Teaching mindfulness to kids has been said to improve their wellbeing, boost performance in the classroom, increase emotional intelligence, and reduce stress and “negative” behavior.
In Old Path, White Clouds, a retelling of the Buddha’s life, the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains that one of Buddha’s earliest acts was to educate the local children of Uruvela. He notes that these children quickly “understood all that was taught.”
Today, these teachings are often referred to as mindfulness. It’s a buzzword circulating among America’s classrooms, parent support groups, and teachers’ lounges with broad claims. Teaching mindfulness to kids can improve math test scores, reduce “negative” behavior, and improve learning engagement. Research substantiates a direct correlation between mindfulness practices and improved performance, including increased social-emotional intelligence and stress reduction.
For 10 years, I have personally practiced mindfulness in the Plum Village tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, and I taught in public schools across the country. The following five teachings stem from my direct experience and should be thought of as guideposts, not rules or obligatory to-dos. They are like the North Star—something to follow—a little direction during challenging times.
“If a mindfulness practitioner is a musician. Who is the conductor? And what is the instrument?”
Start With You
Happy parents and happy teachers can change the world. Before you teach mindfulness to kids, try to practice it yourself. Sit on a soft cushion, find a comfortable position, and follow your breath.
You can follow a simple mantra, Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in; breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.
It may be helpful to find a mindfulness group. As we continue to social distance, you might consider attending a short online retreat or day of mindfulness. There are many options in the virtual space. Pandemic or not this will take time, but in the end, having a sangha (a group of practitioners) will lead to sustained mindful habits.
Ask yourself: Do I have the energy to connect with my life? Where is my energy going? Toward worry, fear, anger, resentment? How can I be more mindful of where I’m directing my thoughts? Through mindful practice, we generate a healing energy that we can share. Children are so in tune with the emotional manifestations of their parents and guardians. Therefore, the best gift we have is our own presence.
Remember to be kind to yourself. You can’t ask the sun to suddenly melt all of the ice after a long winter’s night, and so you too must be patient and continue returning to the practice.
Teaching children to stop and breathe as part of learning to be mindful can be difficult. Mostly, because children want to move! Start with teaching them to notice their breath. Maybe take your child outside on a cold day: Have them sense the air in their nose (how does it feel?) and then watch it puff out of their mouth. Or perhaps use a candle and control the movement of a flame—breath in, feel the heat; breath out, watch the light flicker.
In my classroom, we practiced belly breathing. I would light a candle and have the students find a place to lie down comfortably. Then I would ask each student to place their hands on their belly (as a parent you can do this next to your child) and feel the belly rise with an in-breath and fall with an out-breath.
Continue this practice for five minutes and increase with daily practice. Include your own mantra, something like, peaceful (in-breath), resting (out-breath).
The mind can be a river and our thoughts are like water droplets: We can often get swept downstream. In sitting meditation, we try not to get carried away.
Teaching sitting meditation is much easier when you practice with others. It could be with the community of your family, your classroom, or a group of friends on Zoom. Experiment with different ways to sit. It’s important for everyone to find a position that supports them so they can reduce their movements. Try out many options and don’t be afraid to incorporate props: chairs, pillows, cushions, even exercise balls. With more practice, you’ll eventually transition to sitting on the floor. Sometimes, kids are resistant. You might hear them say, “This is boooring.” Just encourage them to try something new, in time they will learn to enjoy the peace it brings.
In my classroom, once I described how to sit––with a straight spine, relaxed back, closed eyes, and a slightly tucked chin—I would often start with attention to the breath. Or maybe we would just sit in silence with occasional reminders to come back to the breath. I would also try to connect to nature through visualization, painting mental pictures of placid lakes and solid mountains.
Tell your children: You are a mountain. Work your way up from their feet to the tip of their head. What lives at the bottom of the mountain—large pine trees? What do you find on the way up—a fox den beside an old rockface? At the top—a strong wind and fresh dusting of snow? Include the sensations, sounds, and smells as they visualize. For the most benefit children should practice daily, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
To live mindfully, by its very nature, requires movement, so practice mindful walking as part of teaching mindfulness to kids. Choose where you would like to walk—your backyard, the school garden, a cozy room at home.
It’s best to start by walking in a circle. Start by forming a circle, facing one direction. Take an in-breath when you step with your left foot, then an out-breath as you step with the right. Say—we are home (left), we have arrived (right). Encourage your young ones to imagine their feet are roots growing into the earth. Move together, noting the sensations of your body in space, and when you reach your starting spot, stop.
You may also want to take a nature walk. Follow the same practice—walk together, but this time you may move a bit quicker. Three to five steps when you breathe in and three to five steps when you breathe out. Walk in different weather—rain, snow, and sun. With younger kids, walk like different animals: monkeys, elephants, or wild horses.
By cultivating happiness and respect in your home and school, all children have the opportunity to grow. Being together, for me, is the best part of mindfulness. As we practice breathing, sitting, and moving, emotions will rise.
When children are distracted or swept away by their thinking, they may get angry or feel depressed. First, guide children to recognize their emotions and return to their breath. Teach them to accept their emotion, to know that “it is okay to feel anger.” Help your children embrace their emotional state with compassion for themselves. They may hug themselves, put a hand over their heart, find something soft, and say, breathing in, I embrace of my [feeling]; breathing out, I will take care of you. With time and practice, mindful energy will help your young one look deeply at the roots of their emotions.
Teaching mindfulness to children is improperly described as a tool to treat or fix young minds. Instead, children should be focused on their inter-being, our connectedness. In my classroom, students became self- and other-aware.
A healthy mindfulness practice leaves the practitioner less stressed and distracted, but more importantly, kinder and happier. As your children weave mindfulness into their lives, they too can discover a healthier way of being in the world.
Read more about teaching mindfulness to kids: “Nourishing the Hearts and Minds of Children”