Teaching Mindfulness Skills to Kids & Teens

Hopefully this volume will inspire parents and professionals to continue the spadework that’s needed to answer the open questions, foster new ones, and, through that process, develop best practices for sharing mindfulness with children and families.

 
 

Reading this excellent anthology (Teaching Mindfulness Skills to Kids & Teens) has been like catching up with old friends. Many of the authors were among the first to advance the once slightly wacky, yet remarkably commonsensical, idea that mindfulness could benefit youth. It almost felt hubristic to think we could teach children mindfulness at that time, especially since meditation was rarely taught to youth in the Eastern cultures where it had originated. As Willoughby Britton and Arielle Sydnor explain in Chapter 21, “Most young monastics spend their preteen and teenage years engaged in the memorization of liturgical and philosophical texts and are rarely required to meditate as part of their training”. We knew this was the historical truth. Yet, we were emboldened by our own meditation practices and trained by teachers who were respectfully bucking the conventional wisdom in a similar way. Those Eastern cultures that rarely taught meditation to young people didn’t teach meditation to lay people much either. So it made sense that the more inclusive, experimental approach spearheaded by teachers in the West would spawn a new wave of practitioners eager to share what we had learned with the youngest generation.

 We came from various backgrounds, trained in different traditions, were spread out across the globe, and met infrequently, if at all. However, we shared important commonalities. Notably, we were influenced and inspired by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s secular approach to mindfulness training, specifically mindfulness-based stress reduction, and by the mindful parenting book he wrote with his wife, Myla Kabat-Zinn, entitled Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. Perhaps the most striking common characteristic we held was that we were absolutely certain that mindfulness would benefit young people even though there was no scientific evidence to prove it. 

For starters, we hoped that mindfulness would address a common complaint we heard from our students. Adults told them time and again to “pay attention,” but no one taught them how. We knew from our own practices that meditation trained two stances of attention, both of which had been helpful to us: a focused stance that had helped us concentrate and manage distractions and a more open, receptive one that had helped us calm down when we were upset, manage stress, and navigate strong, difficult emotions. Based on our positive experiences we threw caution to the wind, simplified the adult practices, and began trying them out on our kids, in their schools and community centers. Sure enough, parents, teachers, and the children themselves reported back that mindful strategies were helping them at home, at school, and with friends. There’s now empirical evidence to support what was then merely anecdotal. In Chapter 19, David Black and his colleagues review the scientific findings with respect to mindfulness training and youth, including those related to the development of attention and cognitive control. In Chapter 20, Mark Bertin delves deeper into the relationship between mindfulness and executive functioning and examines how mindfulness can be integrated into care and treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Attention training wasn’t the only thing we were asked about in the beginning. “Isn’t mindfulness the same as teaching kids to stop and count to 10 when they feel angry or upset?” was another common question. The two strategies are similar. But what is missing in the count to 10 approach that is inherent in a mindful approach is noticing what happens in your mind and body during that 10-second interval. Rather than clenching down on the anger and hoping to wait it out by counting to 10, mindfulness suggests a different approach. We notice we’re angry or upset and then stop what we’re doing, relax, and breathe into a more open, receptive perspective. It’s from there that our nervous systems can settle down and we can watch our strong feelings come and go. When prompted, children can then see how, if given a chance, challenging thoughts and emotions tend to morph and fade away. We were certain that teaching kids this other way of attending to their experiences—coupled with a worldview in which an understanding of compassion, impermanence, interdependence, cause and effect, and less binary thinking is baked in—could change how they relate to challenging situations and people. We saw meaningful applications in the classroom and clinic (see Chapter 1, by Lindsey Knowles and colleagues; Chapter 4, by Betsy Hanger; Chapter 13, by Marcella Cox and Char Wilkins; and the Introduction by Christopher Willard) and with populations generally considered difficult to reach (see Chapter 6, by JoAnna Harper; Chapter 3, by Wynne Kinder and Christen Coscia; and Chapter 7, by Sam Himelstein).

Getting parents and school administrations to buy into the “why” of mindfulness for youth was the first hurdle. Once that hurdle was jumped, the question of “how” to teach mindfulness in an age-appropriate, secular manner emerged. In Chapter 5, Lesley Grant provides a helpful look at mindfulness training through a child development lens while presenting games and activities appropriate for specific age groups. Suzi Tortora (Chapter 11), Jennifer Cohen Harper (Chapter 10), Betsy Rose (Chapter 15), Iman Khan (Chapter 14), Vanessa Weiner (Chapter 16), Deborah Plummer (Chapter 17), Jeffrey Pflaum (Chapter 18), and Amy Saltzman (Chapter 12) combine mindfulness with the established disciplines of dance, yoga, music, writing, art, nature studies, and competitive sports to offer joyous and ingenious ways to engage children in practice. These chapters are a generous, multidisciplinary treasure trove of creative ideas for sharing mindfulness in playful, powerful, and developmentally appropriate ways.

