child practicing meditation sitting on the sofa at home in lotus pose

How Can Mindfulness Help Young Children?

By Monica Moore Jackman, OTD, MHS, OTR/L, author of Mindfulness for Preschool and Kindergarten

A few weeks ago, my fellow school-based therapists and I were setting up our therapy room for the new school year. As we looked around to find the ideal space to create a calming corner for children who are struggling with self-regulation, big emotions, and overwhelm to de-escalate, feel safe and engage in problem solving, we quickly noticed that the most practical area for this calming corner had already been designated as the “hard corner.” A hard corner is an area that is and intended for use during an active shooter event, a lockdown or a code red drill. Even when classroom real estate is finite, the hard corner is to be kept clear at all times in the event of an emergency.

The next logical spot directly faced the hard corner. As I sat there, the starkness of the hard corner with its jarring red tape hit me with just how heavy the weight of the persistent and potential threat of harm due to outside violence, bullying, or punishment for actions out of their control, is for our kids. The increased hypervigilance and practice drills can impact both kids and teachers, especially those with a history of trauma and violence, with anxiety and sensory processing differences, and serve as a barrier to the learning and teaching of skills that will prevent all of this from continuing to happen.

Young children in our world face inevitable challenges, including adverse childhood experiences (ACE), social disconnection, systemic discrimination, and ongoing threats of human violence and natural disasters. Over recent years, the rise in school shootings and race-based violence has added yet another challenge for teachers, parents and therapists tasked with providing safe and nurturing learning environments.

While drills and practices like having a “hard corner” are short-term safety measures, our current epidemic of violence, punishment instead of teaching, and polarized thinking with extreme opposition to others who think differently, requires a more long-term solution. It calls for a massive change to put our efforts into helping young children build the skills that they need to prevent these harmful patterns from continually occurring in the future. It calls for not only helping kids to navigate these difficult current times, but also for a transformation of our educational culture to elevate it from a place that mimics the world around it to a place of acceptance, discovery and pro-social interaction that sets a new bar and models what is possible.

As educators, therapists, and caregivers, we can be a catalyst for change, creating peaceful, safe and nurturing environments for the children we serve.

One powerful way to change the world is to start by fostering and supporting love, kindness, compassion, acceptance, responsibility, presence, and resilience in its youngest citizens. By teaching children to exhibit and practice these characteristics at a very young age, when they are experiencing an explosion of development, they will have a strong pro-social foundation on which to build the rest of their lives. An evidence-based and practical way to create such a shift is through the practice of mindfulness.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the practice of being attentive to and aware of life’s present-moment events and our experiences of them as they come and go, without trying to hold on to, run away from, or control them.

Instead of struggling to constantly get our way, mindfulness is about showing up for all the possibilities that may come our way. Mindfulness requires the ability to notice both what is happening and how we are reacting to what is happening, while simultaneously considering the effects of our actions on others. While many people associate mindfulness with seated, quiet meditation, it actually extends into our daily lives.

For example, you probably would have never linked mindfulness to balancing in a rowboat, right? But imagine for a moment you are trying to balance standing up in a rowboat in the middle of a stormy sea. What are some of the first thoughts that pop in your head? Maybe a sense of urgency, fear, uneasiness all while your heart is racing and your arms flailing about.

Now look at this same scenario through the lense of mindfulness. You’ll center on awareness of your body and muscles, awareness of the size of the waves coming, awareness of your footing on the slippery floor, awareness of the force of the winds, awareness of your own fear, and even awareness of when to take cover, lie down, and hold tight if you see a large wave or shark approaching. While this is an extreme example, mindfulness in daily life involves awareness of just as many factors; it requires us to see both the individual trees and the forest simultaneously. Mindfulness cannot prevent sharks or big storms from coming, but it can equip us with the equanimity to steady ourselves and the resilience to recover and grow from them.

To take mindfulness a step further, we can examine the definition of “right” mindfulness, or mindfulness with a moral, humanist, and ethical intention. Practicing “right” mindfulness means being able to focus on and attend to one thing while maintaining awareness of stimuli around us and within us, being ready to shift our focus as needed, and being able to do all of this while maintaining openhearted and positive intentions for others. For example, if you are walking while carrying a hot cup of coffee across your brand-new, light-colored rug, you are likely to be focused on not spilling the coffee on the rug, but you must also be aware of your speed, the movement of your hand, the level of the coffee, your own worry about how clumsy you are, and any obstacles to avoid on the rug itself. However, if your new puppy suddenly darts toward your feet, your focus will probably shift from not spilling coffee on your new rug to not burning your puppy, while maintaining awareness of your own balance, your feeling of regret about buying a new rug, and adopting a new puppy at the same time, and so on.

So Why Teach Mindfulness to Young Children?

Mindfulness in daily life means being able to observe the world with an open heart and sense of discovery, without an assumption of predetermined knowledge and understanding. Having an aware, open, non-judgmental mind is essential to all forms of learning and social interaction.

Mindfulness is about observing the world with curiosity, and children often embody inquisitiveness, because they are so often experiencing events and sensations for the first time. As children grow older, they develop premature cognitive commitments to people, concepts, and occurrences and can form biases regarding the events and sensations that they notice, evaluate, and subsequently avoid or approach. They often become less tolerant and more set in their ways.

Given that it is a natural human tendency to pursue self-preservation, self-gratification, and to compete in society, children may encounter difficulty regulating and controlling their reactions in a mindful way.

Teaching mindfulness, through play and experiential activities, through explicit lessons, and most importantly, by modeling mindfulness can be a beneficial means to create peaceful, safe and nurturing environments for kids for many reasons:

1. By nature, children have a beginner’s mind and sense of openhearted discovery that provide fertile and receptive soil for planting seeds of mindfulness, learning and prosocial actions.

2. Growing and cultivating mindfulness at a young age supports the development of crucial social-emotional skills and resilience.

3. When we embody mindfulness, we can model prosocial actions for children and notice their needs and strengths more clearly and efficiently.

4. If we can see, with an open mind, children who are struggling, we can look at disruptive and aggressive behaviors in a new light, as signals that alert us to what skills they need to learn, as opposed to what punishments they should receive.

5. When children embody “right” mindfulness, they model this way of being for others, effect change in the atmosphere of their culture, more intuitively engage in prosocial actions, and in doing so act to make the world better, through powerful downstream effects.

Monica Moore Jackman, OTD, MHS, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist, and owner of Little Lotus Therapy. She has a doctorate in occupational therapy from Chatham University, and undergraduate and master of health sciences degrees from the University of Florida. Monica has authored book chapters and research papers on mindful engagement, the mindful engagement support model, and mindfulness interventions; and has developed and implemented mindfulness-based training programs for adults, caregivers, preschoolers, and school-age children. As an occupational therapist, she is dedicated to making mindfulness-based interventions inclusive and accessible to all learners, and supporting people to experience meaning, connection, and engagement in life. She has presented nationally and internationally on mindfulness-based programs and interventions. She has practiced for over twenty years in a variety of clinical settings, and served as an expert consultant to the Department of Justice for cases under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. Finally, she is a mother of four who uses these practices with her own family. You can find her on Instagram at openmindwithdrmonica.

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