Getting Started with Mindfulness in Early Childhood
Imagine: Your students return to your classroom from outdoors excited, talkative, antsy. The lights are dim. You ask your students to be seated comfortably on the floor around the room, sitting “tall” with their spines stretched upward. You sit with them and note that some close their eyes while others gaze downward, settling into a quiet mode. You instruct them to slowly breathe through their noses for a count of three, then exhale just as slowly (mouths closed) for the same count. You repeat this as everyone slows their bodies and begins to get in sync with each other. This time you breathe in to a count of four...and out....
Now you ask them to breathe in to a count of five, but this time they will quietly make an “mmmm” sound as they exhale, pretending to be bees buzzing in a garden. The next time, you ask students to cup their hands over their ears to amplify their buzzing sounds, increasing mind-body awareness. You repeat this bee-breathing exercise until you feel that each child has relaxed fully and is as centered - balanced between mind/ body, imagination/reality, logic/emotion - as possible. Then you ask them to slowly open their eyes, lift their heads and resume normal breathing.
They seem ready to transition to the next activity. You ask them to share with a partner one or two words that describe how they felt when they first arrived, and how they feel now. After they’ve shared briefly, you calmly give them a silent signal that they may take their places wherever the next portion of the day requires, leaving the lights off for a bit longer. Students calmly gather their materials and move on to the next task.
In less than three minutes’ time--without any tools, equipment or training--you have brought your wiggly, giggly class to a quiet space of calm and respite. Their minds and bodies have slowed to a more focused pace. You have just experienced the positive power of mindfulness in the classroom.
The simple act of controlling one’s breathing signals to the brain that “all is well,” which calms the nervous system and slows the stress response. It is an incredible tool for helping people listen, learn and live more joyously and effectively. Yoga (meaning union) is the practice of acknowledging and integrating all aspects of our internal nature -- body, mind, and spirit - in pursuit of physical, mental and emotional balance. It is similar in purpose to mindfulness, and is often used in tandem for maximum benefits. “Brain Breaks” are a popular method of helping students “reset” their minds and bodies to become focused for renewed academic time and can easily include mindfulness and yoga techniques.
As teachers seem to face more student distress and burnout in the classroom, the reason behind that may not be so surprising: A disheartening 1 in 7 children, and nearly 1 out of every 40 infants in the United States experience some form of maltreatment, neglect or abuse, particularly in families that face excessive stress due to financial or environmental strain. Exposure to frequent, repetitive stress creates chronic anxiety which can have lifelong consequences by disrupting the developing architecture of the brain (Harvard). The average age of diagnosis for anxiety disorder (not typical anxiety) in children is age 6, which means that even preschool classes have multiple children whose mental and emotional well-being are compromised. The benefits of shifting our approach from a treatment perspective to a lens of early intervention are clear.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We know that from experience--it is easier to teach students who are physically prepared (wiggles out, stomachs full), emotionally ready (hurt feelings or anxiety managed, centered), and mentally charged (focused, alert, relaxed). Mindfulness practices can provide much of these essential skills with less time lost in the process! Providing students with essential life skills and coping strategies as they develop is as critical as imparting academic knowledge.
Benefits of Mindfulness in Early Childhood
Mindfulness practices and yoga techniques should be:
- Child-friendly (can be done sitting, standing, walking) = fun!
- Consistent implementation
When done consistently, mindfulness is a powerful tool to help children attain essential emotional skills such as:
♥ Emotional self-control
♥ Stress reduction
Mindfulness has also been proven to strengthen children’s critical social skills such as:
Physical benefits are also embedded in mindfulness:
💪 Body and core strength
💪 Stress reduction
The result is students who are calm, focused, and able to manage themselves positively - all keys to a healthy, active mind and body. In fact, research done by the Mindful Schools organization indicates that when 400 elementary students were monitored in four learning areas (attention, participation, self-control, respect for others) and provided simple mindfulness activities 3 times a week for only 5 weeks, students made significant gains in all four areas. Teachers discovered mindfulness was a boon for themselves, too, as it gave them a sense of better control over classroom management, which made them feel better organized, more effective, less burned out, and more emotionally connected with their students. And we know that teaching depends on building positive relationships!
