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Calm and clear: What mindfulness can do for your kids

Alice Gomstyn By Alice Gomstyn

Young girl meditating

At age 9, Zoe Jones is a mindfulness veteran. For years, she has attended a Los Angeles charter school that sets aside time every morning for students to practice various mindfulness techniques, including slowing their breathing and relaxing their muscles.

Zoe’s mother, Laura Lambert, says her daughter uses mindfulness to calm down when something's upsetting her, whether it's itchy bug bites or a fight with her brother. "I think it's great," Laura says. "What an amazing skill it is to be quiet and thoughtful."

Mindfulness is the state of being aware of the present moment — noticing and accepting what's going on with your feelings, your body and your surroundings without judgment or labels. Through special “exercises,” children can learn to regulate their emotions and apply what they've learned in everyday life.

Once considered fringe, mindfulness is rapidly becoming a mainstream phenomenon. Corporations, national sports teams and the military are adopting mindfulness training as a way to drive achievement. Apps like Headspace and Calm are promoting it as a means to de-stress anywhere, anytime. And research showing its benefits for children (see below) has led to a boom in meditation and mindfulness programming in elementary schools.

As families face another hectic back-to-school season, skeptical parents may want to give the practice a try. Anything to balance out their family’s long school-supply shopping list, rushed morning routine, and new teachers and classmates.

Psychologist Tamar Chanksy, PhD, author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety (2014), summarizes the benefits of mindfulness as taking control over negative thinking. “Kids aren't being dragged around by the thoughts that they have,” she says. “They are able to, as I like to say, 'underreact,' and just be with their thoughts."

The glitter jar: a mindfulness exercise for kids

Mindfulness can be difficult to explain to adults, let alone children. So how do experts do it? One popular method is known as the glitter jar exercise. Children are instructed to fill jars of water, add glitter and shake the jar. The shaken jar, with its glitter flakes swirling, represents the hustle and bustle — the thoughts, feelings and urges — in a person's mind. But when a jar is put to rest, the glitter slowly descends to the bottom, leaving the rest of the jar clear. This represents the calm and clarity that can come from being still.

The glitter jar "is one of the most powerful visual metaphors for that connection; it illustrates how mindfulness — the cultivation of stillness in the face of swirling chaos of life — affects us," wrote Christopher Willard, PsyD, in an article adapted from his book Growing Up Mindful (2016) and posted online in the magazine Mindful.

Willard, a psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School, notes that the jar itself can serve as a timer for practices such as mindful breathing. Teachers or parents can shake the jar and instruct kids to breathe, focusing attention on their inhale and exhale, until the glitter settles.

How mindfulness benefits kids

Mindfulness doesn’t eliminate swirling thoughts and feelings, but it can help kids cope with everyday problems like spats with friends or stress over schoolwork. Researchers have found that mindfulness helps children exercise self-control, act compassionately toward others and manage stress. There's evidence that children benefit on the academic front, too, with mindfulness exercises helping them pay attention in class and even raise their grades.

"While children's minds are forming and they're in a very intensive social environment, there's really nothing better than mindfulness for helping them assimilate new information," says Andy Lee, Aetna's chief mindfulness officer. "Mindfulness helps children be grounded — to know what's going on and how to deal with it."

Even children facing the most challenging circumstances can benefit. Studies have investigated how mindfulness can help impoverished elementary school children and incarcerated adolescents cope. "Children develop a sense of resilience, because they recognize they are so much more than what is said to them or the environment they live in," says Laura S. Bakosh, PhD, a psychologist and the co-founder of Inner Explorer. The organization provides audio-based mindfulness instruction for schools. In 2017, it received a grant from the Aetna Foundation to bring their program to 15 at-risk schools in Florida, reaching more than 12,000 children.

The impact surprised even Rachael Baker, a mindfulness advocate and wellness consultant with Aetna. Her daughter, Shiloh, 7, attends an elementary school where the program was introduced. Initially, Shiloh "was anti-mindfulness because she hears about it from me all the time," Baker says. But once she began practicing in class, she changed her mind. Baker said her daughter now praises mindfulness as helping her make better choices.

Shiloh described her feelings in a journal that Baker read at the end of the school year. "She wrote 'This helps calm me down. It makes me happy,'" Baker remembers. "It brought tears to my eyes."

This is the first in a series of stories on mindfulness for kids. For more mindfulness exercises that parents can practice with their children to help them calm down and improve their focus, visit How to Introduce Mindfulness to Kids.

About the author

Alice Gomstyn is a veteran parenting blogger and business reporter. She is an admitted sugar addict but plans to cut back on the sweet stuff and load up on veggies like never before. Bring on the broccoli!