Can Children Learn to Be Mindful?

There have been countless studies on mindfulness with adults, but what about children?

Is mindfulness for young kids and adolescents? If so, how do we introduce it and what are some effective ways of teaching it?

A literature review about using mindfulness with children, published in Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry by Miles Thompson, DClinPsy and Jeremy Gauntlett-Gilbert, PhD, DClinPsy from the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases in Bath, England looked at these questions and pointed out useful ways to incorporate mindfulness into practice with young people.

Dr. Thompson and Dr. Gauntlett-Gilbert had some helpful suggestions for tweaking common techniques to make introducing mindfulness a bit more child-friendly.

They found that unlike adults, children and teens need more of a reason “why” before getting started.

A way to explain the value of mindfulness practice is to give some examples of undesirable “mindless” situations. Mia Hamm You might ask a child if they’ve ever eaten a meal without remembering what they ate, or gotten involved in an argument without remembering what originally made them angry. Most young people have experienced something like this before.

But then why practice mindfulness techniques? Dr. Thompson and Dr. Gauntlett-Gilbert use a powerful analogy. We practice mindfulness for the same reason an athlete practices a penalty shot: when the game is on, the player has a better chance of making the goal with the crowd watching, when it really counts.

When a young person understands “why,” the next question becomes “how?”

Dr. Thompson and Dr. Gauntlett-Gilbert emphasize the importance of practices that are both varied (to stave off boredom) and well-integrated into a young person’s daily activities.

For example, you might suggest mindful eating, mindful walking, or – my favorite – mindful texting.

Here, adolescents were encouraged to build in a “pause” before grabbing their cell phone at the sound of a text. This means taking a few moments to observe the thoughts and desires that pass through the mind when receiving a text message. Cell Phone Through this mindful pause, the young person rewires their habitual reaction and gains the chance to consider their response mindfully (as opposed to quickly and automatically replying to the message).

One final analogy that really gets to the heart of the matter − when introducing mindfulness to a patient of any age, having a personal mindfulness practice is essential.

As Dr. Thompson and Dr. Gauntlett-Gilbert put it – if you want to learn how to swim, would you go to the person who’s read all the books on swimming, or the person who’s actually been in the water?

With that in mind, I have something I’d like to share with you. We’ve recently put out a free report on mindfulness with anxiety by Ron Siegel, PsyD.

In it, Ron gives you the low down on why we tend to be mindless, the physiology of anxiety, and even includes a special practice designed to help your patients overcome their anxiety.

You can get that free report by clicking here.

And remember, you can use many of the tips in this blog with your adult patients, too.

Have you ever used mindfulness practices with children or adolescents? Please let us know by leaving a comment below.

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31 Comments

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  3. jan grigg says:

    Hi-thanks for the tips. I teach mindfulness to my pupils at school-aged 12-18. I teach about 180 pupils to doa mindfulness practices for 7 minutes once a week before biology lessons start. Just done some research and so far very promising results-vast majority love doing it, feel calmer, pay attention more ect. Love to chat more.

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  7. Amy Hanson says:

    I have had a personal practice of mindfulness for many years and read extensively to try and get a deeper understanding of what I need to do to become more mindful. In 1998 I gave birth to a baby girl. Her teachings in mindfulness were the most profound of any teacher I have studied with or read. Children, before they are conditioned by society, have an innate ability to be in the moment and if we observe from a student’s eyes their perspective, we can learn a trmendous amount. As my three year old walked through the forest she sang a song…”I am walking on this trail, my feet are on the ground. I feel the soft grass and here is a stone. I pick up the stone and it is sooooo smooth.”
    It is up to us as parents to nuture this seed of being in the present moment from the birth so they may honour and carry this natural way of being throughout their lives.

  8. Deborah says:

    I’ve been very much enjoying the articles and webinars on this site. However I have to say I find it frustrating that many of the links for reports or videos are no longer functional.

  9. Neta Kirby says:

    I work as a teacher of 4-6 year olds prior to going to school. It is so important to give children the opportunity to take ‘the time’ My children and many of them over the years have had wonderful experiences of floating and exploring their bodies when on ‘magic carpets’ and in a wonderful air bubble that takes them gently… generally under the sea. Thank you for all your comments and links I am sure I/we will benefit from all of this.

    As a therapist there are certainly times that mindfullness techniques can be used. eg with teenagers who are victims of cyber bullying!

