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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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Heart connection

Parental participation in mindfulness meditation is key, according to Donna Rockwell, a psychologist with a private practice in Farmington Hills and New York.

"Children are under an extraordinary amount of stress these days, and a lot of it is because parents are under a lot of stress," she says. "A lot of times when we're with our children, we're not present to them."

In fact, the 2010 Stress in America study found a correlation between the stress levels of parents and their children. The report noted that 91 percent of children said they know when their parent is stressed, and it makes them feel sad and worried. Yet it also found parents don't fully realize the impact their own stress is having on their children, with 69 percent reporting that their stress has only a slight impact or none at all.

Rockwell prescribes a variety of mindfulness activities to help parents slow down and be present with their children, and meditation is one of them.

"The more we're actually present with our child heart-to-heart, mind-to-mind, the more the child will learn and be present with themselves," she says.

The mindful classroom

Some people are put off by the term "meditation," Rockwell acknowledges, so modern psychologists tend to use words like "focus," "quiet time" or retreating into a "small quiet space." And everyone has heard the advice to take "10 deep breaths" to calm escalating emotions. Whatever you want to call it, some experts are increasingly recommending mindfulness practices be integrated into K-12 classrooms.

"We ask students to 'pay attention' dozens of times a day, yet we never teach them how," writes Dr. Amy Saltzman, a holistic physician who offered a teachers' guide to mindfulness as part of a PBS special. She says teachers and students who practice mindfulness techniques in the classroom can benefit not only through reduced stress, but also increased memory and a variety of pro-social behaviors like compassion and clarity.

One study she conducted in collaboration with the Department of Psychology at Stanford University with fourth-seventh graders and their parents – participating in one hour of mindfulness training for eight consecutive weeks – resulted in a measurable increase in the students' ability to orient their attention, in addition to decreased anxiety.

A well-known movie star is also promoting the mindfulness education mix.

Actress Goldie Hawn founded the Hawn Foundation to develop the MindUP program for classrooms, a 15-lesson curriculum designed to reduce stress through focused breathing, attention, relaxation and awareness. It also includes lessons on neuroscience to help children understand their own brains.

The program has had many positive results, including improved well-being: 78 percent of participating students said MindUP helped them to be more relaxed.

Natural state

In the end, children are naturally mindful of the world.

Unlike adults they rarely rush – and have little regret for the past or worry for the future. They live in the moment and, due to their proximity to the earth, notice every pebble, leaf and insect in their path.

But maintaining and harnessing that mindfulness takes practice, and meditation can be one path on the journey.

"All that meditation is in a mindfulness context to train the mind to come back from dispersive thinking to the present moment," Rockwell says. "The instruction is if you find that you're anxious or uptight, come back to the out breath and let go of angst, depression and worries."

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