Mindfulness is about focusing on the present moment to increase awareness and calm the mind. According to research carried out by Mindfulness in Schools, mindfulness can improve the ‘mental, emotional, social, and physical health of young people’. It offers a range of benefits to those who practice the techniques, including a reduction in stress and anxiety. It can also improve sleep and help children regulate their emotions better.
As more schools in the UK embrace mindfulness classes, we aim to provide an overview of some activities that parents and teachers can use to help improve students’ wellbeing. We’ve spoken to several mindfulness experts to provide a well-rounded introduction to the topic.
Sheila French, Mindfulness Coach at Train My Mind says, ‘for me, teaching mindfulness to children is to give them a gift that enables them to learn how to embrace their feelings and regulate their emotions. It teaches them that they have a choice in how they react and behave. At the same time, it gives them strategies and activities they can call on when they are faced with difficulties.’
Focus on Breathing
At the heart of any meditative practice is breathing. Focusing on the rhythm of your breathing can help calm your mind and clear your thoughts. However, this is often easier in theory than in practice – especially for children who don’t like to sit still.
In order to get children into the right frame of mind, try to create a relaxing environment. Have them sit on the floor on a rug, or lay out beanbags to get them comfortable. It’s probably best to have them close their eyes to reduce distractions.
Ask them to take a deep breath in through their nose, lasting 2-3 seconds and then exhale out again for the same length of time. You can guide their breathing by saying ‘breathe in, and hold…and breathe out again’. The rhythmic repetition of the exercise will encourage them to remain in the moment and focus on the task at hand.
The first time you introduce breathing exercises, limit the amount of breaths to around ten, so they don’t become uncomfortable or lose interest. The next time you practice, aim to increase the length of time until they’re able to focus on breathing for a few minutes.
Giselle Monbiot is a Stress and Anxiety Management Practitioner and a Mum of three. She says: ‘Learning effective breathing exercises can help your child calm down when they feel worried, or if they need to concentrate. Having the deep in breath shorter than the outbreath starts to reduce the adrenaline that’s released during the stress response, resulting in a calmer feeling.
Breathing techniques can help at night time if sleep is difficult by reducing any excess adrenaline and calming the mind. Focusing on the breath also helps train the constant chattering of the mind to slow down.’
Gillian Duncan, Founder of The Moment is Now, has been practicing meditation for over twenty years. She says, ‘breathing exercises are fantastic for helping children stay calm and cope with the stresses and strains of everyday living. To be effective, though, breathing exercises for children need to be simple, joyful and practical.
Finger-breathing - following the outline of one hand with the forefinger of the other while breathing in and out, ticks all the boxes. Children find it easy to remember and will use it independently again and again whenever they need too. They’ll even teach it to their younger brothers and sisters because it’s such a soothing technique and they love it so much.'
Go for a Walk in Nature
Not all mindfulness activities need to be done indoors. Going for a walk in nature is a great way to draw a child’s attention to the present moment. Try to choose a peaceful walk away from traffic and ideally close to trees, which are proven to have a calming effect on the mind.
Once you’ve reached a quiet spot, have them close their eyes and listen to the sounds around them. If you can, try to introduce some breathing exercises to set their focus. Ask them to remember all the different noises they hear and to be aware of where they’re coming from.
Afterwards, draw their attention to small details like the bark of a tree, or the patterns on a leaf. Ask them how it makes them feel. Even on its own, spending time outdoors can help reduce stress levels and the exercise they’ll get from walking will release endorphins and lift their mood.
Use Colouring Books
Perhaps you’ve heard of mindfulness colouring books for adults? Well, they exist for children too. Colouring in shapes, animals and objects in nature can help reduce stress, improve focus and improve wellbeing.
We’ve already written a post about the benefits of drawing for children, and mindful colouring shares many of the same positive effects. Embracing creativity encourages self-expression, which can help develop emotional intelligence. Colouring also develops visual analysis, which improves a child’s awareness of what’s going on around them.
Embrace All Feelings
Even children with a wide range of vocabulary sometimes find it difficult to express their emotions. Part of mindfulness is embracing all feelings and emotions without judgement. Sometimes we don’t need to know why we’re feeling a certain way, simply acknowledging our mood can help us manage it better.
While we wouldn’t recommend trying to introduce breathing exercises in the middle of a tantrum, encouraging your child to take deep breaths can help regulate their feelings and bring them into the present moment. Once they’ve calmed down a bit, ask them how they’re feeling and draw their attention to the fact that they seem calmer.
Create a Positive Motto
Having a motto is like having a mission statement. It can be a good way for children to affirm how to act – almost like a life philosophy. It’s important that children are involved in creating their motto. If they have had a hand in creating it, they’ll be more likely to acknowledge it in their everyday activities.
A mindfulness motto should be positive and empowering and something that children can repeat at the beginning and end of each day like an affirmation. Ask your child how they feel they should behave and ask them what feelings that behaviour creates. For example, they might say ‘it’s important to be kind, which makes me feel like I’m helping’, in which case you can adapt their reply into the motto ‘be kind, be helpful, be happy’.
A motto should be personal and something that really resonates with your child’s beliefs.
Talk About Thankfulness
Thankfulness goes beyond saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ - it applies to specific situations. A good thankfulness activity is to have your child think about something good that happened to them that day. Once they’ve explained the good thing that happened, ask them why they’re glad it happened and how it made them feel.
By encouraging your child to acknowledge the things that they’re thankful for, they’ll spend more time reflecting on those feelings of gratitude and happiness, which can encourage them to be mindful of their actions and feelings in the future.
Giselle Monbiot concludes, ‘mindfulness is an opportunity for your child to learn tools that will help them throughout their lives. Life is challenging and having a set of tools can create greater resilience. Learning how to train the mind and understand its functions can have a direct impact on your emotional state. It is priceless.’
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