‘Mummy, it’s time for you to go and do your breathing’
Mindfulness enhances children’s focus, memory and ability to manage behaviour and emotions
Children are taught mindfulness at both primary and secondary school level. Photograph: Thinkstock
One of my old teachers may have been a mindfulness master in disguise. His somniferous voice tended to send his pupils into a waking doze. When he spotted that this had happened, he would pick up a box of 100 chalks and launch it in the direction of the offending student. A chalk explosion on the desk usually brought the student in question straight into the now.
Today, mindfulness is taught – in gentler ways – to children of all ages and to teenagers.
Mindfulness means returning one’s attention again and again to whatever is going on in the present moment. Usually, that means whatever is going on outside your head. It also involves returning one’s attention with acceptance. Acceptance in this context means many things, of which the most important may be experiencing your own feelings without having to obsess over them or act them out.
Mindfulness in schools is often led by teachers who think it’s a good idea, and the number of teachers who think it’s a good idea is higher than you might imagine. Last year, for example, more than 1,500 teachers enrolled for the first presentation of an online course on developing mindfulness in primary school children. The course was run by Derval Dunford and Ann Caulfield of Mindfulness Matters (mindfulnessmatters.ie). Their courses are sanctioned by the Department of Education. They also teach mindfulness directly to children at primary-school level around the country.
“Inviting mindfulness into the daily lives of children increases their capacity to become still and feel good about themselves,” say Dunford and Caulfield. “Mindfulness-based practices are simple yet profound, and create a solid foundation on which to build self-worth, compassion and understanding.”
For an engaging look at how children react to mindfulness, take a look at their YouTube video with the children of Fahy National School, Westport, Co Mayo. (See bit.ly/fahynationalschool).
Small childrenSmaller children can learn to do mindfulness too. For example, putting a stuffed animal on a child’s tummy and getting the child to observe how the animal rises and falls as they breathe gently gives the child a little bit of practice in bringing awareness back to what is actually going on right now.
Children also seem to see mindfulness as beneficial for their parents. One mother told me her child would quieten down to allow Mummy to go off to the bedroom to practise mindfulness. Another child told her mother, whenever the latter got agitated, that it was time for her to go and do her breathing.
Secondary schools have been introducing mindfulness too, often as a transition-year activity.
The gains for students facing into the stress of exam years are well worth having. For example, a review of studies on the impact of mindfulness and young people by Katherine Weare, emeritus professor at the universities of Exeter and Southampton, found many benefits.
These included an enhanced ability to manage behaviour and emotions, to pay greater attention and to be more focused. Working memory improved.
On the – arguably – more important, emotional and relationship side, teenagers who practised mindfulness tended to experience more positive emotions, and perhaps for these reasons they tended to be more popular and to have more friends. Their attention and performance improved in the classroom, at sports and in performance arts.
Some of the British research suggests that teenagers like one mindfulness practice in particular: this is called 7/11 breathing. It involves holding your attention on your in-breath and counting to seven silently during that in-breath. Then you move your attention to your out-breath and you make that last for a count of 11.
For more about the British research, see mindfulnessinschools.org
Positive emotionsMindfulness leads to increased activation in the left side of the brain and this, according to Prof Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is associated with positive emotions. Mindfulness also calms down the amygdala, the structure strongly associated with negative emotions, because of its role in assessing threat. This can be especially helpful to people who are over-reactive to stress. On rare occasions, these people can include teenagers.
Parents who practise mindfulness, even in small ways, for example tuning in to your breathing or the feeling of your feet against the floor, can bring a lot of calm into the home environment.
For example, parents who become aware of their habit of losing the head first thing in the morning when a chaos of uniforms, schoolbags, breakfasts, lost shoes and all the rest of it erupts around them sometimes find that a mindful breath can achieve just as much as screaming and running about.
And the great thing about teaching mindfulness to children and young people is that when they themselves are parents, mindfulness will come more naturally to them and the noise levels in the homes of Ireland first thing in the morning will fall significantly.
Padraig O’Morain has written three books about mindfulness, of which the most recent is Mindfulness for Worriers. See padraigomorain.com His column, That’s Men, appears every Tuesday in Health+Family.