  10. Lynn Rosen says:

    Those of you who are interested in additional visual materials might want to connect with the Children Focusing community. Rene Veugelers in Holland and Atsmaout Perlestein in Israel have each developed a simple and deeply affecting visual/tactile approach.
    “Rene Veugelers”
    “Atsmaout Perlstein”

    Of course, I also use these materials with adults.

  11. I have found that using mindfulness practices with stressed and anxious teens has been a rich and empowering experience. How I present it makes a huge difference; as a helpful skill, but let them see for themselves what it feels like. By slowly integrating the practice into our work, teens take to it. Using basic sensory awareness is a great place to start, especially with music.

    One place to learn about using mindfulness is with Mindful Schools. They are a terrific organization that works in schools to teach mindfulness to children as well as offering trainings to teachers and mental health professionals. If you go to see Megan’s post above you can follow her link.

  12. Lori Nichols says:

    I tell kids that enjoyment is a skill and we all have to practice so that we don’t forget how to enjoy things. Especially children with ADHD need a little extra time to let experience soak in. I also assign them to set their phone alarm and then really pay attention to see what they can learn about themselves.

  13. As a high school teacher for more than twenty years I started all my classes with a two to three minute meditation (sometimes guided, sometimes silent), The students loved it and complained if I did not do it.
    I have also taught Qigong to numerous groups of teachers and counselors/therapists both for themselves and for use with their students or clients.
    Because Qigong involves slow REPETITIVE MOVEMENTS with focused breathing and focused mind, most find that it is the easiest way to slip into a meditative state. (Because the body is busy, the mind is free to settle and still). From 1st grade through high school seniors, teachers report that their students love doing it because it is easy and relaxing but also ENERGIZING — important in our sleep-deprived society. (The movements can easily be done seated or standing beside their desks)
    Qigong is much easier to learn than its newer martial arts offspring Tai Chi. I highly recommend it, both for adults and for children and adolescents.

    • jan grigg says:

      Great- am in tune wioth what you do-could you share some of the movements you do as sitting doesnt suit all classes….?

  14. I have used adaptations of Moshe Feldenkrais’ Awareness Through Movement lessons with elementary students and middle school students for several years with wonderful results, especially with students traditionally considered hyper-kinetic. After several sessions, ‘going inside’ seems to be a relief, focusing on their own sensations, moving in new ways, exploring, especially with a mini-skeleton used to vary the learning, how to shift attention from self to environment – orientation- life skills.

    
”There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to
 deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the
 culmination of wisdom and awakening. And what is that one thing? It is 
mindfulness centered on the body.”
    Gautama Buddha


  15. Megan says:

    If you are interested in the mindfulness in education movement, please visit mindfulschools.org. Also, Jon Kabat-Zinn is speaking on The Role of Mindfulness in Education on February 17th. http://www.mindfulschools.org/home/jkz-benefit/
    Mindful Schools has trained 14,000 students in 53 schools in mindfulness techniques.

  16. ZOHREH says:

    I have been using Mindful Meditation techniques with young children based on their developmental stage growth. One of the methods i use is, “to imagine smeling a flower” (breathing in) and “blowing out a candle” (breathing out). It has worked thus far. Consistency is the key.

    • Connie JK says:

      I especially love this example because it gives a lovely image and action for the child to relate to. What ages have you used the flower smelling techinique with?
      Thanks,
      Connie

  17. Kathi Turner says:

    Children do what they see. If a parent learns mindfulness and practices it, the children see the behavior and the result. If the parent is a good communicator, the “why” can be shared as a way to introduce the concept and practice to the child. I find it easier to get children involved in nature, looking for the hidden wonders, as a way to slow down and be mindful, especially if they learn to be respectful of what they witness. Mindfulness in social interactions is just a step away, slowing down long enough to find little hidden wonders in everyday life and about people. It is a mindset and skill, in incorportated and practiced, that can be invaluable as they grow older. If they use and appreciate it, another generation of children will be exposed to mindfulness, and the story goes on.

  18. Shelley says:

    Though Mindfulness is a very important practice, I’m sorry to say that I feel the examples given here are not relevant enough to motivate the great majority of children and adolescents who need this type of inner resource.
    Kids need powerful personal reasons to employ behaviors very different than their habitual ones, such as what Katherine explains as a motivator for her daughter, the experience of having been bullied.

