Mindfulness By Nadia Leibovitz, LCSW
This year we added Mindfulness to our therapeutic program at The Harris School - another “tool” to help children integrate their thoughts and feelings and become more aware and attentive to their own internal worlds and to the external world around them.
When children experience difficult emotions like anxiety, sadness and anger, and when they feel vulnerable or overwhelmed by external situations, they often respond impulsively or withdraw into themselves, making the neurosystem their enemy. As a result, the capacity for learning and for building relationships is significantly affected.
One of the most important recent discoveries in brain research is that the brain is “plastic” and can be molded and changed throughout a person’s life. This is incredibly hopeful because we can intentionally create experiences that will restructure and integrate different parts of the brain, making a more coherent whole.
Mindfulness is a form of internal “tuning in” to oneself. It’s an integrative practice that connects body and mind. It includes the qualities of awareness (paying attention to one’s experience through the senses and the mind); of non-judgment (not labeling things or oneself “good” or “bad” but rather observing with a neutral attitude); and of stillness in heart and mind.
There are three core elements of mindfulness: Intention, Attention and Attitude.
With each Mindfulness practice we are:
1. Setting an intention (to listen and to focus)
2. Directing our attention
3. Being present in the moment, without judgment
These core elements of mindfulness are present throughout the school day. We talk about the idea that we each have a mind, a mind filled with ideas, thoughts and feelings. And we have the ability to control our minds and to direct our attention - to make choices. The teachers encourage children to set an intention for academic learning, for behavior, and for emotional regulation. They remind the children that they have the ability to direct their attention by making choices and redirecting their focus, and they encourage the children to be compassionate to themselves and to others.
There is a growing body of research validating that Mindfulness practice is an effective tool for managing emotions, increasing attention and reducing stress in both children and adults. By building it into the school day we create the opportunity to develop and strengthen the parts of the brain responsible for regulating mood and attention. Like learning to play an instrument, it requires repeated practice in order to become a long-term, enduring trait.
Slowing down and listening to one’s breathing, being aware of one’s thoughts and feelings, and staying in the present without judging oneself is a new experience for many of us. It only takes a few minutes, but it changes the way one feels in the moment, and, with repeated practice, we can “rewire” our brains and change the ways we respond to challenging situations.
What does it look like in the classroom?
There are many variations, but this is one many classes use:
1. A sign is hung outside the door and lights are dimmed
2. “Please get into your ‘mindful bodies’ - still, and quiet, sitting upright, eyes gently closed”
3. Ring a mindfulness bell/chime and ask children to place all their attention on the sound and to listen until it is completely gone
4. Raise your hand/place your hand on your heart when you no longer hear the sound
5. Just focus on your breathing…
6. Notice how your body and mind feel