Can Teaching Kids Mindfulness Replace Discipline?

Traditional punishments like detention and suspension are often ineffective. Some schools are turning to meditation and mindfulness and seeing real results.

Imagine this… instead of sending your children to their room kicking and screaming, taking away their iPad for a week, or giving them a time-out in the corner, you ask them to spend a few minutes alone to meditate and work through the anger, frustration, stress, or other emotions causing them to act out.

This new form of discipline is now a huge success at several schools, and those schools are seeing some major changes among students.

Can we take these lessons learned from schools and add them to our parenting toolbox? 

Mindfulness versus traditional discipline in schools

According to a recent article in Forbes, traditional punishment in schools, like detention and suspension, are ineffective ways to address bad behavior. This approach creates resentment and damages the relationship between the student and teacher. Students only feel more negativity when they have to miss recess or extracurricular activities they enjoy.

Taking a groundbreaking approach, the Holistic Life Foundation (HLF) works with schools to initiate mindfulness programs as opposed to the traditional punishment methods. HLF is a local non-profit in Baltimore committed to nurturing the wellness of children in underserved communities by helping them develop their inner lives through yoga, mindfulness, and self-care. HLF trains teachers and guides schools to develop mindfulness programs on their campuses. It also serves as a resource to programs all over the country by hosting workshops and other training programs.

Successful school programs

Schools all over the country are now incorporating mindfulness into their curriculum, but what makes the schools partnering with HLF so unique is the way they’re using mindfulness to address negative behavior in the classroom. In particular, two schools, working together with HLF, are seeing a huge shift in their students’ behavior.

Robert W. Coleman Elementary School

Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore offers mindful meditation as an alternative to detention. Instead of punishing disruptive kids or sending them to the principal’s office, the school has a “Mindful Moment Room.” This is a comforting room filled with lamps, decorations, bean bags, and pillows where students can learn how to diffuse their stress and anger.

While in the room, kids who have misbehaved are encouraged to try deep breathing exercises and meditation to help calm themselves down and regain a sense of inner balance before going back to the classroom. They’re also encouraged to talk to a trained staff member about what happened and how it made them feel. The students and staff work together to create a plan to help them use mindfulness techniques to address similar situations in the future. Teachers can refer a student to the Mindful Moment Room to cool down, or students can request to spend time there.

Since the Mindful Moment Room was created at Coleman, students appear to be more relaxed and are able to control their emotions more effectively. To wit, there were no suspensions in 2015 and, as yet, none in 2016. This is an improvement from the four suspensions given during the 2013–2014 school year. 

Patterson High School

At Patterson High School, also in Baltimore, the Mindful Moment Room is a special calm area available throughout the day. Students can request to spend time in the room, or teachers may send distressed or disruptive students there to work through their emotions. Social workers, psychologists, and the nurse all refer students to the Mindful Moment Room for assistance with anxiety, stress, and other emotional issues.

When a student enters the Mindful Moment Room, they’re assigned a “Mindfulness Instructor” who first talks to the student about the situation and then guides him or her through a mindfulness practice, such as breathing exercises and yoga poses. After 20 minutes in the Mindful Moment Room, students return to their class refreshed and ready to go on with their day.

Since the room opened, the school has seen an increase in attendance and a drop in the number of suspensions. Teachers have also noticed that the school is quieter in general, with fewer fights and disagreements among the students.

How mindfulness helps

Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through purposefully paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental way, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the leading expert on mindfulness and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

As we practice mindfulness, we begin to understand our mind-body connection better and learn not to be so reactive to thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. With mindfulness, we develop a quality of attention that can be present no matter what is happening around us. This helps us feel more peace, ease, and balance in our lives and we develop more empathy, compassion, and love.

Mindfulness has gained so much attention in recent years because the research has shown the incredible impact it can have on our lives. Several studies demonstrate that meditation can help children reduce stress and anxiety, increase attention and focus, and improve academic performance. Scientists have actually witnessed individual’s brains thicken in areas in charge of decision-making, emotional flexibility, and empathy during meditative practices.

The best evidence for the positive change that mindfulness brings is to listen to the students in Baltimore talk about how they, and their friends, have transformed from spending time in the Mindful Moment Room:

“I have learned how to calm myself down and focus better in class.”

“It has taught me how to calm myself and listen to my thoughts”

“I can calm down and breathe. When I’m hyped up or having a bad day, I can relax. It makes me feel better.”

“It helped me deal with so much I was going through. It helped me to be able to talk about my feelings more and to stop focusing on all the drama going on in school.”

“Mindfulness gives me more self-control. It helps me get my mind straight when I’m worried about something.”

“It helped me get over what people were saying. I learned to mind my business and move on.”

“It is a fun place to go and I have learned that there are other ways to release your anger.”

