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What is mindfulness?

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Mindfulness is about paying extraordinary attention to the ordinary. It is about using all of our senses to live moment-to-moment with awareness. We may find that we are habitually lost in thought. Worrying about the past or the future. Or simply just stuck in our heads. This results in a disconnection from our immediate environment, our bodies and our feelings. The mindfulness practice is a simple way to help us reconnect with our bodies and inner resources again. It helps us ground ourselves in the present moment.

When explaining mindfulness to children, I often use the analogy of a pause button. Most children know what a pause button is and how to use it. Mindfulness is like the pause button on life. It helps us to pause and take notice of all that is around us and inside of us. It helps us to stop, breathe and be.

The below children’s poem describes it so well:

I breathe slowly in,

I breathe slowly out.

Each breath is a river of peace.

I am here in the world.

Each moment I can breathe and be.

Kate Coombs (Breathe and Be: A Book of Mindfulness Poems)

Mindfulness in education

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Laurie Grossman, one of the founders of the mindfulness-in-education movement and co-founder of Mindful Schools, writes the following :

“Students walk into our classrooms each day carrying with them their entire experience. Their thoughts and actions are more often influenced by their own state of mind than by the lessons and activities that we ask them to engage with. Whether it simply be a rushed morning after a late night, feeling ill-prepared for an exam or dealing with a more serious trauma, such as losing a parent, or emotional neglect. These heighten a child’s stress levels, increasing their anxiety and making it difficult to relax at all.

We all know that concentrating, and therefore learning, while stressed or distracted is near impossible. Including mindfulness in education is a simple practice that provides students with something they can DO in those moments of stress, distraction or anger.”

Currently in Southern Africa, there are only a handful of schools that include mindfulness in their school curriculum. I applaud these schools for getting it right because it is no small undertaking to run a successful, sustainable mindfulness program in a school.

Keith Horan, a teacher and mindfulness facilitator based in Ireland, wrote a research paper as part of his MSc in Mindfulness-Based Approaches on the common challenges faced in implementing mindfulness programs in schools. In short, he states that in order for a mindfulness program to be successful in the long-term, it needs to be part of the classroom curriculum. This daily practice is what is needed for mindfulness to have an impact on a student’s well-being.

He also raises the important question of the level of training and personal practice of the facilitating teacher. To teach mindfulness, facilitators need to have their own daily mindfulness practice in order to authentically guide others. Keith states that he has seen a number of teachers, who do not have a personal mindfulness practice, being asked by their school principals to deliver a mindfulness program. To me, that is like asking someone who cannot swim to be the school’s swimming coach. The level of training and personal practice of the facilitating teacher is critical.

Mindful Minis offers two training courses for teachers: a 20 hour Foundation Training and a 100 hour Advanced Training. These courses offer teachers an introduction to mindfulness, help them to develop their own personal mindfulness practice and assist them in bringing mindfulness into their classrooms. More details about these courses can be found here.

“We do not know what specific knowledge our children are going to need ten or twenty or even five years from now because the world and their work, when they come to it, will be so different from ours. What we do know is that they will need to know how to pay attention, how to focus and concentrate, how to listen, how to learn, and how to be in a wise relationship with themselves – including their thoughts and emotions – and with others.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness in Education, 2013


The benefits of mindfulness for children

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I sometimes get asked if mindfulness is only for children who suffer from anxiety. Or only for children who struggle to sit still and concentrate. Or only for late teens and older.

The answer to all of these questions is no. Mindfulness can benefit any child. Whether they are anxious or not. Whether they can sit still or not. Whether they are preschoolers or in Grade 12.

In children and adults alike, mindfulness can help to develop emotional understanding and interpersonal awareness, cognitive functioning, a focused concentration as well as body awareness and coordination. Mindfulness transcends age, gender, race, religious beliefs, socio-economic background. It is available to all.

In his book Planting Seeds: Practising mindfulness with children” (Parallax Press 2011), Thich Nhat Hanh explains how studies have shown that children who practise mindfulness regularly experience the following:

  • increased calm
  • decreased stress and anxiety
  • have increased self-awareness
  • are empathetic and understanding of others
  • have natural conflict resolution skills
  • find skillful ways to respond to difficult emotions
  • experience improved impulse control
  • are better able to focus and concentrate

Of all the things we teach our children, the value of being present is often over looked. Yet, the ability to embrace the present moment, with kindness and compassion, with no judgement or expectation, is one of the most valuable skills we can share with our future generation.

If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.

Dalai Lama