What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of acknowledging what you’re feeling without judging the emotions or sensations as you’re feeling them. Why practise mindfulness? Because it helps to direct attention away from stress or other negative thoughts. It can also help support good mental health by giving you a simple way to manage negative thoughts and emotions.
You can practise mindfulness anywhere, at any time, and produce a state of mindfulness meditation in many different ways. You can use mindfulness on your breaks at work or after long, stressful days. Just find a quiet space to do it. Sometimes it’s an empty room or your parked car. Simple things like guided breathing techniques while sitting in traffic, to more structured practices like body scanning or walking meditation can all promote relaxation and reduce stress.
Simple Mindfulness Techniques
Here are some ways you can incorporate mindfulness into everyday activities:
- Pay attention, focus on sights, smells, sounds, and textures in your environment. Acknowledge each sense before focusing on the next one.
- Live in the moment. Don’t think of things in the past or worry about the future. Concentrate on what is happening here and now.
- Accept yourself. Speak kindly to yourself. Use gentle words for yourself like you would use for your loved ones.
- Focus on your breathing. Intentionally breathe in and out in a slow, calculated way.
Advanced Mindfulness Techniques
Many people recognize the benefits of mindfulness and even set time aside every day for more structured techniques. These could include:
- Body scan meditation. Lie on your back with your legs extended. Slowly focus your attention on each area of your body from head to toe. Pause at each body part to become aware of the physical sensations and emotions you feel.
- Sitting meditation. In a comfortable seated position, breathe through your nose and focus your attention on each breath. If physical sensations or emotions interrupt, it’s fine; just acknowledge them and refocus on your breathing.
- Walking meditation. Slowly walk in a quiet place about fifteen feet in length. Become aware of the movements of your body and the sensation of your feet striking the ground. Continue walking until you reach the end of your path, then turn around and maintain constant awareness of each movement.
Health Benefits Of Mindfulness
Using these techniques may lead to some of the following mental health benefits:
- You might learn better ways to control your emotions and be able to handle stressful events more easily.
- It could even help to improve relationships with friends and family. Research suggests that people who practise mindfulness may be able to handle conflict more effectively.
- Mindfulness can allow us to be more present and self-aware.
At first, you may find your mind wandering off to everyday things, like your to-do list. But if you keep practising, you will be more focused, more relaxed and open-minded, and you will disconnect from stress. You just need to be patient and consistent.
Mindfulness in the Classroom
Once we develop the ability to practise mindfulness for ourselves, this can really begin to impact our teaching in the classroom without ever saying the word mindfulness. What happens for many people is they begin to teach more mindfully, becoming more sensitive to cues within the body emotion intelligence. That actually gives us greater sensitivity to what’s happening with us and our experience, but also helps us tune in to our children, to the learning atmosphere. We can really change the learning atmosphere and work with the energy in the classroom, so that we can keep our kids more engaged and on task in different ways.
Here are some practical ways to help students practise mindfulness in the classroom:
1. Be curious about their feelings. Mindfulness in a sense is about becoming aware of what we’re thinking and feeling without judging it – just noticing and being in touch with our inner worlds. In order to help our children to learn to do that, to provide the scaffolding for them to learn this skill, we can respond to their feelings as we would eventually want their inner voice to respond, their own selves to respond to themselves.
When they’re very little, we are a big co-creator of that inner voice. How we talk to them is often how they eventually talk to themselves, and that’s why when I shame my child, when I call them names, when I blame them, when I yell at them, I’m embedding within them that voice. But, how can we focus on the good stuff, on what we do want to do? When they’re feeling sad, or even really enthusiastic, or lots of anticipation or excitement or frustration or anger, what we want to teach them to do is to notice those emotions and to notice them with curiosity.