  19. Katherine says:

    I find that children are all different and it depends upon the individual. I think that children who are attuned to a more holistic lifestyle are more amenable to mindfulness as an experience to practice on a regular basis. I think that children also obtain the experience dependent on the experience that they are exposed to at home. I am a registered nurse and have had some mindfulness training in my profession. My daughter has experienced some of these meditations that I have done and she now does them independently from me. She has downloaded it onto her Ipod so that she can resort to it at any time that she feels that she needs to use it. She was a victim of bullying and having some of these skills helped her through some of these painful experiences that her school failed to help her with. My daughter no longer attends that school and has obtained some of the resources that she needed to get throuh this experience.

  20. prasad says:

    i just want to express the idea that our forefathers were mindful with out being told to be mind ful (look at some of the plder movies ) it is only the bloomers have forgotten that style of communication and life style .it is not some thing new but some thing forgotton .

  21. Linda Sheehan says:

    Visuals are VERY important. I will often draw a stick figure and identify that as the child. Then,in the brain area I put scribble scrabble to show the knots we get in. Then, draw
    a point outside the body and say “pretend you are here, outside yourself, watching like a camera-what would you see?/hear?” In the Social Thinking curriculum it is actually advised to, with permission of parents, use a camera so the child can actually see themselves and increase their awareness. However, as the curriculum points out, if the child has a serious delay/disability that may not help as they see whatever they are doing as fine.

    Does anyone have suggestions for some visuals that would draw them in the body rather than OUT?? I do use a small brain (from ST) and a small heart-both squeeze balls and they are very helpful daily. Any more ideas???

  22. Barbara Belton says:

    Thankyou so much for this addl piece, Ruth. I shared the first and will share this with our young parent relatives/friends, teachers, therapists, et al as well as our local child advocacy center.
    Loved each of the pause ideas! One of the ‘blessings’ of being hearing impaired (lifelong) is that my ha’s have a very quiet and short tone at the beginning of each hour which has become my reminder to do that lovely pause and secret breathing.
    Thanks too to you and Dr. S for the piece on mindfulness and anxiety. Have passed it along as well with my own note to those who know my hx and dx of pts…wish we had known this when I was 20 and so grateful we know it now! For the first time, I understand my lifelong ‘worrywart’ state in a whole new way and without feeling like a failure. What a blessing to be able to share this healing info and practice with the young ones!

  23. Mitzi Gadway says:

    I have received training in a program called ‘”Yoga Calm” presented by Lynea & Jim Gillen. It teaches mindfulness through really child-friendly fun activities as well as yoga poses. They also use the Hoberman Sphere to teach mindful breathing. It is an amazing program & the kids love it! Check out their website at http://www.yogacalm.org . I believe they also have a video to watch. I have used this program with individual children as well as groups. I have implemented it in schools as a school counselor & now I use it in a children’s treatment center. Check it out!

  24. Gisèle Cyr says:

    Hi,

    Interesting to have ideas on how to teach mindfulness to young people.
    The example offered by Richard above comment, ‘using the pause braclet, reminding the child to pause and use “secret breathing”’ reminds me of a tradition we had in my religious congregation, the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa.The clock rang at every hour. We were encourage to stop when we heard the sound at each hour, and to remember the presence of God in our heart. It brought awareness of God’s presence and to work in communion with Him and to build this relationship important in every Christian life.

  25. Laurie says:

    I have used a mindful eating technique with my own kids and have also recommended it to parents with whom I’ve worked. I guide through mindfully eating a tangerine using all of their senses. It has really slowed them down from whatever was going on and generally they want to do it again!

  26. At Growing Sound, a subsidiary of Children, Inc., we produce children’s music to facilitate social and emotional development. A recent CD, “Here Now Know-How: Songs of Mindfulness” uses music to teach mindfulness practice even to young children. You can listen to a preview of the songs at http://www.growing-sound.com. We are interested in hearing from anyone interested in mindfulness practice in education.

  27. Richard says:

    One of the most effective ways I have found of introducing mindfulness to kids is by use of the pause braclet. They can be ordered from Meaning to Pause and fitted to the correct wrist size of each child. There is a slight vibration every 60 or 90 minutes reminding the child to pause and use “secret breathing” techniques I have taught them. It looks like any other braclet and makes no sound. Kids I have seen feel special and more confident.
    Richard

  28. Dolores says:

    Very interesting info thanks. Love to give children self development tools that they can have for life, if we teach them at a young age then they are accepted by them as just part of their life. Dolores x

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