Question: What do hundreds of thousands of children worldwide have in common with Google employees, US military personnel, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Boston Red Sox?
Answer: They all practice mindfulness.
No matter which mindfulness program or app is guiding them—whether it’s Calm Classroom, Mind Yeti, MindUP, Mindful Schools, Quiet Time, Inner Kids, Kindness Curriculum, or one of the many other programs available—it is sure to stem from the Buddhist tradition of meditation.
In the late 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, realized that a non-religious form of meditation, which he dubbed “mindfulness,” might help patients deal with chronic pain.
His hunch was right. Since then, studies have shown that Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program—and its many offspring—reduces chronic pain, as well as lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, stress, anxiety, and depression. Mindfulness is even used to treat post-traumatic stress, rheumatic arthritis, eating disorders, immune disorders, insomnia, and irritable bowel syndrome.
So what is mindfulness?
Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” He saw it as a way to train the mind, which he thought of as being like a muscle: With exercise, it could get stronger.
The exercise he chose—and the core of most mindfulness programs—is concentrating on one’s own breath. That is, he taught people to select a quiet spot, sit still, close their eyes, and focus on their breathing. When their attention wandered, as it inevitably does, they learned to observe their thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judging them, then to gently bring their attention back to their breath and the present moment.
Kabat-Zinn also taught patients to perform a body scan, a second way to train their attention. They could lie quietly, concentrate on each tiny bit of their body in turn, and notice how each part feels, from their scalp to their toes.
What does mindfulness do?
Practicing these exercises develops:
- Attention. Because our minds have a tendency to roam, mindfulness asks us to concentrate on the here and now—the present, not the past or the future. It helps us to focus and switch our attention more easily when situations change.
- Awareness. With mindfulness we become aware of each one of our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations and see it more calmly, clearly, and accurately.
- Acceptance. Mindfulness allows us to accept our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations without judging them or reacting to them; it enables us to be neutral, open, curious.
Through the practice of mindfulness, we cultivate the ability to observe, recognize, and change ordinary patterns, to become more reflective, calm, empathic, and kind, and to achieve greater control of our actions.
Is mindfulness just for adults?
At first Kabat-Zinn and his followers prescribed mindfulness only for adults. But eventually people began to think that mindfulness could help children, too.
As they grow, their brains are learning how to regulate their attention, thoughts, and emotions; and researchers now theorize that mindfulness practice could help to shape children’s neural networks and support their emotional regulation and executive function, which develop rapidly in the preschool years.
Mindfulness targets self-regulation, and recent research has shown that the ability to self-regulate in childhood makes a huge difference. In fact, it predicts everything from kindergarten readiness to SAT scores to adult health, income, educational achievement, and criminal activity.
The research on children and mindfulness is promising but preliminary, meaning we need more studies to demonstrate what researchers already suspect: that mindfulness can boost children’s attention (which helps them to concentrate), working memory (which enables them to remember directions, among other things), and inhibitory control (which makes it easier for them to stay on task, follow rules, and have friends). It should come as no surprise that all of these skills are crucial for school success.
Some researchers even see signs that mindfulness could prevent aggressive and challenging behavior, beef up empathy and resilience, and reduce visits to the principal’s office and school suspensions as children begin to respond more mindfully to difficult situations.
Research in adults shows that practicing mindfulness actually changes the brain. Most notably, it thickens the brain regions responsible for learning and memory, strengthens those involved in self-control, and facilitates communication among different areas, making the brain more efficient.
It also shrinks the amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure deep within the brain that detects threats and triggers our freeze-fight-flight reaction. Although it’s supposed to alert us to danger, it can also hijack the brain and make us act before we have a chance to think. As MindUP puts it, “The amygdala is like a barking dog—he keeps us safe from external dangers but sometimes he barks for no real reason.”
Mindfulness works because of this two-pronged approach: It enhances conscious control at the same time that it dampens automatic reactions like fear and anger that can interfere with learning and rational thought.
And it is likely that the effect of mindfulness on the developing brain intensifies when it is introduced early. So far evidence indicates that children at high risk—including those experiencing poverty, trauma, or toxic stress—benefit the most.
How can kids learn mindfulness?
Children seem to enjoy mindfulness practice, and practice is just as important for children as it is for adults. Here are some basics to keep in mind:
- Make mindfulness a special time. It’s probably a good idea to move to the carpet or another space where everyone can lie down.
- Practice often—several times a week, every day, even several times a day. A few short practice periods spaced out over the day work better for learning than a single extended one.
- It’s best to be consistent, so select times you can stick to, for example, after recess, after lunch, before math.
