- Mindfulness is beneficial to school-aged children in a variety of ways, including enhancing mental health, building resilience and improving behavior, according to research.
- Parents and teachers who want to teach mindfulness should use strategies that are appropriate for children's developmental stage.
- Parents and teachers may want to guide children to follow their breath, teach children the correct posture, explain abstract ideas using age-appropriate language, and make the practice enjoyable.
- When a parent or teacher actively practices mindfulness, it also makes it easier for children to cultivate mindfulness.
Research supports the benefits of teaching mindfulness to school-aged children, with findings demonstrating improvements in mental health, such as reductions in anxiety, depression, thought rumination, negative coping strategies and intrusive thoughts. Mindfulness has also been shown to have a protective effect and build resilience in school-aged children, so that they are less likely to develop mental health problems as part of having to cope with life challenges. There is also evidence to suggest that mindfulness can improve children’s behaviour as rated by their teachers, as well as enhance cognitive skills such as working memory capacity.
Mindfulness involves focusing awareness on the present moment in an open and accepting manner. This not only involves being aware of sensory experiences, such as sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, but also of inner psychological experiences, such as thoughts, feelings and memories. Mindfulness is believed to foster “mental breathing space,” which provides greater opportunity for children to observe and understand their thoughts and feelings, as well as respond to them in an intentional and balanced manner. Thus, the greater perceptual distance from mental processes that mindfulness helps to create can improve children’s capacity to regulate their emotions and behaviour.
However, in order for school-aged children to learn to practise mindfulness in an optimum manner, it is necessary to use teaching strategies that are suited to their developmental stage, as well as techniques that can be easily taught by parents and teachers. Therefore, the following outlines five recommendations for parents and teachers interested in teaching mindfulness to school-aged children:
1. Provide guidance on breath awareness: Full awareness of the in-breath and out-breath can help children to remain aware of the present moment by acting as a concentration anchor. Given that concentration capacity is still developing in school-aged children, teaching children to count their breath from 1 to 10 is normally a useful strategy. Children also often find it helpful if they are guided using gently spoken phrases such as “breathing in, I am fully aware of my in-breath” and “breathing out, I am fully aware of my out-breath.” Other examples are “breathing in, I am here; breathing out, I am now,” and “breathing in, there is nowhere I need to be; breathing out, I am already home.”
When teaching breath awareness, children should be discouraged from forcing their breathing. In other words, the breath should be allowed to follow its natural course and to calm and deepen of its own accord. Forced breathing can introduce stress into the body and mind, as well as lead to negative side effects such as feeling lightheaded or dizzy. It also contradicts a fundamental principle of mindfulness practice, which is that insight and tranquillity are naturally present in the mind and will manifest of their own accord when the correct conditions arise. One such correct condition is simply observing and nourishing the body and mind through mindful awareness.
An analogy that might help to explain this idea to school-aged children is that of a garden fishpond, which becomes muddy and unclear each time the pond water is stirred or interfered with. However, if an individual sits next to the pond and quietly observes it, the water gradually becomes clear and still again.
2. Teach correct body posture: Although the focus should be on maintaining mindful awareness throughout the day, short daily periods of seated meditation are an important aspect of mindfulness training. This affords school-aged children the opportunity to hone their mindfulness skills in a quiet setting, as well as nourish and reconnect with their inner being on a regular basis. An appropriate body posture is an important part of seated meditation practice, as good body posture helps to facilitate the cultivation of good mental posture. A key aspect of body posture during seated meditation is stability, which can be achieved whether sitting cross-legged on a meditation cushion or upright on a chair.
A helpful way to explain to school-aged children the most appropriate posture for seated meditation is to advise them to "sit like a mountain." A mountain has a definite presence, it is stable and upright but it is also without tension and doesn’t need to strain to maintain its posture – it is content and relaxed yet solid due to being deeply-rooted in the earth.
3. Use appropriate language: Although mindfulness is a simple practice, some of the principles that it involves may seem abstract or complicated to school-aged children. Therefore, it is important to use language that children can easily relate to and that is suitable for their development stage. In this regard, school-aged children can be helped to understand the principles underlying mindfulness by likening the practice to:
a) The sun that enables flowers to grow just by watching and shining on them.
b) A swan that is confident and elegant in the way it glides gracefully through the water without hardly disturbing it.
c) Cats that tend to be more composed and deliberate in their movements compared to dogs.
d) The gatekeeper to a city who permits entry to those with good intentions (i.e., wholesome thoughts and emotions) but asks troublemakers (i.e., negative thoughts and emotions) to leave.
e) A baby that, having just put down an object, picks it up again a few seconds later and relates to it as though it is an entirely new experience.
4. Make things fun: As with most learning activities involving school-aged children, stimulating and enjoyable teaching methods are integral to fostering understanding and engagement. Some examples suitable for teaching mindfulness to children include:
a) Using sensory devices such as a meditation gong or singing bowl during guided mindfulness activities.
b) Keeping the duration of seated meditation sessions to less than 10 minutes to avoid concentration fatigue.
c) Adapting children’s party games so that they integrate mindfulness elements. Using the example of musical chairs, this could involve asking children to stop and take a few mindful breaths in and out when the music is paused, before walking calmly toward an unoccupied chair.
d) Organising mindfulness activities in nature or outside, whereby children should be guided to tune into the sounds, sights and smells around them.
e) Practising walking meditation by inviting children to walk very slowly, taking approximately 15 to 20 steps per minute, whilst focusing awareness on their breath and bodies. This including being aware of how balance shifts along with the various muscles that are used between one step and the next.
5. Practice what you teach: As noted above, there are various strategies and resources that parents and teachers can use as mindfulness teaching aids. However, something I often observe is that children are very sensitive to the extent to which the instructor is able to impart an experiential understanding of mindfulness. In other words, if the experience of the person teaching mindfulness is limited to information gleaned from reading a book or watching a few online videos, then children tend to miss out on deeper aspects of the practice.
However, if the parent or teacher is actively practising mindfulness, it’s much easier to establish an atmosphere of awareness so that school-aged children can relax and connect with their own capacity for cultivating meditative focus. Indeed, when a teacher or parent is mindful of their being by practising full awareness of each breath and step they take, the calming presence it creates can foster wellbeing among children, as well as improve their behaviour more generally.
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