“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” – Aristotle
Is your child battling with stress and anxiety? Or do they struggle to regulate their emotions? Maybe they have difficulty remaining focused on tasks? Could they use a bit of assistance when it comes to making good decisions?
Mindfulness could hold the key to helping your child become calmer, more resilient and develop greater confidence in themselves. And, it could benefit you in exactly the same ways too – for free! Who wouldn’t want this for their family?
In the past few years, mindfulness has become somewhat of a ‘buzz word’. You may have heard about it on the radio, at a family lunch, in the boardroom, or on the sidelines of the soccer pitch from other parents. More and more, it’s being utilised in schools as a strategy for helping children cope with the stresses of living in the modern world.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the art of practising focused awareness – it involves noticing our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. It’s simply tuning in to what is happening in our minds and in our bodies at any given time. Basically it’s about being in the present moment. While it has roots in Buddhist meditation, it is a set of secular practices not associated with any religion.
Sarah Rudell Beach states the benefits of mindfulness plainly:
“The purpose of teaching mindfulness to our children is to give them skills to develop their awareness of their inner and outer experiences, to understand how emotions manifest in their bodies and to recognise when their attention has wandered and to provide tools for control.”
But maybe this all still sounds a bit abstract so keep reading to learn more…
How do we know it works?
The benefits of mindfulness are supported by a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that it can actually change the structure and functions of the brain. It strengthens the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of our brain that regulates our emotions and decision making. At the same time, mindfulness can lessen the reactivity of our amygdala, which is responsible for impulses like fear and anger in times of stress. Mindful thinking strengthens the neural pathways that enable us to calm the amygdala while tapping into the regulatory functions of the pre-frontal cortex. Seeing the benefits, many schools across the world (including right here in South Africa) have started introducing mindfulness programmes. In early 2019, the UK government started rolling out a mindfulness curriculum in nearly 400 English schools.
How do I do mindfulness?
You may now be wondering about how you can introduce mindfulness into your daily life. Here are three easy strategies:
1. Notice and name
Sit down with your child, close your eyes together and ask them to notice any sensations, thoughts or feelings that are present. Help them to give voice to these observations by asking questions such as “what do you notice in your body right now?” As basic as it might seem, this naming can help children make sense of their inner world. The more insights that they have about their experiences, the more they are able to slow down, reflect, and choose appropriate responses.
2. Count the breaths
Spend a few minutes in quiet, focused attention on breathing together. Sit down and start counting each breath in and out, getting them to fill their bellies with long inhales and exhales: one in / one out; two in / two out … Gradually move to counting silently. If your child is a bit younger, it can also help to put a stuffed animal on their belly, which focuses their attention on the rise and fall of the toy with each breath in and out. You’ll be amazed how calm you both feel after this simple exercise.
3. Mindful walks
Take a short walk around the neighbourhood on a Saturday morning with the aim of paying attention to things that you don’t normally notice. For example, spend a minute listening to all of the sounds around you – the birds or the lawnmowers. Or, spend time on the sensation of the rough crunch of gravel beneath your feet. These strategies will help you tune into the present, and provide a sense of calm awareness of your surroundings.
Remember, regular practice is key. Try to make some of the strategies part of your daily routine just like any other activity of reading, playing or homework. For example, set aside time for breathing or meditation for five or ten minutes every morning after breakfast or in the back seat of the car on the way to school. Or perhaps quietly tune into the sensations of brushing your teeth together before bedtime. You can even find time for mindfulness in the check-out queue buying groceries, or at a doctor’s appointment – instead of pulling out your phone, tune into the five senses and share what you notice about your surroundings.
Over time, you’ll start to notice how this newfound awareness and acceptance of the present moment has a ripple effect out into all aspects of your lives, from family to school to social engagements.