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How to Help Kids Optimize Attention Through Mindfulness

Start a mindfulness practice as a family with these simple techniques.

Key points

  • Executive function skills are essential for learning and growth, as they allow us to both focus our attention and regulate our emotions.
  • Mindfulness-based strategies have been increasingly researched and shown to strengthen executive function skills.
  • A good family mindfulness practice starts with a supportive, patient, and non-judgmental parental attitude.

One of the major challenges children and youth appear to be currently experiencing is with respect to attention and focus during online classes. These attention and concentration skills are part of a larger area called the Executive Function Skills.

Executive Function skills are the mental processes that are responsible for our ability to initiate, plan and organize, shift (e.g., transitions, flexibility in problem-solving), regulate (emotional control), remember instructions, and pay attention. For example, when we plan a big project and are able to organize our work, our executive function skills are utilized to help us with this process. With respect to school learning, these skills help us regulate and attend to instructions and work time, rather than becoming distracted with things around us.

While these skills are essential for learning and growth, our executive function skills don’t fully develop until our mid-20s. There are some important research findings around the challenges children and youth may experience when they have less-developed executive function skills. These challenges include the tendency to have lower school performance, experience more conflict with peers and with families, and show more behavioural difficulties. They are also more likely to develop mental health concerns. The good news: Executive function skills can be developed and strengthened in many different ways.

Mindfulness and Attention

Mindfulness-based strategies have been increasingly researched and shown to strengthen these executive function skills. “Mindfulness” is a word that has also been increasingly heard in the popular media. What does it mean?

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Fascinating brain scan research has shown that ongoing mindfulness practices create changes in the function and structure of the brain, such that one’s attention and regulation skills are enhanced.

Mindfulness sounds simple, but it does take time and practice to learn. The beautiful thing about practicing mindfulness is that it improves our ability to train attention by strengthening our own “reflective processing” (or our ability to tune in to how we are feeling and what we are thinking). Being able to tune in and know what we are thinking when we are thinking it, and what we are feeling when we are feeling it, can be very powerful and liberating.

How to Practice Mindfulness With the Whole Family

So how do we practice these mindfulness strategies to help develop our ability to regulate and pay attention? There are many different formal and informal ways, here are some helpful ways to start (as a family):

  1. Have a supportive, patient, and non-judgmental parental attitude: I am often reminded of Ross Greene’s words: “Kids do well if they can.” A simple, yet powerful attitude of curiosity, rather than judgment, helps us meet kids where they are at. Children and youth thrive with a supportive and accepting attitude. Parenting in this way is a great predictor of resilience.
  2. Pay attention to your breath: Pause and notice your breath. We breathe at least 20,000 times per day! How many of these breaths do we notice? Just tuning in to our breath can be a powerful tool of grounding ourselves into the present moment. You can choose to practice this informally or formally with a guided meditation app, such as Headspace, Calm, or Smiling Mind. With younger children, one may make this practice engaging by using bubbles to practice breathing.
  3. Pay attention to your body: Just as with your breath, you can pause and tune into how your body may be feeling. Our bodies tell us a lot about how we may be feeling in the moment and may carry a lot of tension and tightness that we are not aware of. For example, feel your jaw or your shoulders in this moment — what do you notice? We often carry a lot of stress in these parts of our body. With younger children, you can practice tuning in to the body by imagining you are pointing a flashlight at different parts of the body.
  4. Use the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique: Using your five senses, go around your home or/and outside and observe! I enjoy making this into a scavenger hunt, here is a challenge:
  • Listening Friday: Stop and listen. What do you hear? See if you can notice the most distant sounds and the closest sounds to you. Do you notice any new sounds? Are you surprised by any sounds? Experiment by noticing whether it's easier to hear different sounds inside or outside.
  • Smelly Saturday: Get in your kitchen and smell! What smells do you notice around you? Are there any "surprise" smells? Cook something and notice all of the aromas. If you can experiment with the help of a partner, see if your partner can put together a "mystery bag" of different smells, and, with eyes closed, try and guess what each item may be based on the smell.
  • Touching Sunday: Do something mundane around your home while focusing on your sense of touch (e.g., washing dishes, doing laundry). What textures do you notice? Temperature? Any surprises?
  • Looking Monday: Get outside! What do you see? What colours do you notice? Look in front, above, to the sides, and down.
  • Tasting Tuesday: Eat something mindfully! Tasting is something that involves many parts of the body. Chemical receptors on the tongue differentiate between flavors and textures. Did you know that how we eat things (e.g., sucking, blowing) can further stimulate the brain and nervous system? For example, if you feel tired, sucking on a peppermint may wake you up. If you feel stressed, drinking through a straw may be calming. See if you can experiment with how you eat and how that feels.

At the end of the day, we want to ensure that whatever mindfulness practice we engage in, we do so with a non-judgmental attitude and self-compassion. What this means is that sometimes our mindfulness practice may not be what we want it to be. And that’s okay. Sometimes we will get distracted. That is normal. Mindfulness is really about catching ourselves in those moments and bringing our attention back to our breath and to our exercise. With time, this practice does get easier.

Bottom line: Mindfulness practices will help build self-regulation and attention skills, as well as resilience when faced with stress.