Mindfulness Training For Kids

Grownups love to watch children at play. We marvel at their total immersion, the way they completely give themselves over to the moment.


But what if we asked that toddler, now so engrossed in his role as Batman, what he ate for dinner last week? Or if we stopped that little girl, now deep in princess play, to ask what provoked that blood-curdling tantrum just a few minutes ago?


Would either be able to tell us?


Ellen McCarty is an instructor for Mindful Schools, a not-for-profit, Oakland-based organization that teaches mindfulness to children. She has taught more than 700 elementary schoolchildren, including those with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and is a strong believer in the practice as a path to emotional health and healing. 



How do you define mindfulness?

Mindful Schools defines it as “a particular way of paying attention. It is the mental faculty of purposefully bringing awareness to one’s experience…noticing our experience without reacting.”



What can kids get out of it?

In collaboration with UC Davis’ Department of Psychology, Mindful Schools just completed the largest study to date on mindfulness in education. The study of 829 elementary school students showed improvement in all four target development categories: physical, mental, social and emotional. You can read additional research data at www.mindfulschools.org/about-mindfulness/research.  



Walk us through a sample exercise.

I have developed a secret code game that allows children, through play, to first identify their mental states, and then understand cause and effect by experimenting with their own actions and words and noticing how it changes their “color.”

So, for example, red equals anger, yellow equals fear and green equals happy. . . When we accept unconditionally who a person is, even when they are “code red,” we create the loving space they need to face the difficult work of self-change.



What are some of the common themes you see in children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder?

My theory is that children with ODD have trouble understanding cause and effect. They perceive themselves as victims, not perpetrators . . . As a result they feel a constant need to defend themselves.


Life is exceptionally frustrating and painful for these children. They tend to be intense and have difficulty accessing their sense of humor and playfulness.


When children with ODD feel judged, they increase their defenses and react with greater negativity. The instinct at that moment at home or in the classroom is to label the child as “bad” and try to drill into them the idea that they need to be “good.” I believe that this backfires.



How can parents use mindfulness with these kids?

There are three main tools: Objective communication. Consistent and firm boundaries with a neutral tone of voice. And finally, parents need to develop patience with negative emotions in themselves.


If a child’s extreme emotions cannot derail you emotionally as a parent, then the child will start to see that the emotions are not so powerful.


It helps if parents can acknowledge their own negative emotions: “I feel a lot of anger in my body right now. Isn’t that interesting? What should I do?”


This empowers the child to let go of defenses and inspires their curiosity so that they are more likely to investigate their own severe emotions. 


This said, it can take years to teach mindfulness effectively.


Gwen Hubner is a freelance writer who lives in Oakland. 

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