- Keep the sessions short. One to two minutes is enough for younger children; five-year-olds can pay attention for about three minutes.
- Use props such as stuffed animals. Kids can lie down, put their stuffies on their bellies, and rock them to sleep with their breathing or pretend they’re boats bobbing up and down on the waves of their breath. They can also do a body scan lying down or standing up with the aid of a hula hoop and the teacher’s direction.
- Include mindfulness in ordinary activities like snack or lunch—for example, ask children to notice whether their food is hot or cold, hard or soft, bland or spicy.
- Incorporate movement such as yoga stretches.
- Metaphors are useful, too. Help children visualize their thoughts passing by like clouds in the sky or floats in a parade.
Bear in mind that despite the vast number of programs and apps available, most of those aimed at young children have not yet undergone rigorous scientific evaluation. There isn’t even consensus about how much training and practice teachers need!
It’s important for your program to be evidence based, so be sure to check out the research behind your choices. Don’t forget to note the age of the children the program is designed for.
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How can you recognize good research?
The most reliable research will include:
- Publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
- Detailed information about the program itself (number, length, and frequency of practice sessions, training of teacher, etc.).
- Use of multiple methods and informants to assess outcomes (such as grades, office referrals, suspensions, recognized tests of children’s skills, and outside observers).
- Random assignment of participating children to the training group or an active control group (which is preferable to a wait list control group).
- A large number of participating children and a description of them (their age, race or ethnicity, income level, disability).
- Corroboration by similar independent studies.
- Follow-up data.
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What about teachers?
If you’re thinking, “I could use some mindfulness myself,” you’re probably right! Teachers work under stressful conditions, and emotional regulation is especially important when you’re facing challenging behavior.
A study of the CARE program (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Educators), which teaches teachers mindfulness and social and emotional skills, found that it reduced stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout, while improving teachers’ empathy, relationships with their students, classroom management skills, and the learning environment.
Although there’s no consensus on the subject, having mindfulness training and your own practice will probably help you to teach mindfulness to your class.
Here are some programs to consider
Calm Classroom. A research-based program for preschool and kindergarten, Calm Classroom was developed by the non-profit Luster Learning Institute. It trains teachers, administrators, and support staff on site in schools and also offers individual educators online training that comes with a manual and a CD. You can try it out by clicking here.
Mindful Schools. Mindful Schools, which was designed for kindergarten to fifth graders, offers both a six-week basic online course and a more advanced online course under the guidance of experienced mindfulness teachers. Educators can also sign up for group instruction. Examples are provided on the website.
MindUP. Accredited by CASEL, the MindUP program grew out of the earlier Mindful Education and consists of 15 lessons for PreK to grade 8 students. It draws from neuroscience, positive psychology, mindful awareness, and social and emotional learning and offers whole-school or regional training for classroom teachers, a curriculum guide, and a digital option.
Mind Yeti. Developed by the Committee for Children, the non-profit organization that produced the Second Step social and emotional learning program, Mind Yeti is an animated web-based program for “children and their adults” created by educators, psychologists, researchers, and mindfulness experts under the guidance of University of British Columbia psychologists. You can try it out for free through Apple iTunes.
What do you think?
We’d love to hear about your experiences with mindfulness—either your own or your students’. Has it changed the ambience of your classroom?
Maybe you’re not so interested in lead exposure in children.
I have to admit I wasn’t, even though I’d known for a long time that it’s an important risk factor for challenging behavior. We’d written about it in Challenging Behavior in Young Children, but somehow it seemed less sexy to me than other risk factors like temperament or media violence.
But now that I’ve actually spent some time learning about what happened in Flint, I’ve become obsessed.
I notice all the tiny places where the paint is chipped or peeling in my house, which was built long before lead paint was banned.
I remember how we lived in this house with our 4-year-old daughter while our painter meticulously sanded each wall, creating clouds of dust that were certainly heavily contaminated with lead.
I recollect that the city only recently replaced the old lead water line connecting us to the central water supply.
I can picture my children and grandchildren playing with our wonderful old Fisher Price toys whose colorful plastic—unbeknownst to us—was filled with lead.
Fortunately, my family is all right. But a great many other people aren’t as lucky, so I think you should know the story of lead and how it affects us all.
The story of lead
Once upon a time—when cars ran on leaded gasoline, buildings were covered with lead-based paint, and water came into our homes, schools, and work places through lead pipes—the air and water were filled with lead. But about 40 years ago, people began to understand that lead wasn’t very good for our health, and governments passed some laws to remedy the situation.
