When kids are stressed, they ruminate about past problems and worry about future what-ifs. These negative thought patterns rob their ability to focus on the present. Because stress feeds anxiety, impulsive behavior and lack of focus, more schools are adopting simple mindfulness techniques that parents can also foster.
Why are kids stressed? Academic pressures, overstuffed schedules, unstable home life, economic hardship, social media and peer issues can all affect a student’s physical and mental health. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, prolonged stress not only harms healthy development, it interferes with learning, behavior and health throughout life. Michelle Landy, a third-grade teacher, says student stress is especially prevalent during mandatory state testing. “State tests are scary for many of the kids,” Landy says. “Their anxiety hinders their ability to remember what they’ve learned.” She recalls one panicked student who insisted she didn’t remember learning any of the material that was on the test. “The concepts had been previously taught to her that week – and she aced them,” Landy says. After Landy led her students through a calming, school-approved mindful breathing exercise, the third grader “ended up remembering what she knew and got the entire next set of questions correct!” Landy was first introduced to the practice by Lauren Wessinger, who facilitates the Mindful Project, an eight-week, school-based program geared toward K-fifth grade students.
What is mindfulness, anyway? “Mindfulness is not a control mechanism or behavioral modification. It can be a calming technique, but not always. It’s more of helping a child become actively aware of how they are feeling and use some of their tools to manage those feelings,” Wessinger says. Mindfulness gives children – and adults – simple strategies to intentionally and without judgment notice what they’re feeling in the moment, observe their surroundings and self-regulate their behavior.
Does it work? To learn more about the effects of the practice on students, researchers at the University of California, Davis, partnered with Mindful Schools, a non-profit organization that teaches educators, parents and mental health professionals how to integrate mindfulness into everyday learning at K-12 schools around the globe. Among students who participated in a mindfulness program, the researchers found significant improvement in paying attention and class participation. Initial studies also suggest that mindfulness changes the brain’s architecture by helping kids become less reactive. They are better equipped to manage feelings like anger, sadness, fear and worry. “When they can’t control much outside of them, they can absolutely regulate what’s happening inside of them if they know how,” says Wessinger, who received her training through Mindful Schools. Furthermore, the practice can enhance children’s compassion toward others and for themselves. “If kids can grow up knowing how to manage intense emotions and not let this intensity completely consume them, then maybe it will cause one child, who is then an adult, to make a different decision in the moment,” Wessinger says.
Begin with you. When you feel calm, your children will likely respond in kind. As part of her daily practice, Wessinger takes three deep breaths before she picks up her children, ages 8 and 12, from school. “I’m more of a receptive, calm container. They don’t consciously know why, but their nervous system is like, ‘okay, everything is cool. I’m safe right now.’ It’s like a nervous system to nervous system language,” she explains. Start with just three to five minutes a day of quiet breathing and observing your emotions. Try challenging yourself by doing 10 days in a row for three minutes a day and add a minute as the practice becomes easier.
Teach your child deep breathing. Begin with a simple practice. For one to three minutes, have your child place their hand on their belly and feel the movement when they breath. “The tension going down into that movement is about as present as you can get. Nothing’s really going on except belly moving, eyes closed, feeling the breath in the hand,” Wessinger says.
Mindful listening. Through intentional listening, kids learn to become more aware of their surroundings. Begin with three long and deep breaths. Suggest they close their eyes. Ring a bell or chime and have them listen for the sound until they can no longer hear it. “When the noise goes away, they raise their right hand and then they take three deep breaths and then put their hand down,” Wessinger says.
Mindful seeing. In this exercise, kids stare at a point on the ground for about a minute. If they lose focus, encourage them to return to the point on the ground. “I tell them you have super strong eye strength now. What is an animal that has great vision? They always say a bird,” Wessinger says. She then has kids use their eagle eyes to look around the room, noticing things they’ve never noticed before.
Practice heart awareness. In this visualization exercise, your child imagines reaching out to help a lonely friend. Ask questions like, “how does that feel in your body when you are helping your friend?” Then walk them through a visualization of them not helping their friend (but not doing anything cruel either). Perhaps instead of acknowledging their friend, they ignore them. Again, ask your child how that feels in their body and in their heart.
Walking mindfulness. Wessinger also takes her students on walking heartfelt meditations in which the kids walk silently around the school and send out kind thoughts toward anyone they see. “In our heads, we think ‘may you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free,’” Wessinger says. “They love it. This is the piece that felt inspiring to me. It helps them understand ‘when I do this action, I feel this way. Don’t I want to feel the good way as of-ten as possible?’”
Signs Your Child Might Be Stressed • Unusual mood swings, behavior changes • Withdrawal from social groups or activities they’ve historically enjoyed • Poor health • Weight gain/weight loss • Difficulty concentrating • Changes in sleep patterns Source: American Psychological Association
*Contact your family physician if you are concerned about your child’s overall well-being.