How to use this approach at home

The principal of Patterson High School, Vance Benton, has seen such success at the school that he now practices mindfulness at home with his son every morning before they start their day.

One of HLF’s main tactics is to “use a reciprocal teaching model so that the youth go back to their homes and teach the techniques to their parents,” explains Andres A. Gonzalez, Director of Marketing at HLF.

Wouldn’t you love to see your children deal with their emotions more effectively? Consider creating a calm corner in your home where your children can spend time when they’re irritated, frustrated, or angry.

And while our children are having a mindful moment, maybe parents should do the same.

5 Ways to Incorporate Mindfulness into Your Child’s Daily Routine

Mindfulness is one of the most powerful tools we have available to us. It has also become an increasingly treasured practice. The idea behind mindfulness is simple: it is “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”, according to mindfulness scholar Jon Kabat-Zinn

The beauty of mindfulness lies in its accessibility. We can practice it at any time, in any moment. Mindfulness practices help children foster a sense of curiosity, self-compassion, and a crucial awareness of their psychological and physical experience of the world.

Here are five simple ways to turn a habitual routine into an opportunity for your child to practice mindfulness:

Encourage mindful eating at breakfast 

Mindful eating is a wonderful way to introduce the idea of mindfulness to children. Before your child begins a meal, invite them to connect with the experience of eating by first observing what their food looks like, smells like, and sounds like.

Inspire your child to explore all the sensations of the food they are eating: How does it feel to have the food in your mouth? Is the texture of one food the same as the texture of another? What about the food tastes sweet or salty? Does the taste of the food change as you chew?

This is a great opportunity for your child to notice their body’s finely tuned senses. Encourage them to identify some of the signals their body and mind send to them when they are feeling hungry and full.

Turn the walk to school into a walking meditation

Research shows that meditation is hugely beneficial for children. Walking meditation is an engaging practice for children, especially if they are new to meditative practices. As you walk with your child down the street, ask them to bring their focus to their feet: What does it feel like to have your foot suspended in air versus touching the ground? Is your entire foot ever touching the ground all at once?

You can also invite your child to explore their five senses when moving from one place to another: What do they see, hear, touch, and smell in one environment compared to another?  What kinds of feelings do those elements of the physical environment bring to mind? 

Send along affirmations in their lunch box

A beautiful way to foster positive thinking in children (and adults!) is through positive affirmations. Introduce the idea of affirmations by explaining that sometimes when we feel sad, mad, or frustrated, we are likely to have negative thoughts. In those moments, detaching from the negative thoughts and instead focusing on positive ones can help make us feel better.

Invite your child to create an “affirmation of the week.” Write their affirmation down (or even better, have them write it down, and turn it into a full-blown art project!) and send it along with them in their lunch box as a sweet, midday reminder.

Ask a new question at dinner: what color was your day?

Go beyond the predictable “how was your day?” inquiry at dinner, and invite your child to tell you how their day was through colors. Colors tend to be strongly associated with emotions and are a fun and visual descriptor that children can use to reflect on their experiences.

By asking your child to think about their day differently, you are creating an exploratory space to unpack the experiences that emulate that particular color. This question can also lead to a conversation on emotional states and the various events that may yield different emotions.

Visualizing emotions as different colors can also help children conceptualize emotional states as being transitory, which Dr. Dan Siegel says is a fundamental lesson for children in his book The Whole Brain Child.

Connect to breath at bedtime

Relaxation breathing is a powerful tool for calming the sympathetic nervous system and igniting the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us feel relax and restored. Teaching our children how to breathe is one of the greatest gifts we can share with them.

To practice the relaxation breathing technique, have your child inhale through their nose for four counts and exhale from their nose for eight counts. The key here is that their exhale is longer than their inhale.

You can also try having your child find a “breathing buddy,” which could be any object they find comforting, from a stuffed animal to an eye pillow. They can put their breathing buddy on their tummy and watch it rise and drop as they practice the relaxation breath. The breathing buddy acts as a visual for the breath and empowers children to feel in control of their own breathing.

Simplicity of Thought: 4 Ways to Teach Kids How to Meditate

These four meditation techniques will arm your children to live lives of patience, love, generosity, and compassion.

My closet has changed a lot over the years.

My baggy jeans turned into skinny jeans, which turned into skirt suits, which morphed into maternity pants, which turned into relaxed jeans, then bigger maternity pants, back into oversized suits, and now I just wear elastic waistbands because the skinny jeans are never fitting again. 

With each change of my closet, I have been overcome by what can only be described as an anxiety-fueled-rampage-of-organization, feeling that if I could just have coordinating hangers, my life would somehow have peace. 

But as it turns out, no matter how many times I have sought peace from an organized closet, peace cannot be found under old shoeboxes and discarded dry-cleaning bags. Peace is something that has to be cultivated from a place even deeper than the recesses of my shelving.

