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Helping Kids Reduce Stress Through Mindfulness Meditation

The simple act of teaching children how to stop, focus and just breathe could be one of the greatest gifts you give them

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As school gets into full swing and schedules stack up with academics and extracurriculars, it's no wonder students can get downright stressed out. Kids today are under near constant pressure to perform. Their lives can seem like a never-ending rush from one activity to the next with hardly a chance to relax, let alone indulge their natural curiosity and imagination.

The hustle of our high-tech world is having consequences on the mental health and well-being of our youth, and a growing movement in psychology and education aims to tap into the ancient art of mindfulness meditation to help children relax and find inner peace.

The 2010 Stress in America report conducted by the American Psychological Association found one in five children worry "a lot" or a "great deal" about things in their lives. As a way to combat findings like these, experts are encouraging parents to share meditation with their children at home – and teachers to incorporate mindfulness training into their lesson plans.

While meditation refers to a broad variety of practices, its simplest form uses the act of sitting quietly, closing the eyes and focusing on the breath in order to quiet the mind and encourage reflection. The goal is to give children a tool to help them harness the power of their minds, which can have a variety of wide-reaching benefits.

A universal practice

Meditation can be found at the core of almost every spiritual practice, and is often associated with Buddhism. But according to Tomy George Myladoor, who teaches children's courses through the Michigan Vipassana Association, meditation has nothing to do with rites or religion.

"It is an art of living," George Myladoor says. Every summer, the MVA hosts a meditation course for kids ages 8-16 years old. The free, one-to-two day workshop includes 30-40 minutes of Anapana meditation instruction and practice, followed by cooperative games, crafts and activities. Students are encouraged to continue their practice five to 10 minutes a day at home.

George says attendees have reported using the meditation techniques to focus before sports meets or music recitals, calm down before exams, or get through difficult situations at home, like divorce. George says one young girl wrote to report that meditation helped her deal with her mother's death.

The MVA credits meditation with calming the mind, leading to less anger, fear, frustration and stress – and more peace and happiness.

Anecdotal evidence aside, studies have shown meditative training has measurable benefits in kids. One randomized controlled trial conducted by Dr. Maria Napoli and published in the Journal of Applied School Psychology showed first, second and third graders who participated in a mindfulness and relaxation program for 12 weeks showed significant increases in attention and social skills and drops in test anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder behaviors.

Meditation in motion

There's no doubt sitting still for any length of time can be difficult for kids, so yoga, which blends movement and breath, can serve as a good introduction to meditation.

Michelle Hagerman, a certified Itsy Bitsy Yoga teacher from Bloomfield Hills, says even very young children can be taught the fundamentals of meditation in "a roundabout way." Itsy Bitsy Yoga offers poses, songs and developmental activities for babies, toddlers and preschool-aged children. The practice uses silly names for traditional yoga postures along with visualization techniques designed to make yoga fun.

Hagerman helps children get in touch with their breath by asking them to pretend to smell flowers, blow out candles or fill their bellies like balloons. Older children may lie down and visualize a favorite calm place or a "worry tree" where they can take their troubles.

"We live in an incredibly busy world. There's so much stimulation going on. If children have the opportunity where they can learn to sit still, it's very helpful," says Hagerman, a mother of two.

Hagerman says she has seen firsthand how mindfulness meditation can lead to less stress and impulsivity in children as well as greater gratitude and self-control. She feels it's never too early to get children on the sticky mat – and teaches "Baby and Me" yoga classes every Tuesday morning at Namaste Yoga in Royal Oak.

There, moms get the chance to relax, recharge and connect with their infants in a mindful way.

"Children learn by observation," Hagerman says. "So if your parent can't settle down, why should you?"

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