Mindfulness, Children, and Teachers: The Sound of Silence




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.

Brain changing

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?


Election Stress Disorder in Young Children

30315818186_09966a7402_zIn a recent speech, Michelle Obama raised the question that’s on the mind of every teacher and parent right now: “What do you think this is doing to our children?”

She was of course talking about the Presidential campaign and Donald Trump’s abuse of women, mocking of the disabled, and threats to ban Muslims and send Mexicans back to

Photo by Jacob Evans

Mexico that the media have covered every day.

Even young children are aware of the hatred, threats, name-calling, and inflammatory tone in the air.

In the First Lady’s words, “This is not normal . . . and it is not okay.” She might have added, “And there are consequences such as increased challenging behavior in children of all ages, including preschoolers.”

Rampant fear

Back in April, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that two-thirds of the 2,000 K-12 teachers it had surveyed were seeing an “alarming level of fear and anxiety” among children of color.

After hearing that Trump would deport millions of Latino immigrants, build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and ban Muslim immigrants altogether, these children—immigrants, children of immigrants, and Muslims—were worrying about what might happen to them or their families if Trump became President.

They worried about being deported, jailed, or attacked by police; about losing their homes and places of worship; about being rounded up and put into detention camps. Even African American students were worrying that they’d be sent back to Africa or that slavery would be resurrected.

Although many of these children were carrying their birth certificates and social security cards to protect themselves, they still cried in class, couldn’t sleep, and had panic attacks. They believed they didn’t belong here and that everyone hated them.

Almost one-third of children in American classrooms have foreign-born parents.

Rise in bullying 

Some children had a different reaction: They saw Trump as a role model, and they appropriated his ideas, tone, and language. More than half the teachers in the survey reported that bullying, harassment, and intimidation were on the upswing and becoming more violent and racist.

Children were expressing more hatred for more people—immigrants, refugees, minorities, poor, people with disabilities, people who are overweight—and were “emboldened” to name-call and to use slurs, insults, and trash talk with each other. Muslim children were being called terrorist, ISIS, and bomber, and one teacher heard a fifth grader tell his classmate that Trump was going to kill all Muslims.

Discussions were quickly deteriorating into shouting matches and fights, and years of bullying-prevention work had gone out the window.

“There’s a sense that if someone doesn’t agree with you, it’s acceptable (even encouraged) to have hatred and anger towards them,” commented one teacher in the survey.

Remember that all of this was reported in April. It is surely much worse now.

What’s a teacher to do?

The young children you see everyday probably don’t know about or understand what we’ve just described, but it is certain that they sense the fear and anxiety that’s all around them.

Maslow tells us that what children most need is to feel safe. Creating a safe place and protecting them are probably your goals as well, because you know that children depend on you to comfort and reassure them.

But if you’re also riddled with fear and anxiety, you may not feel very safe yourself—a state of affairs that will be quite obvious to the children in your classroom.

What can you do?

First of all, remember that you’re not alone. More than half of American adults are feeling stressed by this election, no matter which party they favor, according to the American Psychological Association. (Your condition even has a name: Election Stress Disorder.)

Next, turn your attention to yourself. As they tell us on airplanes, you must put on your own mask before helping others.

Donald Trump has shown us how powerful role models can be, especially for boys, so the best thing you can do is become a calm and positive role model, in control of your own emotions.

Here are some tips:

  • Turn off the television and radio when children are nearby and limit your own use of all media.
  • Tell people who might escalate conflict that you’d rather not talk about the election.
  • Remember to breathe.
  • Be aware of all your personal strengths and abilities, and have confidence in them—you can handle this.
  • Keep a journal and record your thoughts and feelings.
  • If you work with other people, laugh together; support and compliment each other. If you work alone, seek out your peers. Everyone needs someone to talk to.
  • Develop positive self-talk.
  • Cultivate optimism and gratitude.
  • Avoid blame.
  • It can clear your head.
  • Make time to do what you enjoy. Go for a walk; spend time with friends and family.
  • Be sure to vote.

What about the children?

Once you’ve calmed down, it’s time to help the children.

The psychodramatic play area is where they often express their fears and concerns and try to understand the adult world around them. Look out for signs of anxiety such as subtle changes in behavior—a child who normally enjoys the company of her peers is sitting by herself; another may be pacing or just wandering around the room. Some children may be twirling their hair, swinging their feet, or regressing from cup to bottle, or from being toilet trained to having accidents.

Give the children as many opportunities as you can to tell you what they’re worried about. Listen carefully, validate their feelings, and respond before their behavior escalates. Provide them with reassurance and a sense of safety. They may need two minutes of one-on-one time, even a hug. This is when your effort to create a culture of caring in your classroom will pay off.

