What happened when an elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland replaced detention with mindfulness? The results are astounding. When a child acts up, the teacher may be tempted to discipline the student and dole out a strict punishment of sitting outside of the classroom or an after-school detention. These disciplinary actions usually consist of students staring at blank walls in boredom. Robert W. Coleman Elementary School made the decision to replace detention with mindfulness. When a child does not follow the rules, they are asked to go to the Mindful Moment Room and calm down. The students are taught breathing exercises and reflective techniques for the purpose of relieving their tension and to think thoughtfully about what happened. Because of this bold change in the school, attendance rates increased and suspension rates dropped. Imagine what every classroom in the U.S. would look like if mindfulness was incorporated into every student’s daily routine.
The practice of mindfulness has grown in popularity over the course of the last two decades. Its empirical evidence and scientific research has garnered the attention of researchers in the field of psychology. It is no surprise that children are reaping the benefits of this ancient practice as well as many adults.
The purpose of utilizing mindfulness techniques with children is to give them the right skills to recognize their thoughts and emotions. In addition, mindfulness is especially beneficial for impulse control and attention issues. Multiple studies have researched the benefits and uses of mindfulness in the classroom. For example, Wilson and Nixon (2010) studied the effects of mindfulness on children’s capacity for attention in the classroom. Students were exposed to five different mindfulness techniques, including mindful eating, breathing, and noticing self exercises. These researchers tracked the students’ behavior in the classroom over a thirty minute span for a two month period. Results showed an 18% increase in attending behaviors following the implementation of mindfulness. Mindfulness is not simply a “meditation-like” state of mind. It is the act of being extremely aware of one’s thoughts and behaviors. The most important finding from this particular study focused on the importance of mindfulness as an actual behavior change technique (Wilson and Nixon, 2010).
Mindfulness techniques can range from easily learned breathing exercises to silent body scans. The ease of these techniques makes them readily available and simple for all children to learn. So, how does a parent or teacher introduce the concept of mindfulness? The “silent game” is a great way to present mindfulness to young children. The children must agree to sit in their chairs, not talk, close their eyes or gaze downward, and not make faces with their peers. The teacher can reinforce the first game through a piece of candy or small toy. As the silent game is played every day, the length of time can increase daily. Once it is mastered, it can be combined with breathing exercises. The act of being silent seems difficult to acquire in a classroom environment, but studies have shown that it is actually quite simple when mindfulness techniques are applied.
All schools can implement mindfulness. Lower-income and ethnic minority elementary school-age children have found tremendous benefit from mindfulness (Black and Fernando, 2014). In addition to breathing exercises and body scans, discussions about emotions and introducing “loving-kindness” is advantageous to children in the classroom. Black and Fernando (2014) found that a discussion of gratitude and how gratitude relates to emotions is a valuable part of mindfulness practice for children. Similarly, sending kind thoughts to others and discussions of all emotions have a positive impact not only in the classroom, but at the students’ homes as well.
Mindfulness is also extremely beneficial in non-traditional classroom settings with lower functioning students. Many studies have focused on the effects of mindfulness with vulnerable children, children with autism or problem behaviors. One 12-week arts-based mindfulness group found success in improving self-concept with vulnerable children. Vulnerable children were described as children ages 8-12 involved with child welfare or mental health systems that experienced a multitude of challenges. Arts and craft projects were centered on self-awareness, teaching problem-solving skills, how to be mindful, and to use their imaginations (Coholic and Eys, 2016). This study found a significant improvement on how vulnerable children view and feel about their behavior, appearance, and qualities.
In addition to the research on arts-based mindfulness with vulnerable children, mindfulness can be exponentially helpful for children with autism. Parents and teachers of children with autism can undoubtedly maintain a high level of stress while caring for children with autism; therefore, mindfulness is a remarkable resource. Given the reciprocal nature of parental stress and child problem behaviors as the child’s problem behaviors are often a response to the attitudes and behaviors of the parent or caregiver, this research is significant. In one recent study, mothers and their children with autism participated in an 8-week mindfulness program (Hwang et. al, 2015). It consisted of teaching both mothers and children basic mindfulness exercises. It primarily helped ground the child using breathing exercises, bodily movements, and sounds. Research found reduced problem behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorders, and it also found decreased parental stress.
Mindfulness is an extremely important tool for children to learn and utilize. It improves the environment of the classroom not only among students, but among school personnel as well (Black and Fernando, 2014). The main purpose of mindfulness is for children to recognize their thoughts, get into touch with their emotions, and become aware of the inner experience. The practice of mindfulness will ultimately help children develop self-awareness and concentration and carry that with them throughout their lives.
Black, D. S., & Fernando, R. (2014). Mindfulness training and classroom behavior among lower-income and ethnic minority elementary school children. Journal Of Child And Family Studies, 23(7), 1242-1246. doi:10.1007/s10826-013-9784-4
Coholic, D. A., & Eys, M. (2016). Benefits of an arts-based mindfulness group intervention for vulnerable children. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 33(1), 1-13. doi:10.1007/s10560-015-0431-3
Hwang, Y., Kearney, P., Klieve, H., Lang, W., & Roberts, J. (2015). Cultivating mind: Mindfulness interventions for children with autism spectrum disorder and problem behaviours, and their mothers. Journal Of Child And Family Studies, 24(10), 3093-3106. doi:10.1007/s10826-015-0114-x
Lo, H. M., Wong, S. S., Wong, J. H., Wong, S. L., & Yeung, J. K. (2016). The effect of a family-based mindfulness intervention on children with attention deficit and hyperactivity symptoms and their parents: Design and rationale for a randomized, controlled clinical trial (Study protocol). BMC Psychiatry, 16
Wilson, A. N., & Dixon, M. R. (2010). A mindfulness approach to improving classroom attention. Journal Of Behavioral Health And Medicine, 1(2), 137-142. doi:10.1037/h0100