Enter meditation. As an adult, meditation has given me the tools to be at peace, even when there is chaos. I started practicing meditation as an undergraduate student on a whim, and at that time I couldn’t possibly have anticipated the gigantic impact it would have on my life.  Meditation techniques carried me through law school, job interviews, high intensity negotiations and courtroom scenes, childbirth, hospitalizations of my child, mundane arguments, and managing the health of my parents.

As a parent, I want to cultivate a culture of meditation for my children, so that no matter what happens outside of their control, they will be emboldened with a quiet confidence to handle the task or situation. Meditation with children doesn’t need to look like an Ashram. No robes necessary. But these five techniques will arm your children to live lives of patience, love, generosity, and compassion.

Rhythm mediation

Meditation doesn’t have to be limited to quiet words and thoughts. Sometimes the best way to teach children to notice what’s going on inside is to get them loud and moving. 

Begin by handing your child whatever schoolhouse instrument or improvised instrument you have on hand. Maracas, shakers, hand drums, or old coffee cans work great. Ask your child to play for you what “happy” sounds like. Then ask them to play you what “sad” sounds like. Move through several emotions before asking them to play you what they feel like right now.

Engage with this through the week asking them at random intervals to play you what their feelings sound like at that moment. Over time, kids will learn to be attuned to their feelings and know that it’s safe to express whatever those feelings may be.

“That Kid” and the loving-kindness meditation

Once kids hit school, they seem to always have That Kid in their class: the kid who is always irritating to your child. That kid is the perfect opportunity to teach your child the loving-kindness meditation or the “metta bhavana.” As adapted for children, here’s how it works:

Have your child sit with you (which can be over dinner or in the car) and tell them that you are going to play a game. It begins by asking your child to tell you something good about herself/himself. Encourage her/him to think about all of her/his favorite things. Let your child be as silly or reserved as he/she need to be, but push your child to be honest and to make a substantial list. When your child has exhausted their list tell your child that he/she is loved. Say it aloud.

Next, ask your child to think of a close friend or family member. Ask your child to tell you about all of the good qualities of this friend or family member. When your child is done indulging in those happy thoughts, say aloud “[This Friend] is loved.”

Then, ask your child to tell you something good about someone that they hardly know. It could be that quiet girl on the soccer team, or the man who bags your groceries each week. Push your child to think about something good that he/she can observe about this near stranger. Then say aloud “[This Stranger] is loved.”

Finally, ask your child to tell you all the good things that they can think of about That Kid. They will resist, they may laugh or scoff, but tell them the rule of the game is that they have to think of at least two things. At this point I allow the good things to be as simple as, “He doesn’t smell bad,” or “She’s good at holding the door open.” But be sure to end with “[That Kid] is loved.”

Simple mantras

My oldest daughter is an anxious kid by nature. And despite my reading of every sleep-training book on the market and experimenting with more theories than the Manhattan project, she struggled to sleep through the night well into her preschool years. What did help? A Mantra.

In our case, we trained her that when she wakes in the middle of the night she should repeat, “I am safe and I am loved, I am safe and I am loved.”  Your child’s mantra can be any simple phrase that gives them confidence in times of vulnerability. 

Journaling

Writing is like an extra sense to me – one that trumps the other five. For a kid who feels similarly, writing may be the access point to their unconscious. Whether the journal is one of words or pictures, encouraging your child to journal teaches them reflection, which is an immensely important meditation technique. 

The best way to encourage a resistant kid to take the time to journal is to say, “It’s bedtime, but if you’d like to stay awake a little longer, you may write in your journal.” Works like a charm.

As parents, we can’t control the world in which our children live, but we can give them the tools to find peace, simplicity, and confidence anywhere – even in a messy closet. Difficult and confusing things will happen in your children’s lives. No matter how fine a parent you may be, you cannot change that reality. What you can do is teach your children the skills to hold their loving and confident ground.

7 Guided Meditations to Help Your Child Sleep

Settling down to sleep isn’t always easy for kids. These guided meditations are a great addition to the usual warm baths, lullabies, and storybooks.

There’s plenty of advice out there for parents who want to help settle their children down to sleep at night. If you’ve been looking for ideas you’re probably familiar with suggestions like a warm bath, a regular bedtime routine, and avoiding screen time just before bed.

But what if it you’ve tried everything, and none of it works for your child?

I used to teach meditation and relaxation sessions at a mental health center, and when I became a parent, I adapted some of the exercises I employed there to help my high-energy child relax at bedtime.

These exercises are best done after your child is in bed, with the lights out or just a gentle night light left on. Hopefully you’ll be tiptoeing out of the room before you finish!

When doing these exercises always speak in a gentle soothing voice, use rhythm and repetition, and slow down as you speak. As your child seems more relaxed pause between some words, and elongate sounds. 

