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Our children and young people live in a busy, complex and rapidly-changing world. Sadly, it is estimated that up to one in five children experience mental health problems such as anxiety and depression[1]. Today in Australia, across preschools, schools, homes and the community, great attention is given to how best to support the positive well-being of children and young people. Mindfulness has emerged as a popular strategy to not only address problems with anxiety and depression, but avoid them altogether. I am sure you haven’t missed the influx of ‘mindfulness colouring-in books’ that are now available at bookshops and newsagencies. Mindfulness is fast becoming a ‘mainstream’ practice within schools and people’s everyday lives.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness refers to a state of awareness that involves ‘tuning in’ to the present moment, instead of ‘tuning out’ and thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Originating in Eastern meditation tradition, mindfulness has now become a common language and practice in Western psychology and education.

Mindfulness is based on the premise that our minds are constantly busy, focusing on thoughts about matters that are outside one’s immediate experience or one’s current activity. When we exist in this state, we create a fertile ground for anxiety and depression and we can often be on ‘auto-pilot’ where we are performing actions with little awareness of what we are actually doing.

Think about the drive to work. During that time, some people may be constantly thinking about all the tasks they need to complete that day, or maybe what has happened the day before or that morning. The driver then arrives at work and really doesn’t recall much of the trip at all. They had ‘tuned out’ of the present moment and instead focused on their recurring inner thoughts.

Mindfulness encourages us to intentionally focus our attention on the experience occurring at the present moment, in a non-judgemental way, rather than the state of mind described above where attention is focused elsewhere[2].

Mindfulness-based approaches can include a range of methods from formal meditation practices to everyday routines. One of the appealing aspects of mindfulness is that you can practice and develop your skills by completing everyday activities in a ‘mindful’ way. For example, you can undertake mindful walking, bathing, eating, or driving.

Although the methods to practice mindfulness may vary, the common essential elements include focusing your attention directly on the activity; noticing when your attention may wander into thoughts or memories and gently returning your attention to the activity. Mindfulness can be enhanced if you notice the sensations in your immediate experience (or while completing the current activity) such as sounds, sights and smell. While you are focusing your attention on the current activity you must refrain from evaluation or self-criticism2.

Mindfulness for children and young people is easy to implement; can be applied to a wide range of contexts; is enjoyable; and is relatively cheap. Although there are many readings available about how to be mindful, to gain a strong understanding of the premise and the skill it is recommended that first-hand experience through classes, workshops or guided practice be undertaken2.

Being mindful is a skill that we all possess; however, we need to practice this skill regularly and intentionally to reap its benefits. Teaching children and young people to practice early in life will help them to embed this into their adult life and support their well-being as they mature.

How does mindfulness benefit children and young people?

The popularity of mindfulness has grown at a rapid pace. This widespread interest in mindfulness, however, surpasses the depth of evidence supporting its effectiveness[3]. In order to be certain of the exact benefits of mindfulness for children and young people, further research is needed that relies on sophisticated and robust study designs. Fortunately, the emerging research that does evaluate the impact of mindfulness for children and young people provides some encouraging findings.

Research suggests that mindfulness can have a positive impact on children and young people’s academic skills and emotional well-being. More specifically, mindfulness has been shown to reduce aggression, depression, and enhance peer acceptance[4] ; improve classroom behaviour and attention and reduce anxiety[5]; and improve children’s ability to self-regulate difficult emotions[6]. With the promise of such extensive benefits for children and young people, it is not surprising that schools are keen to incorporate mindfulness into the learning environment.

How can we encourage mindfulness for children and young people at home and school?

Parents and teachers play a critical role in supporting the well-being of children and young people, both in terms of assisting when they are experiencing troubling emotions and experiences, and also by teaching skills to help children and young people build resilience and sustain positive well-being.

To incorporate mindfulness as a strategy to help children and young people to develop emotional well-being, parents and teachers are encouraged to adopt the following approaches.

Educate yourself about mindfulness

Reading about the premise and practice of mindfulness will be very helpful, but attending a class to experience it first-hand will greatly enhance your understanding and thus your ability to assist children and young people.

Practice mindfulness yourself

This is important for two reasons: a) your thorough knowledge of mindfulness means you will be able to help your child/students refine their mindfulness skills; b) the well-being of your child/students is bolstered when parents and teachers experience emotional wellness themselves. Not only will you enjoy and benefit from your own heightened well-being, but your child/students will also gain as a result.

