Mindfulness techniques and strategies are fun and easy to teach to children. They are often simple to do (some requiring only one or two steps). Children immediately experience the physical and emotional changes that take place in the brain and the body, which is positively reinforcing and motivating for children to want to continue to use them. Mindfulness techniques that incorporate movement of the body are especially exciting for children, and they strengthen the brain-body connection. In Part 1 of our Mindfulness series, highlights how mindfulness improves executive functioning in children. This blog will give you specific mindfulness strategies for your child, along with some explanation as to what each technique is all about.
What is mindful breathing?
Mindful breathing is one of the easiest things to teach children. Since it focuses on paying attention to your body, it can be done anywhere. To practice mindful breathing, focus on the inhale and exhale of breath. Tell children to think about the big breaths they take a the doctor’s office. It’s the same thing but slower.
Mindful breathing is about noticing how you are breathing, which is different than controlling or changing how you are actually doing it. When you begin to pay attention to your breath, the body has the capacity to automatically settle into a more gentle and slower pace of breathing.
For children of all ages, one way to teach mindful breathing is to have them bring awareness to a part of the body that is actively involved in breathing normally, such as their nostrils, or their abdomen. This is called finding an “anchor” for breathing. The Mindful Schools curriculum explains that “breath is an anchor for the mind”. Focusing in on a specific body part during breathing increases children’s ability to stay with the strategy. If their mind wanders or drifts, they can learn to bring attention back to their “anchor”.
Some simple techniques for younger children might be to say, “breathe in the flowers, blow out the candles.” Another good practice is to take exaggerated breaths. Tell children to breathe in for a count of 3, hold their breath for a count of 2, and exhale for a count of 4. The counting gives the children something specific to focus on. To add a visual, place a stuffed animal on the child’s belly while he or she is lying down, and ask the child to take a deep breath and make the stuffed animal go as high as it can, then as low as it can when breathing out.
Focusing on breath forces the mind to be in the moment. Results are felt immediately due to the physiological changes that happen in the body as you breathe mindfully. Heart rate and breath rate stabilize, and the nervous system is reset. As a result of the immediate effect of calm and relaxation, children realize that they actually have control over how intensely they experience their emotions.
Having children focus on their breathing can help them bring their attention to their bodies while grounding themselves.
What is mindful listening?
Mindful listening is the act of focusing on everything happening around your body. Mindful listening can be done in a variety of ways. The strategy used is often based on the individual child.
Sometimes, it’s best to have a child focus on a specific sound, such as a singing bowl or bell chime app. However, in public this isn’t always an option. Sometimes, you can ask a child to focus on the sounds around them and give you five specific noises they hear. You can also ask children to focus on the sounds that exist in what appears to be a silent room or offer them specific sounds and ask them to identify the sounds.
As with mindful breathing, mindful listening requires the child to focus on the moment. Being present means being aware of their surroundings. When children with executive functioning problems get overwhelmed by their environment, having them focus on a specific aspect of their surroundings helps their central nervous system calm down. Many kids are sensitive to and overwhelmed by sound, so calming the brain and reducing stress is important.
For children of all ages (even adults!) who are beginning to practice mindful listening, something like a singing (or Tibetan) bowl can be used as follows: hit the rim of the bowl to produce its tone, then ask for your child to listen with a quiet and still body. Then, ask them to raise a hand to indicate when they can no longer hear the sound.
What is a mindful body scan?
A mindful body scan is the process of focusing on each part of the body by moving from smallest to largest. The process can be as short as three minutes or as long as thirty minutes. For children who have a lot of kinetic energy and feel they can’t control their bodies, mindful body scan practice offers them a way to get in touch with their physicality.
Teaching this to children involves having them be still. Although some meditations suggest lying down, it’s also possible to do it while sitting or standing. You want to ask the child to practice focusing on different body parts in a sequence. Ask the child to focus on what their pinky toe feels like. Is it warm? Cold? Is it touching a sock? What about the rest of the foot? Next move on to the other foot. From here, you move up the leg, torso, arms, fingers, neck, eyes, face, and head. Then you can ask the child to focus on the whole body. You can do this from the head down or toes up.
Many children with executive functioning issues find that when they get physically wound up or have sensory issues so they cannot self regulate their bodies well. Practicing mindful body scans can help these children learn how to slow down and pay attention to the different areas over which they want to exert more control.
For example, if a child gets overstimulated playing tag, it can lead to them becoming too physical. If the child is used to practicing mindful body scans, they can be guided away from the situation to work through their body scan. This can help the child recognize how their hands, feet, arms, and legs feel when they are overstimulated. As they get older, they will be able to recognize the situations themselves and practice this on their own.
By teaching the child to ground their body, you are having them focus on the sensory stimulation as well as their ability to control these individual parts.
What is mindful movement?
Mindful movement, quite simply, refers to any type of movement or exercise that is done with awareness. You probably remember back to your childhood when you were curious about your environment. Perhaps you recall hiking down a favorite walking path, climbing a tree, or balancing on slippery rocks next to a stream. As children, people naturally engage in mindful movement by participating in these types of activities.
When stress levels go up, and worrisome or anxious thoughts and feelings increase, people use a lot of cognitive energy and forget to connect with their bodies. When people disconnect from their bodies, they may miss important signals that they are on overload. Practicing mindful movement decreases the intensity of anxiety and other negative feelings because it engages different areas of the brain. This, in turn, calms down the limbic system in the brain, where the amygdala, or “fire alarm” is housed.
Why use mindful walking with children?
Mindful walking is a type of body scan. This strategy involves having a child focus on his or her feet. Simply ask the child to pick up one foot, move it forward slowly, and then invite the child to feel his or her heel hitting the floor or ground, then the toes. The child repeats this with the other foot.
As the child is taking steps, encourage them to continue to focus on the feet and legs. You also want to invite curiosity from the child as to what he or she may be noticing in other parts of the body as they mindfully walk. There is no “right” or expected response; all responses are valid.
Mindful walking can be done anywhere – at home, outside, even at school if a child can take a movement break to the water fountain. The hyperactive child needs to specifically focus on slowing the movements down as much as possible. Depending on the child, this may need to be done incrementally so that they are comfortable with moving at a slower pace. A child may begin to think of other things during mindful walking. This is normal. Encourage the child to notice that he or she is having a thought and gently prompt the child to focus back to the feet.
Mindfulness techniques and strategies are wonderful to do together as a family, especially when you are starting out. Practicing these strategies with your child also affords you benefits of being mindful, such as a calm, relaxed feeling, and a more present state of mind and body.
Remember that there is no perfect, or textbook, way to practice the skills; children are often able to modify some of the strategies in a way that feels more effective for them. Go with the flow, and encourage their creativity and sense of intuition. No matter what mindfulness technique you try out with your child, you will be certain that they will enjoy it!
Looking for support for your unfocused child with ADHD or executive functioning challenges, then register for Dr, Roseann's FREE webinar, 5 Ways to Boost Your Child’s Executive Functioning and Attention at School, where Dr. Roseann will show you how to help your child or teen be more alert, listen, develop skills to be independent and self-sufficient and improve task completion.
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