It’s a hot August morning at The Omega Institute in upstate New York, and Daniel Rechtschaffen is about to lead hundreds of adults in an opening meditation.
“Mmmmmmm,” Rechtschaffen hums, raising his pitch and his hands until his arms are stretched into the sky. At the apex, his lips smack together as his mouth forms an O: pop!
The hundreds of adults following along pop their lips and laugh at the playful ending to a quick meditation. That’s exactly the point: Rechtschaffen is demonstrating to hundred of adults attending a Mindfulness in Education conference how to keep mindfulness quick, fun, and engaging for kids.
“Sometimes mindful is taught in really boring way,” Rechtschaffen says. “Kids aren’t into it. There are different ways to get kids to have fun in learning these skills.”
Since mindfulness has become more mainstream, and scientific studies have shown the benefits of a mindfulness practice on student performance, more and more schools are integrating mindfulness into their days. Rechtschaffen, author of “The Way of Mindful Education” and founder of MindfulEducation.com, works with school systems and teachers to integrate mindfulness into schools.
Although his efforts are gaining traction, it’s still far from commonplace in the U.S. Many teachers at the Mindfulness in Education conference expressed frustration with administrators who were slow to adopt mindfulness practices and school systems that did not want to integrate mindfulness into the curriculum, despite proven results, including increased test scores for students.
Oftentimes, bringing mindfulness into the school day is something children can do on their own, even if their school systems are slow to embrace it. Here’s how parents can encourage the practice of mindfulness during the school day.
Grow your own practice
“The first thing I always say to a parent is to practice mindfulness themselves,” Rechtschaffen says.
Mindfulness is all about being attuned, and in order to be attuned to their children, parents (and teachers, for that matter), must first be attuned to themselves.
“When parents are attuned to the needs of the kid, the kid learns to be attuned to their own needs,” Rechtschaffen says.
As Rechtschaffen and other mindfulness teachers pointed out at the conference, kids – whether teens or preschoolers – are skilled at detecting impostors. So parents must really embrace a mindfulness practice if they expect their children to do the same.
Make it fun
“The last thing you want kids to think about mindfulness is that it’s like that game that isn’t actually a game to see who can be quiet the longest,” Rechtschaffen says. Mindfulness doesn’t have to mean meditation or stillness, especially for youngsters.
Instead, incorporate music, movement, and games to help kids understand mindfulness. Rechtschaffen teaches the five literacies of mindfulness: the physical, mental, emotional, social, and global. A dance party can help young kids understand the physical, while role-playing games can help children learn emotional and social mindfulness, such as extending empathy to others.
For teens, Rechtschaffen often shows videos of sports stars or hip-hop artists who employ mindfulness in their lives. “I give them experience of mindfulness that feels empowering and engaging.”
In turn, mindfulness can help kids defuse bullying, cliques, and other socially stressful situations at school by understanding that their peers are all similar to them.
“They can recognize that ‘just like me, I know this kid wants to be happy,’” Rechtschaffen says.
Pause at the beginning of the day
Any parent will tell you that getting the kids out the door in the morning is dreaded. Most mornings are whirlwinds of rushing that leave kids (and adults) stressed out before their day even really begins.
That’s why it’s so important for parents to carve out space for mindfulness in the mornings.
“As we see in our busy lives, we need to actually fight for ourselves to create the space [for mindfulness],” Rechtschaffen says. “Mindfulness is a self love practice. If we don’t schedule that time in, it gets eaten up. Create the space for yourself and your family.”
Morning mindfulness routines can be simple, like taking a moment of silence at breakfast or sharing an intention for the day. Anything that allows the family to create a ritual and slow down a bit during the morning rat race works.
“Not only will that stick, but it will become something that family loves and is hungry for,” Rechtschaffen says. “Soon, if you forget, the kids will remind you. Kids are hungry for a little bit of slowness.”
Give your kids tools to take to school
The foundation of any mindfulness practice starts at home, but it is also important that school aged kids have specific tools that they can use in the classroom.
“They have to be able to short circuit the self-critical mindset and attend to it in the body,” Rechtschaffen says. “Teach kids to recognize when the mind is spinning, which all of us do, and note that instead of getting caught in the spin.”
Interrupting runaway thoughts can help kids who become stressed about tests or those who notice their minds wandering during class. One of Rechtschaffen’s favorite exercises is subtle enough for children to do any time in the classroom:
“When they notice their mind spinning, they can raise their hand in the air as if it’s a branch, which represents the spinning, self-critical thoughts. Then, track the arm into the body, asking what is the correlating feeling in the body. Is there tension in the chest, or butterflies? What is the emotional feeling connected to spinning thoughts? Then, bring kind attention to that spot as if it’s your pet you’re holding in your arms.”
Encourage change in the school system
Although mindfulness can be used by individuals to cope with school stressors, like bullying and testing, our society needs to encourage change beyond that.
“Mindfulness can be utilized in a toxic school environment, to be resilient, to have self care, and to nurture the self in face of adversity, but we don’t want mindfulness just to be a way to get through,” Rechtschaffen says. “That’s not the end result. We need to work with schools and communities for cultural systemic change, because there is bullying, [excessive] testing and so many toxic things in our schools and school systems.”
Parents can encourage teachers and administrators to incorporate mindfulness practices at school, making healthier environments for all students.
“When a child feels balanced and regulated, their attention and executive functioning improve, which is so important for school. When inner balance happens, they are able to function better [in relationships] and pay better attention.”
Although systematic change can seem daunting, the results are worth it,” Rechtschaffen says. “I love working with school systems to try to shift the system.”