'Sara Melson, used with permission
Source: 'Sara Melson, used with permission

There is a frazzle and a tension to daily life that’s getting us all worried.  It’s not just the topsy-turvy roller coaster of the daily news bringing us disasters of every human and natural kind. It’s relentlessly being wired into social networks, with their snarky comments, gloating photos, and yes, the need to wish every one of our 735 “friends” happy birthday on their special day. It is also the high wire act of balancing work and time with the family.  For too many of us, this so-called “balance” means never fully disconnecting from work. The emails keep streaming in, the overtime hours are expected but not compensated, the time off means you’re a slacker. For too many, the insecure gig economy bequeaths to us constant anxiety that the financial floor under us might give way.

Children share in all this, absorbing the climate of our stress with the air they breathe. Added to this are pressures trained on the young. For too many, schools have become pressure cookers all about acing the next test, mastering  the next competency, and sitting still for hours while doing so. “Frills” like recess, art, music and theatre are pared away in the name of more time for drilling so-called “basics.”

But, there is pushback. Contemplative practices, like yoga, mindfulness meditation, guided imagery, and relaxation breathing, have taken off. More and more adults are finding time to follow along to a yoga video, do ten minutes of meditation or five minutes of deep, relaxed breathing. It turns out that even tiny “tune-outs” like these can have beneficial effects in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, while increasing a feeling of well-being.

“Contemplative practices” have in common a method, using a focus on one’s breathing,  to pay attention to internal processes or external events through sustained observation. All such practices emphasize adopting a stance that is accepting, nonjudgmental, and open. There are many reasons to believe that meditation, focused breathing, yoga, or tai chi would be helpful for children and adolescents.

*Slowing down one’s breathing and gaining control over the breath works against anxiety and panic, in which breathing becomes more shallow and rapid.

*Throughout childhood and adolescence, the brain is highly malleable. This neuroplasticity means that, theoretically at least, in this period, it is easier to “train” the brain by laying down pathways of reflection, acceptance and openness.

*Childhood is a key period for the development of self-regulation (i.e., the ability to understand and modulate emotions and arousal). When a contemplative practice teaches one to observe, without judgment, one’s thoughts and emotions, this may promote greater awareness of one’s emotional life, a prerequisite to self-regulation. 

*During childhood and well into adulthood, executive processes are developing. These refer to the ability to inhibit impulsivity, to plan, to set goals and take steps incrementally toward them. Slowing down one’s breathing and observing the “monkey mind” of thoughts racing through one’s head might aid in such executive brain functions.

*The controlled movements of yoga and tai chi, aided by mindful breathing, can improve balance, tone muscles and increase exercise.

*When teachers or parents incorporate contemplative practices into the daily life of children, the adults are sending a powerful cultural message to children, that “time out” dedicated to slowing down and seemingly doing “nothing” is valued.

Research on mindfulness and other related programs for children is just emerging. Most programs that have been evaluated are school-based and of relatively short duration. We don’t know if reinforcing such programs with practice at home, bolstered by parental support, would turbo-charge its benefits. Moreover, programs developed for adults have to be modified for youngsters; the developmental appropriateness and effectiveness of these changes hasn’t been fully explored. Importantly, the impact of such programs for children of varying backgrounds and needs remains unclear. Would contemplative practices be equally effective with children who already have serious mental health problems?

Although we don’t have all the answers, exposing children to comtemplative practices appears to have few “downsides.”  This has spurred the development of many programs geared to youngsters. For example,  the iRest program, adapted for preschoolers, emphasizes helping children focus on and become aware of their bodies and sensory experiences. To focus on breathing, the child might put a teddy bear on his or her chest, and watch the stuffed animal rise and fall with each exhale and inhale. To sharpen sensory awareness, children might be invited to close their eyes and listen for a bell sound, or describe the smells and sounds of trees outside their window, or talk about what they ate for snack time, with focused attention on the smell, shape, color, feel and taste of the food. As a way to promote understanding of emotions, the children might select a swatch of fabric that represents how they are feeling and where in the body they feel it. For example, a child might choose a swatch of rough wool in a red color, and say: “I feel angry. I feel it in my stomach.”

Other mindfulness programs for young children incorporate exercises to promote perspective taking. For example, the children might be invited to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood from the perspective of the wolf and then think about how it’s different from that of the little girl. Many school-based programs incorporate themes of kindness and compassion. As an illustration, the children would be urged to think of something they are grateful for or to do a kind act for a classmate.

Yoga for kids is also proliferating. As an example, “Yoga Fitness for Kids” videotapes (Gaiam, 2003) provide a 30 minute session, featuring an adult and two children doing deep breathing, physical poses like downward dog and “frog” (squats), ending with guided imagery as children lie on their backs and imagine a seed slowly blossoming into a flower.

Evaluations of such programs are yielding encouraging results. One study of 6-10 year olds, referred by teachers for attention problems (although not diagnosed with ADHD), found increased focused attention on teachers and schoolwork after 3 weeks of twice weekly sessions using “Yoga Fitness for Kids” videotapes (Peck, et. al., 2005).In another study, 2nd and 3rd graders had a mindfulness program twice a month. After a year, the participants showed increased attention spans and decreased anxiety (Napoli, et. al., 2005). In another intervention (Harpin, et. al., 2016), 4th graders in two Denver public schools completed a 10 week mindfulness program integrated into their daily morning check-in routine. Compared to a control group, these children showed more prosocial behaviors, emotion regulation and even academic competence. Significantly, the children in this study were mostly low income, with 53% Hispanic and 20% African-American, suggesting that benefits may be available to children regardless of ethnicity, race or social-class.

To assess the current state of evidence on the effectiveness of contemplative practice programs for children, a recent comprehensive literature review (Routhier-Martin, Roberts, & Blanch, 2017) examined studies in psychology, elementary education and special education and concluded that across varied programs, almost all showed benefits in reducing stress, anxiety and depression, while increasing academic performance.

Empirical evidence thus far leads us to be cautiously optimistic. Various mindfulness and yoga programs, appropriately adapted to children or adolescents, are helping children. As with any promising intervention, this is no panacea. Structural changes in schooling and in the workplace to reduce stress, to promote acceptance and to emphasize compassion are still very much needed. But, perhaps, in the not too distant future, a few minutes of mindful meditation or gentle yoga exercises could be as natural and necessary as brushing your teeth and putting on your jammies.

References

Harpin, S. B., et. al. (2016). Behavioral impacts of a mindfulness pilot intervention for elementary school students. Education 137, 149-156.

Napoli, M., Krech, P. R., & Holley, L. C. (2005). Mindfulness training for elementary school students. Journal of Applied School Psychology 21, 99-125.

Peck, H. L., et. al. (2005). Yoga as an intervention for children with attention problems. School Psychology Review 34, 415-424.

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