Why Teach Mindfulness to Kids?
This is is a great question - and one I get asked a lot ..
For me there are two main reasons why I think kids - and teenagers - should have the opportunity to learn about and practice mindfulness. Before I share these I want to point out that, for me anyway, teaching kids about mindfulness is more than helping them learn about awareness and presence and kindness. Part of this important teaching should also be about how their brains work and how to calm themselves with the breath at times of upset.
This is information that I believe every child should have access to - and the practicing of calming skills is one I'd love to see in every classroom.
You can read more about what mindfulness is (and isn't) and some practices to try in my previous post on What Is Mindfulness?
Reason # 1: Mindfulness can act as an antidote to our stressful, modern-day, digitally-connected lives.
Our kids live in interesting times. They live in world very unlike the one I grew up in. For one thing, there are devices. Lots of devices. Phones that don't have to stay plugged into the wall. TV's you can stream pretty much anything through. And tablets which operate like mini picture theatres or digital photo albums. Oh, and gaming platforms which are so full on that they blow Pac Man out of the water.
This rise in what is called 'smart technology' means we can be digitally connected to work, school, entertainment and social realms 24/7. While there are many great things about the internet and devices, a growing body of international research and awareness tells me that we should be proceeding with caution when it comes to device use and our kids + teens (and ourselves).
Researching information for this post I was alarmed to find these stats: Most people check their smartphones 150 times per day (or every six minutes). Young adults send an average of 110 texts per day. And 46 percent of smartphone users say that their devices are something they ‘couldn’t live without.’ (1)
In NZ in 2017, eight in 10 teenagers - and six out of 10 primary school aged students - did not have any limits imposed on their screen time at home. (2)
Computer games ... are designed to be appealing and addictive - and clinical research shows this addiction could be as harmful to the developing brain as cocaine addiction, but is more difficult to cure. (3)
Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy. (4)
Children who use a media device right before bed are more likely to sleep less than they should, more likely to sleep poorly, and more than twice as likely to be sleepy during the day. (5)
The average American consumes 34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 words every single day. To put these numbers in perspective, this is like watching 34 movies or listening to 34 symphonies back to back. (6)
As one commentator put it: "It’s no longer controversial to suggest that humans and their smartphones aren’t always a healthy combination. Looking at screens for hours a day can have some serious health and mental health consequences. Even some of the developers of these products have admitted guilt about their creations, and confessed that they don’t even let their kids use them." (7)
According to one report, from the University of California:
"Our colossal consuming habits are not only crowding out essential neurological downtime (see more on this below), but they’re creating a chemical addiction that has interest in little else. When we consume media - from watching TV to surfing the Net, and from playing videogames to using social media - we’re triggering the brain chemical dopamine. Dopamine creates a ‘high’, and we are wired to do what it takes to maintain this elevated state. When the dopamine levels decrease, we begin to look for diversions that will restore the high." (8)
Don't get me wrong; I love many things about smart technology and am brave (or stupid) enough to admit that I would probably be a little lost without my phone. But the fact that this small object is also my diary, address book, to do list, note taker, camera, photo album, music player, newspaper, weather station, GPS, online bank, web searcher, alarm clock, calculator and inbox (to name but a few) means that it is far more valuable to me than my wallet. And this is exactly what the developers of such technology intend.
Addiction to devices is a real thing. As are ‘technoference’ and ‘phubbing’.
What this also means for our kids is that their social world, the one where they actually sit in the same place as their friends and talk to them - with words, not in a text - is super important but also (thanks to ‘smart’ technology) shrinking. The so-named iGen crowd (those born between 1995 and 2012) spend less time hanging out with their friends, date less and are more likely to feel lonely. (9)
In terms of the social impact of device use, one researcher and commentator has said this: “In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression”. (10)
But it’s not just about limiting the time kids spend on devices. Research is starting to show the effects of technoference on parent-child relationships. One recent study showed the greater a parents use of a device, the shorter the attention span of their toddler. (11) And another showed that digital technology use by parents could be linked to child behaviour issues. (12)
These researchers said: “Our findings contribute to growing literature showing an association between greater digital technology use and potential relationship dysfunction between parents and their children. We know that parents' responsiveness to their kids changes when they are using mobile technology and that their device use may be associated with less-than-ideal interactions with their children." (13) These studies on kids and screens join other research and advocacy groups contributing to a larger debate about technology and its effect on child development.
There is another undesirable - and perhaps surprising - outcome of increased device use: a decrease in 'neurological downtime'.
Recent brain imaging studies reveal that sections of our brains are highly active during downtime. This has led scientists to imply that moments of not-doing (aka ‘boredom’) are critical for connecting and synthesising new information, ideas and experiences. (14)
A professor at Harvard Medical School, put it this way: "Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body."
But with the rise in smart technology, many of us give our brains little time for ‘not-doing’. Part of this is to do with that dopamine hit we get when we check our phones, play that game, or scroll our Facebook feed - and part of it is because we don’t associate boredom with any value.
And, it seems, the same thing may be happening for our kids. Growing up in this technologically advanced age is wiring them to expect instant gratification and entertainment on tap whenever - and wherever - needed. But without downtime, the nervous system never shuts down - it’s in constant fight-or-flight mode.
According to one expert: “We’re wired and tired all the time. Even computers reboot, but we’re not doing it.” (15)
Reason # 2: Mindfulness helps with the life skill of self-regulation.
Self-regulation is now recognised as hugely important in lifelong health and wellbeing outcomes across all areas: mental, physical, social, and emotional. The Dunedin Longitudinal Study (started in 1972 and still tracking a range of outcomes for its participants) has shown that one of the most powerful predictors of life outcomes is children’s self-control at age 4.
