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How mindfulness meditation teaches children to manage their emotions

A new study published in Psychiatry Today just proved what a lot of us have known for a long time: Mindfulness meditation can have a seriously positive impact on your health — especially if you have high levels of stress. These new findings are obviously great news for adults who lead stressful lives, but mindful meditation isn’t just for grown-ups — it’s extremely beneficial for kids, too.

Take, for instance, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School in Harlem. The minute you walk through the doors of the school, you know something special is going on. On a busy weekday morning, when you’d normally expect lively chatter and activity in the halls and classrooms, you instead hear soothing music wafting through the corridors. Students prepare for the day by spending 10 minutes practicing meditation, then before classes begin, teachers and students engage in a conversation about emotions. And it happens every day in every classroom.

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Children need to be taught how to control their emotions,” says the school’s principal, Dawn Brooks DeCosta. “Practicing meditation has reduced negative behavior and suspensions and boosted the academic performance of our students.”

Thurgood Marshall is at the forefront of a new trend in mindfulness education for children. So, what is mindfulness all about? As the active, open attention to the present, it’s living in the moment and accepting one’s thoughts and feelings. When one employs the practice of meditation, one observes thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them as either good or bad. Mindful meditation helps you let go of troubling thoughts.

The proven benefits

An article in The Atlantic discusses research showing that mindfulness education in schools has many proven benefits: increased optimism and happiness in the classroom, decreased bullying, increased empathy and compassion. It also helps students resolve their conflicts.

As a former pediatric oncology nurse, I have witnessed the positive effects of meditation on children undergoing complicated and often painful medical procedures. It helps to reduce pediatric patients’ pain, boosts immune function, decreases blood pressure and helps them cope, emotionally and physically, with the challenges they’re going through.

More: How meditation can help ease your anxiety

I was introduced to meditation years ago by Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, when my team and I were serving children in refugee camps following the Indian Ocean tsunami. Each morning, the monks led us through a meditation, which helped reduce our stress and prepared us emotionally for the coming day. I saw children meditating with their families throughout the refugee camps and realized that young children, even those living in crisis situations, could benefit from the practice.

Meditation is for everyone

For those who think meditation is only for Buddhist monks or New Agers, think again! Children facing the pressures of growing up in a fast-paced, overprogrammed world are perfect candidates for meditation: It can help them calm down when they are upset, make better decisions, experience less stress and enjoy increased self-esteem and impulse control. Who wouldn’t want that for their children?

You don’t have to wait for your elementary school to begin offering meditation — you can do it with your children right at home. In fact, your kids will benefit tremendously from your example: If you’re practicing meditation, your children will naturally want to follow.

Getting started

I recommend introducing the concept through a good children’s book, such as Peaceful Piggy Meditation, by Kerry Lee MacLean, which offers a simple and relatable story through which children can understand what meditation is all about. Then create a special area in your home to be your meditation place. Your children can bring a favorite stuffed animal or pillow and a yoga mat if they’d like. The idea is that this is a safe, peaceful place to take yourself out of your surroundings and focus on feelings.

In the beginning, you can use a timer (preferably with a gentle ring!) set for a short five minutes until your children settle into the idea. Naturally, not all children will be able to sit quietly and calmly for a full five minutes right away, but be patient and use praise and positive reinforcement to celebrate their successes.

Explain that you are all going to close your eyes and notice your breathing. I like to tell kids to take slow, deep breaths and imagine they are gently blowing bubbles as they exhale. This helps them relax and become calm. Use sensations to help children center themselves: “Think about what grass feels like under your feet. Think about the feeling and the taste of your favorite food.”

Afterward, offer to share experiences. How did you feel before you started? How did you feel while going through it? How do you feel now? Encourage them to talk about their own emotions and what might have caused those feelings. Give a few of your own examples as well. Remember, there are no right or wrong feelings! Most kids really enjoy talking about it, but if they don’t, that’s okay, too! This is a judgment-free zone, after all.

Five minutes a day of simple quiet time may seem like a tiny thing. But teaching your children to be mindful is actually a tremendous gift they’ll benefit from for the rest of their lives.

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Originally published March 2016. Updated January 2017.

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