Think of a student you’ve worked with who seems to be caught in a hamster-wheel cycle of acting out, dealing with consequences, responding angrily to the consequences, then acting out… These students often face years of missing out on quality education, even learning to dislike school, because of the amount of time they spend in “defense mode.” The chronic disruption also impacts your focus and energy as well as that of the other students. If that same child had the ability to calm themself by taking a brain break, or using any of the mindfulness practices you’ve demonstrated, you might actually help them change the trajectory of their life.
Incorporating Mindfulness in the Early Childhood Classroom
Mindfulness is not an “add-on” or extracurricular, but a built-in expectation--part of your regular schedule. Regardless of how much time you allot, you will reap the benefits for longer than the time invested. Paying attention is a learned skill that we don’t generally teach overtly. Teaching children to pay close attention to their own bodies helps them extend that attention elsewhere in their lives.
- Inclusive of children of all languages, developmental ability, socio-economic background
- Effective for all learners
- Effective for all ages
- Free (no need to wait for a “program” to start in your school)
Mindfulness can be implemented:
- Any time
- For any length of time
- Requires no training (though training is available and helpful)
- Requires no special equipment or material (ample resources are available online, in books and at the library)
- Can start tomorrow!
What other teaching tool do you know of that comes close to mindfulness practice?
If your school does not have a mindfulness practice or program, start one in your own classroom! Incorporating music is a great method of helping students get settled and begin mindful awareness. Bari Koral has several albums appropriate for this, like Let’s Yoga Together, as do other children’s yoga instructors and artists. Heil & Rosen have created a wonderful beginning resource for educators, Yoga & Mindfulness for Young Children, and the ABCs of Mindfulness four book set will have your youngsters practicing on their own all around the room!
Teaching and modeling mindfulness as an essential life skill will benefit you and your students for years to come. Imagine the positive ripple effect mindfulness can have on your life and your students’ lives! As Kira Willey (mindfulness trainer) says, “Kids [don’t practice mindfulness] because it is trendy or they’ve been taught. They do it because mindfulness works for them!”
Alliance for Decision Education. Mindful Choices.
Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA). Anxiety Disorders in Children.
Persistent Fear and Anxiety Can Affect Young Children’s Learning and Development. Harvard National Council on the Developing Young Child, Working Paper 9, 2010. Tilak, Visi. “Benefits of Yoga for Kids, Parents Magazine, August 5, 2014.
Willey, Kira. “Bite-Sized Mindfulness: An Easy Way for Kids to Be Happy and Healthy.” TED-X Talk, Lehigh River. Jan 10, 2018.
Burnett, Christie. childhood 101. The Ultimate Library of Yoga for Kids Videos: Great for Home and School. (Curated list of YouTube Brain Breaks incorporating yoga and mindfulness)
Shardlow, Giselle. Kids Yoga Stories. Yoga for Spring (free posters and poses)
Child Light. The Kids Yoga Resource Blog. (resources and ideas)
YoKid. YoKid Blog. (resources and ideas)
Mindful Practices. (Online resources and training for students, educators)
Lisa Heintz, M.Ed., is an educator with over 25 years of experience supporting learners from toddlers to adults, and owner of Little Songbird: Songs for Learning, a site that provides quality children’s music and book recommendations for PreK-grade 3 educators. She stays “green and growing” by volunteering in community and school projects that focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as with the Children’s Music Network. She is fascinated by birds of all sorts, loves cats, and is the proud mom of a son who is a shining example of what intentional teaching and parenting can do for children with disabilities. Connect with Lisa at Lisa@LittleSongbird.com.