One of the best ways to do this is to compare emotions to the weather. We can ask our children ‘how are you feeling inside, is it sunshiny and bright skies, is there a storm brewing’, and we notice that whatever the weather is outside, it doesn’t have an emotional charge. It’s just the weather and it always passes. Emotions are the same, we can feel big emotions and they pass, they’re just interesting. They’re just an indicator, they’re just something that we want to notice and be aware of.
So, when our kids are feeling very angry, very sad, very happy, reflecting back to them, ‘you’re feeling really sad, I see that sadness bubbling up inside you, is that correct?’ Just show them that there’s a word for this, there’s a description for this, and it doesn’t sway us. Don’t get agitated, don’t rush to fix things. Just notice those feelings and put language to them. And we can be curious about them, ‘what does it feel like to be sad? Where do you feel it in your body? What does it make you think or what thoughts made you sad?’. Just noticing, being aware, and being curious.
2. Awareness. Another part of mindfulness is being aware of the present moment. Being aware of where we are and actually speaking it: ‘I hear a bird outside, I see a tree, this is the weather, this is what I feel, this is what I’m tasting.’ In this way, we start to be grounded in the present moment through our senses. What are you noticing right now, where is your body touching the ground, right, what sounds can you hear that are very far away and what sounds can you hear that are really close.
3. Practising breathing, noticing breathing. When you do yoga, you learn about holding your breath, different types of breath, connecting to your breath, being aware of your breath and using your breath to calm you down. We must start to teach our children to notice their breath when they’re getting bubbled up with emotions, when they’re having trouble waiting, when they’re having trouble sharing, when they’re frustrated, anxious, scared, angry. Just noticing that our breath has different qualities to it, noticing the inhale and the exhale.
4. Gratitude practice. Gratitude is a mindfulness tool. It brings us back to focusing our minds on the things that we want to perceive more of in our lives. It focuses us on calming down and being thankful for what we have, rather than focusing on the things that are lacking and the things we’re afraid of. When you’re in a space of gratitude and love you can’t equally be in a space of fear and worry. And so, having a gratitude practice established is going to help your children be more mindful.
It also just helps them be more mindful of their stuff, of what they’ve got, of what they’ve been blessed with in their lives. It can be done with a song, a prayer, or just a little practice of noticing three things that you’re grateful for that day. Most of all, it’s something that we have to model for our children. Showing them that we are grateful and that we continuously point out the things that we’re grateful for.
5. Forest bathing. It is absolutely proven without a doubt that spending time in nature, being at the forest or at the beach or at the mountains, any type of nature that you can get to easily, is extremely beneficial on all levels, physical, emotional, and spiritual, and it helps you to practice more mindfulness. When you’re in the forest it’s easier to disconnect from outside stimuli and be less distracted and really kind of bathe yourself in, and your senses, in a soothing but stimulating environment.
The beautiful thing about nature is that it’s balanced so that it’s both challenging and also soothing. There’s a very cohesive and harmonious palette, there are very soothing sounds and the breeze is pleasant to the senses. So being in the forest allows us to connect to nature, to feel at one with nature, and it is also an excellent fertile ground for lots of mindfulness games.
6. Teaching our children to sit with their feelings. This is a hard one. Most adults cannot do this. So, you definitely have to have realistic expectations when it comes to all of the mindfulness practices. Never force it and never push it. But learning to sit with feelings is such an amazing skill that I wish we all learned in childhood.
Research shows that when we see someone else who is freaking out and getting scared, we also freak out and get scared, even if we don’t see the source of the danger. We just copy the other person. If you see a whole bunch of people running down the street scared for their life, you’ll probably start running in that direction too.
Children look to us to indicate whether we feel safe or not, whether we’re anxious or not, whether something is a big deal or not. If they have a strong reaction, we want to teach them to sit with that emotion, then we need to indicate to them that it’s okay. So, if they are feeling very angry or very scared or very sad, our response is often to fix it, to stop it, to stop the feeling. But our initial reaction should be to first calm down.