In 1975, we started phasing out leaded gasoline, and in 1978, we banned lead-based paint. By 2006, the average level of lead in children’s blood had fallen dramatically.
Since we thought we’d solved the lead problem, our political will—and funding—for getting rid of lead evaporated. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saw its budget for the prevention of lead poisoning chopped from $30 million to $2 million.
We were wrong
But it turns out we were wrong. The lead from our years of using leaded gas is still resting comfortably in our soil, especially in the inner cities. Old lead paint remains on the walls and woodwork of 24 million apartments and houses where 4 million children live. And as schools in Newark, Camden, Ithaca, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and too many other cities have found, lead is often still in our plumbing.
In the meantime the World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that no level of lead is really safe, especially for children 5 years and younger. As they play, they’re much more likely to mouth or swallow its miniscule particles in dust, and their rapidly developing brains and bodies absorb a far greater percentage of it than adults’ do.
Children of color and children living in poverty are particularly vulnerable because they’re apt to live in older lead-filled neighborhoods in buildings in poor condition, and they may not be able to access or afford the nutritious food—high in calcium, iron, and vitamin C—that can slow down lead absorption. Even upper- and middle-class children whose families are renovating an older dwelling may be at risk.
What does lead do?
What does lead do when it enters the body? First of all, it affects the brain by damaging the developing prefrontal cortex—the thinking, planning, decision-making part of the brain—along with the white matter that enables cells in the brain and nervous system to communicate effectively.
As a result, children exposed to lead may lose several IQ points and suffer from impaired executive function (that is, they may have trouble with emotional regulation, impulse control, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility). They are also at increased risk for learning disabilities, ADHD, aggressive behavior, and arrests for violent crime in adulthood.
Lead exposure also hurts school achievement, including readiness for kindergarten and reading. A large study in Chicago found that 75 percent of third graders had such poisonously high blood lead levels that they were likely to fail grade 3 and score badly on standardized tests—enough to make a difference between passing and failing. Not surprisingly, the greatest impact was on non-Hispanic African Americans, followed by Hispanics.
Lead can also affect the rest of the body—the cardiovascular, immune, hormone, and gastrointestinal systems—and is linked to anemia, hypertension, and kidney problems.
In case you were wondering, these effects are irreversible.
We could actually prevent future generations from being poisoned by lead if only we had the desire and the money. The amounts involved are gigantic, but so are the returns. One study estimated that for every dollar spent we’d gain $221 by increasing productivity and tax revenues and reducing spending on health care, special education, and crime. We might even close the achievement gap.
What can we do?
Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who first alerted the government to the high lead levels in Flint’s children, has called for funding for evidence-based interventions such as mother-infant support, literacy programs, universal preschool, school health services, nutrition programs, primary medical care, and mental health care.
These programs are vital, but ordinary teachers and administrators can also help to protect children from lead’s poisonous effects. You can:
- Ask your administration to test the school’s water. If your school or daycare center was built before 1986, find out if filters have been installed on every water fountain and faucet and if those fountains and taps are flushed every day. They should run for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. (Collect the water and give it to your plants.) Alert families to the dangers of lead and encourage them to test, filter, and flush their faucets at home.
- Use only cold water for drinking, cooking, and preparing formula.
- Suggest that parents have their children’s blood lead level tested, or arrange to have testing at school, as the city of Newark has just done. Testing is mandatory in some states, including New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and Medicaid requires testing for children at 1 and 2 years. But children in old low-income neighborhoods should be tested later as well. Those with high lead levels may be eligible for early intervention and special education services under the “Other Health Impairment” category of IDEA.
- Provide meals and snacks that are rich in calcium, iron, and vitamin C. Avoid fatty foods, which aid absorption.
- Be sure that children wash their hands and faces often, and wash toys regularly, especially outdoor toys.
- To reduce lead-filled dust, have everyone take off their shoes before entering classrooms. Regularly wet-mop floors and entrances, and wet-wipe windows, taking extra care with sills and wells. Thoroughly clean mops and sponges.
- Don’t let children play in bare soil. Instead plant grass or cover the ground with grass seed, mulch, sod, or wood chips.
Flint did one thing that’s positive: It put the problem of lead exposure front and center. Let’s keep it that way. —Judy Sklar Rasminsky
Why is everyone talking about executive function?
To begin with, it’s at the heart of self-regulation—that is, our ability to consciously control our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. When it comes to readying children for school and helping them to succeed in both the social and the academic realms, executive function is even more important than IQ.
