What is mindfulness training?
Mindfulness is a deceptively simple idea: it is the ability to pay full attention to the present moment and the capacity to respond to events in a thoughtful manner rather than reacting in an automatic and thoughtless way.
The capacity for mindfulness allows us to use attention skillfully to regulate our immediate emotional responses to all the different inputs that bombard or senses: body sensations (discomfort, touch, pain, changes in heart beating and breathing), sounds and sights, thoughts and feelings.
Mindfulness activities help children to learn that they can control their bodies and can experience periods of calmness when they choose to. Regular mindfulness practice also changes the way the brain works - it literally calms the fear brain so that it is less reactive to sensory inputs.
A simple exercise: sitting quite still
The capacity for mindfulness can be trained in many different ways:
Sitting practice involves sitting still and paying attention to an aspect of present experience, such as sensations that go with breathing, sensations that arise from different parts of the body, sounds in the environment or just noticing the way in which thoughts arise in the mind.
Although young children are naturally very active, curious and impatient when they need to wait, they can from about the age of 4 quite easily be taught to enjoy taking charge of their bodies and spending time sitting quite still, quietening their busy minds and paying attention to whatever arises in the present moment.
Being able to sit still and take charge of busy minds and active bodies is a skill, and like all skills it can be taught and improves with practice. This skill is particularly important for children who have difficulty controlling their tendency to rush into action without considering the consequences as well as those in whom anxiety is expressed as fidgeting and hyperactivity.
For many children sitting quite still is a novel experience and they are really pleased and excited to discover that they actually can take charge of their bodies and not move when they put their minds to it.
In this activity the child and parent practice sitting quite still for 20 seconds or longer. The activity can be practiced sitting cross legged on the floor or upright on a stool with the feet resting flat on the floor.
1 Start by talking about who is in charge of the actions of our bodies. Ask the question: "Who is the only one who can stop your fingers fidgeting, your feet wriggling and your eyes roving around the room?"
The answer is: I am in charge: I am in charge of ny brain, it is my brain that sends messages to the fingers, feet and eyes to do the wriggling. And because I am in charge I can decide to sit still or to wriggle and fidget."
2 The next step is to practice being in charge and sitting quite still.
"Now we are going to practice sitting quite still for 20 counts. I will count to 20 and your job is to sit very still. Nothing moves. You can close your eyes or look down at the floor just ahead of your legs."
Start to count slowly to 20, interspersing your counting with a few words of encouragement and reminders to sit quite still.
3 You may find it useful to stop counting for a short period of time if your child starts to fidget. I find that directing my gaze at a fidgeting child will often be enough to focus this child's attention on being still.
4 Once you have reached 20, in a quiet voice tell your how well they have done and perhaps have a short discussion about how easy or difficult it was to sit still and stop their fingers and toes from wriggling.
Children will often comment that they continued to breathe and that they could feel their hearts beating.
Sitting still with attention to breathing
One of the powerful elements of mindfulness practice is the opportunity to focus the attention on one aspect of the present experience. For adults the most commonly used technique is to focus on the breath. You bring your attention to the sensations that arise from the repeated act of breathing in and breathing out.
Asking children to pay attention to their breathing does not work – they immediately try to control their breathing, drawing air in through the mouth and sucking in their tummies at the same time.
I have found that a useful way to incorporate some attention to the rhythm of the breathing is to ask children to imagine that they have a small pond of water in their laps, and as they breathe a trickle of water flows into the pond and then out again. I suggest to the children that they imagine that they can feel the trickle of water flowing into and out of the pond.
Carry over into daily routines
Taking time to slow down and be still for short periods during the day. This is particularly useful at those times when children tend to rush into an activity.
I live with three very active and at times boisterous children ages 8, 6 and 4. This summer vacation I had them in my care all day for a whole week. I decided that if I was going to survive I needed to bring some order into our lives. I implemented a routine of being still and waiting your turn getting into and out of the car, standing in a row with hands behind their backs in the supermarket queue, waiting without moving while poured mugs of water, sitting still and waiting until everyone was served at lunch time and so on.
Surprisingly the children responded without complaining and needed very little prompting to implement short periods of stillness into our routine.