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.
A 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?”
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.
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.”
Photo by Lauren Jeziorski