Working with children who don’t want to be in your class is challenging for a teacher regardless of the subject matter. It is especially common in our field, given that students are often required to attend mindfulness classes because their teachers, parents, or therapists think it will be good for them. Like it or not, these students are stuck in a “conscript classroom” and would rather be anyplace but there. In Chapter 2, Richard Burnett suggests strategies that encourage resistant students to give mindfulness a chance. He urges us to start by explaining to our charges how mindfulness will help them manage the stress and strain of daily life. He continues by answering practical questions on classroom management ranging from “What do I do if a pupil starts crying?” to “What do I do when a pupil starts giggling?”

Whether working with a child who is resistant at the beginning or with one who starts out enthusiastically, the key to nurturing continued engagement is connectedness. Students generally begin mindfulness training by learning to bring awareness to their minds, bodies, and surroundings and in so doing they better connect with their present-moment experiences. But mindfulness doesn’t stop with our own life experiences (intrapersonal mindfulness). Equally important is how we integrate mindful awareness into our actions and relationships (interpersonal mindfulness). In Chapter 8, Ozum Ucok-Sayrak and Gregory Kramer unpack the practice of both intra- and interpersonal mindfulness, while Susan Bögels, in Chapter 9, explores the interpersonal practice of mindfulness in the context of parenting. Working with kids on their own, outside of their homes, has its limitations, and Bögels’s work reminds us that when mindfulness is offered to the entire family system the possibilities for transformation increase exponentially.

In Bögels’s mindful parenting program, parents begin by practicing themselves before sharing mindfulness with their families. That approach is echoed throughout the book. To borrow from J. B. Priestley, “It’s not what is taught but what’s emphasized,” and the authors’ common emphasis on the development of your own practice first and foremost is no coincidence. Sam Himelstein points out that “one of the most important factors in developing trusting relationships . . . is the degree to which you are authentic” and, further, that “authenticity begets authenticity”. Personal practice is the threshold for authenticity in this work, and the moments that we embody a worldview that supports mindfulness are when the strongest, most authentic teaching can take place.

I came to this work via meditation. In the tradition in which I was trained you needed years of practice, experience, and permission from your meditation teachers in order to teach others. When I received permission, one of my teachers gave me a specific instruction that remains a daily lesson in humility. She told me to only “serve the child in front of me now.” Lindsey Knowles and her colleagues echo this wisdom:

We do not know what we someday will know about teaching mindfulness to children. As we learn more, we adults can simply do our best to bring our own mindful attention to the complexities and uniqueness of each child we work with.

When teachers bring their full attention to the children in front of them now it throws the commonality they share with their students into sharp relief. JoAnna Harper’s description of what it was like to practice with youth labeled “at risk,” “challenging,” or “troubled” after having worked with “typical’ kids” illustrates this:

Though it might seem hard to believe, the years of working with “typical” kids informed my teaching with this [at-risk] population more than I can say. They [“at-risk,” “troubled,” or “challenging” youth] truly feel no different to me; I can see the innocence, joy, and curiosity just below the surface that takes only a little encouragement and care to draw out. Many times I have walked into a room of tough, shutdown, and disinterested faces, yet within an hour, they look like different people, literally transformed. By the time they left our circle these kids were calm and had laughter in their eyes. One young man that I am working with now told me that the class gives him hope, and he now believes that he can have a better life.

Wynne Kinder and her colleagues, who also have extensive experience working with “atypical” and “at-risk” students offer another example of how working with kids can be humbling when they point to the opportunities for co-teaching and co-learning that emerge in a classroom:

So often students will chime in, “I have an idea . . . ” and announce something relevant, creative, and innovative. They may think of an extension of what we are doing or envision another way of doing it that makes much more sense. With their permission and blessing, we have adopted many of our students’ insights. Their judging minds do not get in the way of what they have to offer. 

The theme of approaching this work with humility is echoed throughout this book. Given that consumer enthusiasm has outpaced the science, it is crucial that we foster caution in this emerging field. Evidence now supports what was once only a belief: that mindfulness offers strategies to help children, teens, and families focus, relax, and better regulate their emotions. These are remarkably helpful life skills. In the context of popular mindfulness training, however, they are often taught outside of the worldview in which they were developed. We don’t know what this unbundling of classical practice to emphasize some elements and deemphasize others will mean in the long run. Nor, as Willoughby Britton and Arielle Sydnor point out in Chapter 21, do we know whether it makes sense to wait to train some aspects of mindful attention until children reach a certain age or whether mindfulness practice is equally beneficial for everyone. These are just a few of the questions that will need to be answered for the field to mature.

In closing, a heartfelt thanks to Christopher Willard, Amy Saltzman, and The Guilford Press for integrating the work of these talented authors into the comprehensive volume that you’re holding in your hands. It is an invaluable resource and serves as a reminder of how much has been accomplished in a relatively short period of time. Yet there is much more to be done. If the development of secular mindfulness tracks the development of classical meditation in only the smallest of ways, this is just the beginning. Hopefully this volume will inspire parents and professionals to continue the spadework that’s needed to answer the open questions, foster new ones, and, through that process, develop best practices for sharing mindfulness with children and families. May this effort benefit children, teens, and families everywhere.

This post was written as the foreword to a new book edited by Chris Willard and Amy Saltzman entitled Teaching Mindfulness Skills to Kids and Teens.

casey altman