Incorporate mindfulness into children’s daily routines

Many classrooms will establish a routine where they practice mindfulness as part of each day. For example, teachers may ask students to participate in mindful breathing whilst listening to mindfulness audio when they return from recess each day. At home, you can practice eating mindfully at the dinner table, or you could even have a mindful walk along the beach together.

Educate children on the principles of mindfulness

This will help to promote understanding of the functioning of their mind and that they can use mindfulness in times of stress or sadness, beyond just using it when they feel calm. This is when mindfulness is needed most.

Practice mindful parenting or teaching

The role of a parent and teacher is complex and challenging, and we can often find ourselves on auto-pilot when we are interacting with our child/students. Mindful parenting or teaching involves giving your full attention to the current interaction with children and young people. Now, we all know that with the multiple demands on parents and teacher’s time and attention, this is not possible all the time. But if we could achieve at least one mindful interaction each day, not only will this reduce our own stress[7], but it will foster a strong relationship with the important children and young people in our life and they will reap the benefits emotionally.

Findings attesting to the positive impact of mindfulness on well-being is most welcome at a time when children and young people seem to be experiencing high levels of distress. Parents and teachers can play a key role in incorporating mindfulness into homes and schools when they are well-informed and embark upon this new venture together with children and young people through discussion and joint practice.

As always, the success of any new strategy is founded on a positive relationship between children, young people and the important adults in their life. This fundamental connection and openness remains vital regardless of what approach is popular at the time.

Dr Danielle Tracey, Educational and Developmental Psychologist, Western Sydney University

Useful resources for home or school

Smiling Mind is suitable for use at home or school. It is a free web and app-based program developed by psychologists and educators. It offers quick and easy-to-follow guided mindfulness programs catering for different age groups. Visit www.smilingmind.com.au for more information.

MindUP™ is designed to be delivered in a primary-age classroom. It is intended to provide a range of benefits to teachers as well as students. The program is comprised of 15 lessons in which students are taught to self-regulate behaviour and mindfully engage in focused concentration required for academic success. Visit www.mindup.org for more information. The MindUp curriculum is available from the Scholastic Store.

TED Talk: Andy Puddicombe: All it takes is 10 mindful minutes

The Thriving Adolescent: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Positive Psychology to Help Teens Manage Emotions, Achieve Goals, and Build Connection written by Dr Louise Hayes and Dr Joseph Ciarrochi.

Calm with the Very Hungry Caterpillar written by Eric Carle.

Sitting Still Like a Frog written by Eline Snel, CD Audio read by Myla Kabat-Zinn.

If parents or teachers have significant concerns about the wellbeing of their child/student, it is critical that they reach out for help. Either speak with their School Counsellor, their local GP or a Psychologist. For Learning Links Psychology service click here.

[1] Kieling, C., Baker-Henningham, H., Belfer, M., Conti, G., Ertem, I., Omigbodun, O., Rhode, L., Srinath, S., Ulkuer, N., & Rahman, A. (2011) Child and adolescent mental health worldwide: evidence for action. Lancet, 378, 1515–1525.

[2] Baer, R. (2015).Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications. USA: Academic Press

[3] Greenberg, M., & Harris, A. (2012). Nurturing Mindfulness in Children and Youth: Current State of Research. Child Development Perspectives, 6(2), 161-166.

[4] Schonert-Reichl, K., Oberle, E., Lawlor, M., Abbott, D., Thomson, K., Oberlander, T., & Diamond, A. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social-emotional development through a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology, 51(1), 52.

[5] Semple, R., Lee, J., Rosa, J., & Miller, D. (2010). A Randomized Trial of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Children: Promoting Mindful Attention to Enhance Social-Emotional Resiliency in Children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19(2), 218-229.

[6] Flook, L., Goldberg, S., Pinger, L., & Davidson, R. (2015). Promoting prosocial behavior and self-regulatory skills in preschool children through a mindfulness-based kindness curriculum. Developmental Psychology, 51(1), 44.

[7] Corthorn, C., & Milicic, N. (2016). Mindfulness and Parenting: A Correlational Study of Non-meditating Mothers of Preschool Children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25(5), 1672-1683.