How mindfulness lessons at school help children study better and handle their emotions
Mindfulness training is growing in popularity in schools around the world, helping youngsters to be better equipped at handling difficult situations
Children who are mindful have higher self-esteem, concentrate better and are more emotionally resilient
Like most parents, Sothy Kay wants her children to grow up thoughtful, engaged, creative and emotionally resilient. So when she learned that One World International School (OWIS) in Singapore incorporated mindfulness into its daily classroom routines, she decided to enrol her children there.
That the school offered an excellent curriculum was one thing, but Kay also appreciated that it guided its young students to interact with mindfulness, using techniques and activities such as meditation and yoga, to develop their social and emotional intelligence.
“Since starting at OWIS about a year ago and being part of the school’s mindfulness programme, my children are more carefree, secure and confident,” says Kay, an Australian based in Singapore.
“Mindfulness is so important for children because it helps them connect with themselves. Many kids don’t have the opportunity to do that because they are too busy with school and other activities.”
The OWIS mindfulness programme encourages the children to slow down their thought processes and focus on choreographed movements.
“This builds memorisation and attention skills, as the students clear their mind of all external influences,” says OWIS principal Michelle Dickinson. “By teaching our children mindfulness, we teach them to explore alternative responses to bring about desirable outcomes.”
A trendy word, “mindfulness” is often associated with silence, sitting still and seeking peace. According to Angie Bucu, a mindfulness instructor for children at Balance Health in Hong Kong, mindfulness is really a way of paying attention to things as they happen in the moment. It means being curious about everything that is taking place around you, and observing thoughts and emotions without judgment.
Bucu says that mindfulness benefits children in a number of ways. For one, it teaches them to take a moment out of whatever they are doing and bring themselves out of autopilot mode.
Mary Fitzgerald, founder and director of My Peaceful Universe, an Australia-based company that offers mindfulness and meditation programmes, says: “Practised regularly, mindfulness also helps kids concentrate better, understand and regulate their emotions,
manage their anxiety and worry
, control their impulses, feel more compassionate towards others, and appreciate what is around them.
“When they are more observant of their thoughts and feelings, kids can choose how to react and behave.”
She adds: “Being mindful helps to counter a negative mindset because it offers a happiness boost, and it improves self-esteem because it teaches children to be kinder to themselves.
“Children who are mindful tend to grow up to be adults who can make better decisions. They may also have a lower risk of developing mental health issues.”
Fitzgerald has seen first-hand the benefits of mindfulness. In 2016, her son, River, then 11 years old, experienced a bout of anxiety and shallow breathing and had trouble sleeping.
After being introduced to guided meditation and mindfulness practices, he learned to pay attention to his thoughts and picked up breathing techniques which Fitzgerald says helped him to sleep well at night.
Science backs these claims. Recent studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States revealed that mindfulness can enhance academic performance and boost mental health in children.
One of them, published in August 2019 in the journal Behavioural Neuroscience, found that sixth-graders (11-year-olds) who paid attention to their breathing and focused on the present rather than thoughts of the past or future, reported fewer negative feelings such as sadness or anger. They also experienced less stress, as demonstrated by brain imaging studies.
Another study, published in the journal Mind, Brain, and Education in June 2019, found that children in grades five to eight (10- to 13-year-olds) who were mindful tended to have better academic grades and test scores, and fewer absences and suspensions.
As reports grow of children experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety and
, more schools around the world are offering mindfulness programmes.
In July 2018, the government in the Indian capital, New Delhi, launched a Happiness Curriculum, which involved mindfulness exercises in the morning. In early 2019, the UK’s then secretary of education Damien Hinds announced that mindfulness would be taught in up to 370 schools nationwide.
Many Hong Kong international schools, including International College Hong Kong, the Kellett School, and the Canadian International School, offer mindfulness programmes or incorporate mindfulness techniques into daily activities, to help students manage their emotions and behaviour.
Teaching kids to focus on the now can easily be done outside school. Parents can help their children practise, using these tips from Fitzgerald.
1. Teach them to
. This mindfulness activity can be done anywhere, anytime.
“Teach your kids to breathe from their belly, not their chest, which is what most of us do when we are stressed,” Fitzgerald says. “Get them to place their hand on their belly – they should feel it expand and rise when they breathe in and go flat when they breathe out.”
2. Give them a “calm jar” to help settle kids’ minds. Ask your children to fill a jar with glitter and water, then shake the jar while watching the glitter gradually settle to the bottom.
“They can belly breathe while doing this. The jar is a great analogy for calming a chaotic ‘monkey’ mind and managing difficult thoughts and emotions,” she adds.
Spend time in nature
with them. Fitzgerald suggests picking up objects such as pebbles and shells and asking them to observe their textures, colours and shapes. This, she says, focuses their attention on the here and now.
4. Make meal times mindful. “Most of us tend to eat without really thinking about it,” Fitzgerald points out. “Sitting down to a meal can help you and your children be in the moment and more aware of what you’re putting into your mouths. Switch off your mobile devices and the TV, and pay attention to the flavours, textures and aromas of the food and how the food feels as you chew and swallow it.”
5. Be mindful yourself. Children pick up habits from the adults in their lives. Try to be fully present with your little ones when you are with them instead of constantly checking your phone. Pause to observe how you are feeling before you react.
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