Talk with the families and encourage them to turn off the news and avoid talking about their concerns when their children are present. At the same time, let them know how important it is to listen and support their children if they’re showing signs of anxiety at home or their behavior changes. Saying “There’s nothing to worry about” when they can see that their parents are upset only intensifies children’s stress.

What do you think?

Have you seen more fear, anxiety, and hurtful or challenging behavior in your classroom in the past few months? Do you think it’s linked to the election? Have parents raised this issue with you?

What to Do When You See Bullying: A Practical Guide


Don’t Bully Me
Photo by Phoenix Coverley

Note: This is the fourth in a series on bullying.

Bullying is extremely complex, but one thing about it is crystal clear: it is essential to stop it when you see it.

Your response—or lack of response—sends a message to every child in your class: that you will not allow bullying, or that you will. Your message may reach the whole school if you’re on the playground or in the cafeteria.

Teachers who know what to do are much more likely to intervene, so we decided to offer you a how-to guide. Although it’s drawn from evidence-based research and practice,* please don’t think it’s a bible. Not everything works every time or in every situation. The field is moving at lightning speed, much is controversial, and notions about what to do change frequently.

This intervention works best when you feel comfortable using it, so it might be a good idea to get together with your colleagues to role play and practice it.

 What to do when you see bullying

Step in at once, even if you’re not sure it’s bullying.  Stand at an angle between the child who’s been targeted and the child who’s bullying, not turning your back or facing either child directly but blocking eye contact between them. Leave some space between you and the child who’s bullying, and keep your face neutral and your body posture relaxed with your arms at your sides. Until everyone has calmed down, avoid eye contact, which can aggravate the situation.

Stay calm and speak firmly in a low, moderate tone. Don’t smile, argue, or yell. Be respectful at all times.

What do you say?

First address the child who bullied. Describe what you saw or heard and identify it as bullying, whether it is physical or relational: “That was bullying. It is not okay. We take care of each other here. It’s my job to keep everyone safe, and I won’t allow children to hurt each other.” Don’t lecture, try to sort out the facts, demand an apology, or impose consequences.

Next speak to the child who was targeted. Say, “No one should be treated that way,” or “You’re not to blame. This shouldn’t have happened to you.” Do not say, “I’m sorry,” or “Are you okay?” These words may reinjure the child who was bullied.

Don’t send away the bystanders who joined in the bullying, laughed, or just watched. Asking them to leave gives the message that the bullying had nothing to do with them, when in fact they play an important role and can actually help to increase or decrease it. Let them hear you say that bullying is not acceptable and you support the targeted child. Refrain from asking what they saw or trying to gather information—they’ll probably be too afraid they’ll lose their friends or become the next target to tell the truth.

If they defended the targeted child, thank them for trying to help. If they didn’t try, encourage them to take a more prosocial role next time by finding an adult, for example. If you don’t know them, get their names, then send them back to class.

What comes next?

If the child who was targeted seems all right, he or she can return to class, too. But when the child isn’t ready, you need backup. If your school doesn’t have a communication system, you can send one of the bystanders for help—a teacher, the school nurse or counselor, a friend of the child—who can lend support. Alternately, if you have a good relationship and your schedule allows it, the child can stay with you.

As for the child who was bullying, what you do depends on the policies, procedures, and legal requirements of your school, district, and state. Find out exactly what’s mandatory. More than likely you’ll have to escort or refer the child to the office and/or make arrangements for a meeting with you, the principal or director, or another designated person. If necessary, you can accompany both children to the office, walking silently between them.

Inform your colleagues about what happened so that they can provide support and protection and supervise more closely.

You’ll also want to tell both families, who should be aware of the situation and participate in the solution.

Complete a detailed incident report as soon as possible. The data you collect now may be very useful later. Include ideas for improving supervision and monitoring.

Bear in mind that these are immediate measures, not long-term solutions. It takes much more time, planning, follow-up, and action on many fronts to prevent and reduce bullying. In our next post in this series, we’ll guide you through the steps that follow a bullying incident, including the question of consequences and talking with the children involved.

In the meantime, let us know what you think about this intervention. Would it help you to address bullying in your classroom? What other strategies and ideas do you use?

*  Sources for the information in this guide include the state of New Jersey, the federal government’s anti-bullying websites (www.stopbullying.gov and www.StopBullyingNow.hrsa.gov), and work by Dan Olweus, Michael Carpenter, Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon, and Nancy Willard.