The Jelly Sweet

The last time I did this one with my daughter she fell asleep almost instantly.

I begin with, “You are a jelly sweet. You are a purple jelly sweet lying on the floor. On the warm floor, in the sun. You feel soft and melty, lying on the warm floor, in the sun. You are lovely and warm and soft and squishy…”

Encourage your child to really imagine how it feels to be a jelly sweet and continue the description of how the sweet is becoming softer and meltier until it eventually melts into the floor, by which time your little one will hopefully have melted away to sleep.

Sleepy Cats

My daughter loves cats, so I came up with this one just for her, but of course it could easily be adapted to any other animal.

We begin by imagining a cat, maybe a kitten, maybe a big, old silver tabby, anything my daughter likes. I’ll describe the cat using gentle words like “soft” and “fluffy,” and give it a sleepy sounding name such as “Dreamy.”

I’ll talk slowly about how comfortable Dreamy feels, how she purrs and stretches as she snoozes on the end of the bed. Other imaginary cats may also climb onto the bed and snuggle up next to Dreamy.

Repeating words and phrases suggestive of sleep can be really effective at bedtime, it’s a technique used to great effect by Swedish psychologist Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin, in the bestselling The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep.

The Garden of Dreams

Professor Luc Beaudoin promotes a technique called the cognitive shuffle to help insomniacs which involves picturing a random sequence of objects for a few seconds each. The theory is that imagining a succession of nonsensical images can induce sleep.

For this visualization, it helps to have some image ideas prepared – it’s surprisingly tricky to come up with a random list on the spot.

Take your child for an imaginary stroll through a lovely garden filled with strange things. For example, “See the swirly-whirly tree, it’s branches are rainbows slowly twirling through the air. Tiny ironing boards hop about underneath, watch them jump, hear them rattle as they land.”

Focus on one item for a few seconds, then move on to another unrelated item. Imagine an Alice in Wonderland scenario where nothing makes sense but ensure it feels safe and lulling.

The Floaty Boat

Water is a common feature of guided relaxations as many people find water sounds intrinsically relaxing. According to Professor Orfeu Buxton at Live Science this is because slow, whooshing noises are ‘non-threats’ that work to calm people.

For this exercise begin by encouraging your child to imagine him or herself wrapped in a warm blanket in the bottom of a little boat. You might want to place the boat near to the banks of a small river to add a sense of safety, perhaps put yourself in the boat too.

You can begin, “We are snuggled under a fleecy blanket, in our little boat, under a starlit sky.” Bring different senses into play – the gentle bobbing sensation, a soft breeze, rustling leaves, the murmur of the water as it flows over rocks. Imitate watery sounds with words like “hush” and “shush” as you gently drift downstream – and your child gently drifts off to sleep.

The Colored Staircase

This visualization begins with the child imagining standing at the top of a long staircase, leading down to the land of sleep.

You can number the steps and count down backwards with each one – counting backwards is a standard hypnosis technique – but it’s not essential. Just let your child know that with each step they’ll feel little more relaxed, and a little more sleepy. Give the steps different colors, textures, and associations.

So, for example, a soft fluffy white step made of marshmallow may be followed by a shimmery silver step as light as air. Again use sleep-suggestive words, “Going gently down to the next step, it’s deep dark velvet, soft and smooth, making you feel even more sleepy.”

If you reach the bottom of the staircase and they’re still awake, you can walk them through the garden of dreams until they are even more deeply relaxed.

In the Clouds   

Ask your child to imagine they are as light as a feather and can be lifted by a gentle breeze.

“How would it feel to be carried gently along in the sky? Imagine you are a feather drifting higher and higher, drifting further and further away from the earth, drifting gently across the sky. And now you begin to float gently down, landing on a soft fluffy cloud, floating in the air. How does it feel to lie on a cloud in the warm sun? The earth below is far away, it’s noises have faded into the distance. You are safe and comfortable on your cloud. Relax and let the sun warm you…”

Under the Sea

A water-based exercise I use involves imagining being a little fish gently swimming to the bottom of the sea.

Along the way, the fish looks at beautiful corals and strange, slow moving (but unthreatening) sea creatures. At the bottom of the sea, it’s time to rest under a rock and watch the sea life as it passes by.

Again, think of your child’s interests, perhaps they’d prefer to be a whale, a jellyfish, or a sleepy octopus. What all of these creatures have in common, is that they they’ve had their adventures for the day and are settling down for the night.

Once your child is familiar with the exercises they can practice using them on their own. If they wake in the night you could tell them to imagine the floaty boat, or the sleepy cats, or whichever one of the exercises works best for them, to help themselves get back to sleep.

You can, of course, adapt these talks to work with your own child’s special interests. If you have a particularly high-energy child, try teaming a guided relaxation up with a gentle back rub – it can work miracles!