Mindfulness in early childhood settings

Published on Tuesday, 15 October 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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Mindfulness is a growing area of interest in the early childhood sector and is promoted as a way to reduce stress and anxiety and to improve mental health and wellbeing. A recent article on Kidsmatter highlights some of the special benefits of mindfulness training for children:

  • Research shows that mindfulness training increases connectivity in the frontal lobe of the brain, which is linked to improved attention, memory processing and decision making abilities.
  • Mindfulness training involves tuning in to internal and external experiences with curiosity resulting in increased self-awareness, social awareness, and self-confidence.
  • Mindfulness training increases children's ability to self-regulate their emotions, especially difficult emotions such as fear and anger, through breathing and other grounding techniques.
  • Mindfulness has been shown to improve empathy or the ability to understand what another person is thinking or feeling, which improves children's awareness of others and helps them to build positive relationships.

The good thing about mindfulness practice is that it is simple and easy to incorporate in daily life. We interviewed Grant Rix Training and Programmes Director at the Mindfulness Education Group to learn more about mindfulness, the evidence to support it and how early childhood educators can incorporate mindfulness into their daily routine.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness has two core aspects – noticing what is happening now with kindness and curiosity. Noticing involves fostering attention, regulation skills and learning strategies to anchor us in the present. Using kindness and interest moderates how we are paying attention. The aim of mindfulness is to cultivate the qualities of curiosity, openness, acceptance and love at the same time as we are learning to better regulate our ability to focus. Mindfulness can help us be calmer and more present in our lives. It is a wellbeing strategy that can change the way we interact with ourselves and the world.

Is there an evidence base to support mindfulness practice? Does mindfulness have an impact on learning and engagement?

There is a great deal of evidence that supports the effectiveness of mindfulness both internationally and from New Zealand. We have research from the Pause, Breathe, Smile (PBS) programme for schools. Results show that the children taught using the Pause, Breathe, Smile programme show improvements in focus and attention for better learning outcomes. Children are calmer and experience an overall increase in wellbeing. Their self-awareness is enhanced and they demonstrate pro-social behaviours. Another really critical element was that the evidence showed a decrease in teacher stress.

Is mindfulness practice different for children compared with adults?

At the Mindfulness Education Group we adapt practices for the audience so that the principles are understood and the students are engaged. Pause, Breathe, Smile is taught right through from early childhood to high school level and we have guided mindfulness sessions that are tailored to suit the age group. Pause, Breathe, Smile for early childhood education has a lot more of a play-based learning approach than the traditional primary school training. We have developed a range of play-based activities and new resources tailored for this younger audience.

How is mindfulness beneficial for children?

Mindfulness is beneficial for children and adults alike. It helps us all deal better with everyday stresses. It helps us respond to events rather than reacting impulsively and it helps reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. With children one of the biggest benefits is helping them to regulate their emotions.

On the whole, children get mindfulness a bit quicker than adults. And is important that they do. We have parents and teachers asking children to pay attention. If you're not actually taught how to pay attention then it can be a challenge to do so.

What does mindfulness practice look like among children?

In our programme we teach children eight core mindfulness practices. We teach mindful breathing, mindful movements and their usual all time favourite; mindful eating. The other practices we teach is emotional literacy, kindness, gratitude and resilience. These are all delivered under the Maori wellbeing / haoura model: Te Whare Tapa Wha.

Children take these skills and practice them while working through the Pause, Breathe, Smile lessons that cover three main areas:

  • Strengthening attention, curiosity and fostering interoceptive awareness
  • Emotion regulation and identifying unhelpful thinking
  • Relationships, connection and kindness

Do children have the patience for mindfulness practice?

We aren't asking children to do anything that the find they difficult. Each child can join in at their own time and pace. Practices are short and the teacher is trained to build on these skills over time and at pace with their students.

One of our Pause, Breathe, Smile schools sent us this feedback from a five year old, we think it's a wonderful observation from such a young child.

"It's fun because you see other things in your body and you get all the mean stuff away and then your body settles down and you don't get scared. When you settle down it means your body is calming down and you can think clearly and make good decisions".

Does mindfulness have an impact on learning and engagement?

Absolutely. There's a lot of international evidence on that. Here we heard from a Principal that when her children did a basic facts test after a mindful breathing session, 75 per cent of them got their best score ever.

When a child is able to focus and calm themselves, they are giving themselves much more of an opportunity for doing their best at a given task. It's an essential skill base that can benefit for a lifetime.

Do preschool aged children like practicing mindfulness?

I've shared some quotes directly from children we've heard back from (these are primary as we've only just launched the Pause, Breathe, Smile program for early childhood education).

"It's relaxing. Afterwards I felt confident and energised", year three student.

"When I close my eyes I feel calm. It feels calm and good when I've had a hard day", year five student

"Pause, Breathe, Smile helps me to relax. It's really fun because you get to do different breathing and its good for you because if you're really angry and sad it helps you to calm down.", 5 and 6 year olds

"It helps you when you can't do something, but then you think in your head that you can, and then you keep trying over and over again, and then you can do it and you don't need any help", 5 and 6 Yr olds.

10 beautiful books that celebrate the benefits of mindfulness

by Lemniscates

Beautifully illustrated and written Silence encourages children to stop, listen and reflect on their experiences in the world around them. Using practices from mindfulness, readers are invited to pay attention to the sounds that may otherwise be drowned out and use those sounds as a tool for developing imagination and curiosity.

Anh's Anger
by Gail Silver

When Anh gets angry with his granddad after being called to dinner before he has finished playing, his granddad helps him experience all stages of anger by suggesting he go to his room and 'sit with his anger'. This reflection time helps Anh acknowledge, process and deal with his anger.

Visiting Feelings
by Lauren Rubenstein

This book encourages children to sense, explore and befriend their feelings with acceptance and calmness. With beautiful pictures and words this book helps children explore the full range of their emotions and nurture a sense of mindfulness.

A Handful of Quiet - Happiness in Four Pebbles
by Thich Nhat Hanh

Pebble meditation is a fun and simple activity that educators can do with children to introduce them to the basic concepts of meditation. The activity described in this book is hands-on and creative and can help children cope with stress, increase concentration and teach children how to be grateful.

Peaceful Piggy Meditation
by Kerry Lee MacLean

Sometimes life seems like it's all about hurrying--so many places to go and so many people to see and sometimes it's hard when things don't go your way--it can make a piggy angry and sad. So how do young piggies find a peaceful place in a frustrating world? They meditate!

What Does it Mean to be Present?
by Rana DiOrio

Being present means…Noticing when someone needs help, waiting patiently for your turn and focusing on what's happening now. This book follows a group of friends at school, at home, and at the beach as they experience just what it means to be present.

Meditation is an Open Sky
by Whitney Stewart

This book teaches mindfulness meditation for kids using simple exercises to help them better manage stress and other challenging feelings. Using colourful drawings and simple language children can learn how to feel safe when they are scared, relax when they are anxious and calm when they are angry.

Good Morning Yoga
by Mariam Gates

This beautifully illustrated book, best read at the start of the day, helps children learn how to focus, relax, and self-monitor and self-soothe through simple yoga poses. This book will help children feel joy and excitement as they embark on a day of adventures and play based learning.

Mindful Monkey, Playful Panda
by Lauren Alderfer

At the start of this story Monkey is not so mindful, but he encounters a mysterious and playful friend in Peaceful Panda. Panda helps Monkey recognise the joy of doing things in the moment, without distraction, and with a peaceful and happy mind.

To learn more about the Pause, Breathe, Smile program for early childhood email october@mindfulnesseducation.nz

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