Simply put, self-regulation is the ability to stop, think, and then make a choice before acting. (16)
Children who have developed good self-regulation have skills that help them manage their emotions and behaviour and interact successfully with others - also known as social-emotional competence. These children are more likely to be successful at transitioning to school, develop positive attitudes about school, and have higher grades and achievement.
It’s now widely known that school-readiness is more to do with how well a child can focus and regulate than what they come to school knowing (in terms of their abc's or 123's). But strangely, in school settings, children still get asked to pay attention many times a day and are rarely taught how.
There are many factors that affect the development of self-regulation. These include the relationship between the child and her parent/caregiver, the child’s temperament and personality, her age and brain maturation, her exposure to models of strong self-regulation, practice, and experience. (17)
For school age children being able to self-regulate means being able to be calm, alert and ready to learn. (Credit to Stuart Shanker for this useful phrase.) But this is hard for those kids whose brains ‘flip their lids’ a lot and who don’t have recourse to being able to calm things down.
Our brains have a clever ‘hack’ that help us react to the threat of or actual danger in a split second. It’s so clever it’s beyond conscious thought and yet, when it happens, we are in a state of fight or flight. I.E: not regulated.
The easiest way to explain this is by using neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel’s hand model of the brain and an explanation called Flipping Your Lid.
To create your own hand model of your brain, take one hand and raise it in the air like you’re going to do a high five. Tuck your thumb into the middle of your palm and curl your fingers over the top, like this:
Your knuckles (and below them down to your fingernails) are the part of your brain called the Prefrontal Cortex.
This is the ‘smart’ part of your brain, home of executive functioning and all the thinking and regulatory capabilities that make us uniquely human. When we are calm, this ‘upstairs’ part of our brain is in charge and we can make rational decisions based on logic.
Now, flip your fingers up so that your thumb is exposed, like this:
This is your Amygdala - or the ‘alarm’ part of your brain, the security guard if you like. When we feel threatened, are angry, sad, frightened, or any kind of overwhelm, our brain ‘flips its lid’ and the ‘downstairs brain’ (or the primitive, survival part of our brain), in particular our amygdala, is in charge. The flow of communication between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, stops immediately and the amygdala tells our body to prepare for ‘flight, fight, freeze or faint’ as a response to the danger.
Our heart beats faster, we breathe quicker, our senses become heightened and our large muscles get ready for action. All this happens so quickly we are often not even aware of it. If we perceive a threat as continuing, cortisol (the stress hormone), is released throughout our bodies also.
Normally the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are connected, like the upstairs and downstairs parts of a house being connected by stairs. So when we are calm, information flows into our body via our senses, gets sorted by the amygdala and anything deemed important is passed onto the prefrontal cortex or the limbic system (seat of our emotions).
By being able to ‘flip its lid’ when under threat our brain has a clever trick to keep us safe from danger. The connection (or stairway) between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex goes ‘off line’ and the amygdala is in charge, making immediate decisions without any help from our rational, ‘thinking’ brain.
All of this is super useful if we are in real danger (think of cavemen faced with a hungry carnivorous animal - there’s not much point in thinking through a variety of options in that moment!), but less useful at other times and is the reason why we ‘lose it’ and yell, swear, say stuff we don’t mean - and worse. This has been termed ‘amygdala hijack’ (18) and is an “immediate, overwhelming emotional response with a later realisation that the response was inappropriately strong given the trigger.” (19)
What’s really important to hold on to is that even though this brain-lid-flipping-trick has kept us alive as a species for thousands of years, our brain doesn’t distinguish between actual danger and perceived threats. This means that even though we don’t live in a time where we can routinely get eaten by carnivorous animals, our brain still ‘flips its lid’ and we react instead of reflect thanks to our amydala hijacking our higher thinking. There is only one thing that gets the connection back between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex - and that’s oxygen.
So teaching mindfulness to kids - for me anyway - is about offering kids an antidote to busy, tech-heavy lives, as well as a chance to practice and develop that all important skill of self-regulation and coming back to calm.
For all of us - but particularly during the brain-developing years of childhood and adolescence - a repeated practice, such as mindful breathing or sustained awareness, will literally change the architecture of the brain.
Alongside this, mindfulness can help to teach kids that they - and no one else - are in charge of their own feelings. And that they are not their thoughts. Thoughts are simply that: thoughts.
Children who are able to experience thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without being overwhelmed become individuals who are more resilient in the face of stress. According to Linda Latieri, a prominent Mindfulness Educator and author of Building Emotional Intelligence:
"Young people need to have this inner strength, this inner reservoir they can depend on and go to when difficulties arise so that they are able to manage their stress."
Another popular Mindfulness advocate and educator, Dr. Amy Saltzman, describes mindfulness as, “the truest form of preventative medication I know”.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a great thing to me.
(1) Retrieved from www.seattletimes.com/life/wellness/how-smartphone-addiction-is-
(2) Retrieved from www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11818905
(6) Retrieved from mediashift.org/2012/04/why-we-need-to-teach-mindfulness-in-a-digital-age095
(8) Retrieved from www.kqed.org/mindshift/20579/the-importance-of-teaching-mindfulness
(9) Retrieved from.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/ on 28 Nov 2018
(11) Retrieved from www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3563880/Parents-phone-distracted-playing-babies-causes-grow-attention-problems.html
(12) Published in the online version of Child Development: May 2017
(14) Retrieved from mediashift.org/2012/04/why-we-need-to-teach-mindfulness-in-a-digital-age095
(16) Retrieved from www.noodle.com/articles/how-to-help-your-child-develop-executive-function-and-self-regulation-skills
(18) Daniel Goleman (1996) Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. NY: Bloomsbury.
(19) Retrieved from www.gostrengths.com/what-is-an-amygdala-hijack/