We need to teach them that those feelings may have come up, but they do not need to overwhelm us. They do not need to flood us, they do not need to create this massive reaction, it’s going to be fine, it’s okay to feel sad, it’s okay to feel angry, it’s okay to feel frustrated, all of those things are okay. I can stay calm, see you in that situation, and then we can evaluate together. We need to stay calm and teach them that their big feelings don’t need to freak them out. Their big feelings pass, it’s a wave. What we’re teaching them here is that all feelings pass; that’s an incredibly important tool to learn.
7. Model mediation and mindful practices. Modeling is when we show what’s going on behind the scenes. Expose it to your students. If they watch you do it routinely, that sets them up for their success, it gives them that tool almost by proxy. If they witness that enough times, it just becomes something that they know how to do for themselves as well.
8. Allow for discomfort. Allow for uncomfortable situations in your child’s life. Do not rush to pacify, to solve problems, or to reduce their discomfort in any way, unless it’s truly painful and frustrating. We don’t want our children to be in pain, but we do want them to experience a lot of uncomfortable situations. Some examples are not getting the plate that you wanted, not getting the color clothes that you wanted, having to wait your turn for something, having to wait in general. Being in discomfort in all of these kinds of ways, not getting exactly what you wanted, not getting exactly your preference or not getting it as quickly as you wanted.
All of those things are excellent and important experiences. You get a little dose of discomfort while you’re a child, you learn to deal with that with mindfulness, you learn to work through those feelings and then when that discomfort sometimes comes later on in life and it’s a bit bigger, like losing your job, then you have that embedded in you and you can handle that with equilibrium.
We want our children to experience many situations throughout the day, throughout the week. So, every time your child says ‘it’s not fair, or I hate this, I don’t like this, it’s my turn’, you can say ‘yes, I see, it’s true, it’s not fair, life isn’t fair. We have to deal with dissatisfactions all the time, I know it’s not easy and I’m here to support you, but I’m not going to fix it, I’m not going to rush to pacify it, I’m not going to rush to change it’. Don’t try to smooth out all the bumps; we want them to feel each and every bump, and learn to respond with mindfulness with our support.
Teaching Mindfulness To Young Kids
There are a few things you can do that can be helpful when practising mindfulness with younger kids. The first would be to practise the mindfulness yourself. Practise being a non-judgmental presence when you’re around these kids, without even using a word about mindfulness or explaining it to them. Just be mindful with them.
Second, it’s very helpful to give the children the language to prompt them to examine their own internal processes. For example, if a young child throws something across the room, instead of labeling the behavior that was bad, you might prompt them to examine their own internal experience by saying something like ‘you must have a lot of energy right now, it’s not okay to throw that, but let’s do something, let’s get that energy out in another way’. And just by using that kind of language it directs the kids to consider what’s going on inside them and bring mindful awareness to that.
Third tip would be when you’re doing some of these mindfulness exercises with the kids, it’s okay to stick with just the experiential part, especially if they’re younger. You can certainly touch on some of the instructional things and talk about the brain, kids can pick that up pretty quickly, but it’s also good to just stick with the experiences of it. There are many mindful activities that focus on really experiencing the senses. This is great with younger kids, as they love to learn through doing.
The last tip that would be really helpful in working with young kids, and maybe the most important, is to just have fun with them. It’s easy for teachers to get caught up in their roles and their really important responsibilities, but sometimes getting too invested in those can block real connection with kids. Every once in a while, we need to put down your teacher hat and just get in there with the kids and have fun, because children are naturally already mindful in a lot of ways. They have such incredible curiosity for the world, and they are non-judgmental, and they’re in the present moment. To be able to not try to shape them or teach them and just be with them and enjoy that moment with them, can go a long way.
Helping children play an active role in their positive mental health and their social-emotional development can pay off huge benefits into the future. It’s not just about dealing with difficulties. When we take a little bit of time to pause, take a breath, and take care of ourselves, we will enjoy teaching more and we will get more satisfaction out of life.