Life can be touch on kids, and kids can be tough on each other. A recent NPR Morning Edition story (20 Feb, 2020) brought this point home as it described how mindfulness practices are being used to help schoolchildren attending a high-needs elementary school in Nashville, TN. (Mindfulness Transforms Culture at High-Needs Elementary School)
The stage for the story is set when a 4th grader appears at the mindfulness room in the elementary school that has been set up by the school’s designated mindfulness teacher. The boy has come to the room because he is feeling worked up by a physical confrontation he had just had with another student who had bullied him in art class. Together, the student and the teacher go over the events. The teacher provides emotional support and assurance for the boy, and also leads him through some breathing exercises that loosen the “fight or flight” feelings that had gripped the boy. Ultimately, the boy is able return to class feeling calmer and with greater confidence in his personal safety.
Situations that generate some degree of “fight or flight” are not unique to elementary schools. “Stage fright” is not just a problem for those in the theater. Speaking out in conference, working with an unfamiliar apparatus in lab, knocking on a professor’s door to initiate a conversation, these are all known stressors for college students, and some type of mindfulness practice might be used to reduce these stresses.
Two other features of the NPR story also deserve mention. Mindfulness can be beneficial, but it shouldn’t be treated as a band-aid. When the sources of stress are systemic in nature – poverty, implicit bias, and so on – we should also be looking at how to change the system so that the sources of stress are reduced. In addition, mindfulness practice, like other healthy habits, needs to be normalized. It isn’t something that someone else does when they are struggling. It is something we, teachers as well as students, can all practice so that the tools are available to us whenever they are needed.
I recently tackled a new issue: how to get children to practice mindful activities (Mindful Games for Kids, 10 Aug 2017). In that post I said, “I can’t picture an 8 year-old sitting on a cushion, silently counting in- and out-breaths.” Now a post on the Trike Daily blog (A. Tzelnic, 2 Aug 2017), “Little Buddhas in the Classroom,” tells me that I may have underestimated the possibilities. Perhaps starting Chem 201 classes by putting away phones followed by 30 seconds of silence?
Disclaimer: the post describes 4th-6th graders so 10-12 year-olds?
Whenever someone brings “mindfulness practice” into conversation with me, I naturally expect to hear stories about people struggling with “adult” problems like stress, overwork, focus/multitasking problems, emotional trauma, pain, grief, and addiction. I don’t expect to hear about the problems of 8-year-olds, not because I think they lack for problems, but because I can’t picture an 8 year-old sitting on a cushion, silently counting in- and out-breaths. They have trouble sitting still for a simple count-to-10, right?
In the last few years, however, I’ve discovered that there are ways for children to practice mindfulness, and there are real benefits to be had. As I suspected, the practices that are commonly recommended for adults (“sit down – be quiet”) require some major reworking for the elementary school audience, but there are ways to make a mindfulness connection at any age.
How to Help Your Kids Practice Mindfulness (Without Making them Sit Still) (Trike Daily, 5 Apr 2017) contains a bunch of useful insights about how to work with children (hint to aunts & uncles – the kids don’t have to be yours) as well as a link to Susan Kaiser Greenland‘s web site. Greenland, a parent, meditation teacher, and author, presents a number of practical ways to work with children, and even your inner child. Rolling my mouse over the icons on her site turned up headings like “watch,” “listen,” and “shout out,” each of which led to a set of practical suggestions and tips for mindful activities. Greenland has also packaged her materials as a book (Mindful Games) and a card deck of activities (Mindful Games Activity Cards) that might fit very nicely into a summer camp counselor’s backpack.
Meditation traditions (zen, for example) often encourage meditation without any thought of personal gain. However, this has not prevented researchers from looking for possible benefits (and harms) that meditation might bring about. Stress, focus, attention management have all been investigated, and now researchers are looking into academic performance.