And according to a study of 1000 children whom researchers followed from birth to age 32, good self-regulation creates healthier, wealthier, and more law-abiding people, whereas poor self-regulation leads to trouble paying attention, following directions, and building and maintaining positive relationships.
So what exactly is executive function?
There are three core executive functions:
- Working memory is the ability to keep information in our minds for a short period while we work with it.
- Cognitive or mental flexibility permits us to shift our focus, adjust to new demands, information, and priorities, fix mistakes, and come up with alternative solutions to problems.
- Inhibitory control is the capacity to control our impulses and think before we act, or in the words of neuroscientist Adele Diamond, “to resist a strong inclination to do one thing and instead do what is most appropriate.”
By working together, these three executive functions lay the foundation for the higher order skills of planning, reasoning, and problem solving.
How do children learn these skills?
Children begin to acquire executive function skills in infancy (think of the baby soothing herself with her thumb or pacifier), and early childhood is an especially fertile period for developing them. We can see this happening before our eyes as toddlers and preschoolers learn to share, wait for a turn, understand rules and directions, calm themselves, and empathize.
But executive functions don’t develop automatically. They depend on the external guidance and support of parents and teachers. By modeling self-regulation ourselves and by providing warm, sensitive, and responsive care, plentiful opportunities to practice self-regulation, scaffolding children’s learning so that they can do what we ask, and reinforcing effort, persistence, and focus, we can help their executive functions to become stronger and stronger. At the same time we are building resilience.
Children who lack these skills need our support the most. Living with toxic stress—for example with neglect, maltreatment, violence, caregiver mental illness, or poverty—disrupts children’s brain development and often robs them of the chance to develop their executive functions. But research shows that children with poor self-regulation actually make the largest gains when they have our support and guidance.
It’s important to improve these skills early because executive function problems grow over time. Diamond says that increasing children’s executive function could even help to close the achievement gap in school and health.
How can teachers enhance executive function?
Several curricula (PATHS, Chicago School Readiness Project, Tools of the Mind, Montessori) show signs of improving children’s executive function, but the research evidence is still weak. However, it is very clear that lots of practice is imperative. Here are some tips to use in your own classroom:
- Work on developing secure relationships with the children you care for. A warm, sensitive, and responsive relationship with a child is the basis for all positive change.
- Create a stimulating and well organized classroom environment with consistent rules. Minimize distractions, remove things that trigger impulsive behavior, and provide reminders and memory aids (such as a picture of an ear to help children listen). With this assistance, children can practice inhibiting their own impulses and following your directions instead.
- Bear in mind that negative emotions such as anger, depression, stress, frustration, and loneliness dispose us to pay less attention, respond impulsively, and even act aggressively. Children having a hard time at home need extra support, monitoring, and guidance; and when they behave inappropriately, a calm, warm response is likely to be more effective than a harsh one.
- Explain the reasons behind your actions and decisions. This enables children to internalize the message.
- Give one direction at a time.
- To help children calm themselves when they’re upset, teach them to recognize the clues their body gives them. Then teach them the turtle position (cross your arms, wrap them around your body, take a deep breath, and then plan how to respond) and/or belly breathing (lie on your back with a small stuffed animal on your belly, and breathe slowly in through the nose and out through the mouth, which rocks the animal). (If you have no stuffed animal, you can put your hands on your tummy.)
- Teach children self-talk. To help them act appropriately, they can quietly tell themselves what to do or count to 10 forwards or backwards, either out loud or in their heads. This helps them to think more rationally.
- Tell stories, and have children tell them, too. Write them down or ask the children to illustrate them, and discuss the feelings in them.
- Schedule lots of time for pretend play, and ask the children to make a plan for what they intend to do. Supervise and ask questions about what they’re doing.
- Use games and songs that require children to pay attention and remember the rules: Simon Says, Red Light/Green Light, memory, walking on a line, follow the leader, freeze dancing, dancing to fast and slow music, singing loud and soft, “Head and Shoulder, Knees and Toes,” “BINGO,” “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” “The Hokey Pokey,” “Five Green and Speckled Frogs,” etc. Puzzles and matching and sorting games (by size, color, shape) also help develop executive function. When children have mastered a game or a song, tweak it to challenge them more, e.g., in Simon Says, change the cue to follow Simon.
- For more ideas, see Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence by the Center on the Developing Child of Harvard University; the November 2014 issue of Zero to Three; and this video on executive function by Alberta Family Wellness.
How many of these strategies do you use in your classroom? Have you seen any improvement in the children’s self-control? How hard is it for you to model self-regulation? What do you do to keep your cool when the going gets tough?