. Some schools around the country are turning to mindfulness as a strategy for improving attention and helping kids make better choices.
Mindfulness was a term first used in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and is defined by him as paying attention on purpose to the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. It has some roots in Buddhist meditation traditions but is now used in medical and therapeutic settings around the world.
Mindfulness is being used in the workplace (Google and more), in the U.S. military, in professional sports, and even on Capitol Hill, where Congressman Tim Ryan used mindfulness techniques during weekly staff meetings.
Studies show promising effects of mindfulness training on mental health and well-being: improved attention, reduced stress, and better emotional regulation and an improved capacity for compassion and empathy. It’s no wonder that mindfulness has fans in education.
Since England led the way in 2007 by adding mindfulness instruction, many similar programs have started in the U.S. to train teachers in mindfulness curricula. Among the largest is Mindful Schools. Mindful Schools has found that not only do students benefit, but teachers also benefit with lowered stress, more connection with students and higher job satisfaction.
California educator and author of “The Joy Plan,” Kaia Roman, uses the following exercises with students:
The Bell Listening Exercise
Ring a bell and ask the kids to listen closely to the vibration of the ringing sound. Tell them to remain silent and raise their hands when they no longer hear the sound of the bell. Then tell them to remain silent for one minute and pay close attention to the other sounds they hear once the ringing has stopped. After, go around in a circle and ask the kids to tell you every sound they noticed during that minute. This exercise is fun and gets kids interested in sharing their experiences.
Hand out a stuffed animal (or another small object) to each child. If room allows, have the children lie down on the floor and place the stuffed animals on their bellies. Tell them to breathe in silence for one minute and notice how their Breathing Buddy moves up and down, and any other sensations that they notice. Tell them to imagine that the thoughts that come into their minds turn into bubbles and float away. The presence of the Breathing Buddy makes the meditation a little friendlier, and allows the kids to see how a playful activity doesn’t necessarily have to be rowdy.
The Squish and Relax Meditation
While the kids are lying down with their eyes closed, have them squish and squeeze every muscle in their bodies as tightly as they can. Tell them to squish their toes and feet, tighten the muscles in their legs all the way up to their hips, suck in their bellies, squeeze their hands into fists and raise their shoulders up to their heads. Have them hold themselves in their squished-up positions for a few seconds, then fully release and relax. This is a great, fun activity for “loosening up” the body and mind, and is a totally accessible way to get the kids to understand the art of “being present.”
The Heartbeat Exercise
Have the kids jump up and down in place for one minute. Then have them sit back down and place their hands on their hearts. Tell them to close their eyes and feel their heartbeats, their breath, and see what else they notice about their bodies.
This can be done sitting or standing. It is good to have the leader do this, too! As you inhale through your nose, raise your arms as high as you can and bring your palms together high over the top of your head. Imagine you are as tall as a mountain. As you exhale through your mouth, bring your palms together in front of your chest.
The class curriculum may already be set for this year, but these may be fun activities that can be done at home, too. My son has long been a fan of deep-breathing exercises. Usually it’s something I suggest if he’s feeling antsy, but on a few occasions, he’s thought to do them himself.
There are lots of great resources available. Harvard clinician Dr. Christopher Willard has several books, including “Growing Up Mindful.” Amazon of full of great resources. I bought a CD called Indigo Ocean Dreams for my son. It has some peaceful stories about bubbles, ocean waves and breathing. Also check out websites like MindfulTeachers.org and CalmerChoice.org.
Just breathe and be present. It’s good for kids, teachers and parents.
Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo.