mindfulboyWhen it comes to parenting, some mornings are easier than others.

Last week, my son broke into defiant tears and shouts more than once as I rushed him out the door to get to preschool on time. He didn’t want to put on his shoes, he didn’t want to brush his teeth, and he most certainly did not want to leave his toys and get in the car.

Luckily for everyone, his teachers began that day with a few yoga exercises, and he quickly calmed down. In fact, he became so peaceful that he nearly dozed off on his pint-sized mat.

Mindfulness is the state of being present in the moment — something we sorely needed that harried morning. A key principle to this practice is calming your body and mind and paying attention to the sensations around you — the sounds, smells and sights.

Several recent studies have looked at the benefits of teaching kids basic principles of meditation and mindfulness, including improvements in cognitive control, emotional regulation, working memory, and attention. Practicing mindfulness reduces anxiety levels and supports academic performance.

All children have times when they become overwhelmed, overloaded or overstimulated. Think of mindfulness as a method of pressing the “pause button,” allowing kids to regroup and re-enter a situation with greater calm.

Here are four tips you can use with your kids.

  1.  Take a deep breath. When we are anxious or upset, our breathing often becomes rapid and shallow. Teach your kids to notice their breathing and to take deep, calming breaths. This can be as simple as sitting together on the floor and using your fingers to count ten deep breaths — or pretending your fingers are candles and blowing them out one by one. In this video, psychologist Daniel Goleman shows how second graders used “breathing buddies” to help them manage their emotions. For a few minutes every day, they lay on the floor, put a favorite stuffed animal on their tummy and watched that animal slowly move up and down as they inhaled and exhaled. A Daniel Tiger song reminds children, “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.”
  2. Take a mindful minute. Use sound to help children focus their attention on the present moment. Ring a bell or singing bowl, sound a chime, or play a note on an instrument. Ask kids to listen closely to the sound with their eyes closed and put up their hand when the sound disappears. Or simply practice sitting quietly with your child for 60 seconds — and then sharing what you each saw and heard during that time.
  3. Go on a mindfulness walk. Take a walk around the block or in a park. Pay attention to the weather, to the trees, to animal sounds, to traffic sounds, to smells in the air. Share what you notice. Just being outside will have a positive effect: research indicates that spending time in nature reduces the level of stress hormones in our body.
  4. Pause for an emotional check-in. Pay attention to your child’s reactions and body language. When you see them getting tense, anxious, or upset, ask them to “check in” with their body to see how they are feeling. Make a list of emotions together than you can refer to: do they feel excited, confused, hopeful, excited, jealous, disappointed, scared, mad, frustrated or worried? What’s their “inside weather”? Sunny? Stormy? Partly cloudy?

Of course it’s not just kids who need to press that pause button sometimes. So do parents. That’s the hidden benefit to teaching young children these strategies: as a parent, you’ll have to model it yourself, and you will also reap the benefits — especially on days when that “pause” button needs to be followed with a full “reset.”

About Deborah Farmer Kris

Deborah Farmer Kris spent several years as a K-12 educator and as an associate at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility. She is a regular contributor for MindShift and the mother of two young children. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris.

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