Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Best Children’s Books about Mindfulness (interview)

photo courtesy Meena Srinivasan
Meena Srinivasan, MA, NBCT, is an experienced international educator and thought leader in the field of mindfulness in education. She currently works for the Oakland Unified School District's Social Emotional Learning & Leadership Development Team. Meena is a student of Thich Nhat Hanh and was involved in the creation of his bestselling book Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children. She is also the author of Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness in and out of the Classroom.  

What should parents and teachers look for when selecting books about mindfulness?

It’s very important to keep in mind where your children/students are developmentally and the context in which you are going to be using the book.

For example, to emphasize a particular aspect of mindfulness with my sixth graders I’ve used books that may be more appropriate for a younger audience; the children’s book was a useful, fun tool to enhance my lesson but it was not the focus of my lesson. However, with younger children, the book itself may have been the focus of the lesson.  

Books that explain what mindfulness means are great when introducing the concept to young people. Then you can incorporate books that either include stories of how characters use mindfulness strategies or books that have activities that help students practice mindfulness.  

My favorite book that introduces young people to the concept of mindfulness is Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda by Lauren Alderfer. My students love this book and it communicates all that mindfulness is in a very simple and effective way. I always use this book in my introductory mindfulness lessons.
A Handful of Quiet: Happiness in Four Pebbles would then be excellent when you are teaching mindfulness strategies because it details my favorite practice to share with young people, pebble meditation.  (In the classroom, I refer to pebble meditation as pebble reflection.)

The other books I love that incorporate mindful stories, strategies and practices are Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children and a number of the Plum Blossom Books like Ahn’s Anger and Steps and Stones.  Some of the elements are explicitly Buddhist, so teachers might need to adapt them for use in the classroom.

While there are some great mindfulness books out there I think it’s also incredibly important to help your children/students see how characters in other books use mindfulness (even though they may not call it that) or how the characters are in need of mindfulness

How do you do incorporate these lessons when using books that aren't explicitly about mindfulness?

A few years ago I had a student tell me that the characters in the books he’s reading all need mindfulness! I thought this was a very powerful statement and as a result I chose class readings more carefully and even had my students reflect on the social and emotional aspects of our class novels. 

For example, as we went through the book we discussed the characters' competency in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. 

Engaging with young people through a social emotional lens on books they are already interested in reading can be very effective.

Thanks for those great resources and recommendations for teaching children.  Are there any good books on mindfulness for adolescents?

My favorite mindfulness book for adolescents is Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens by Diana Winston. I used it when we were studying Buddhism in an Eastern Philosophy High School elective, but it can be adapted to a secular classroom. If the book is introduced in the right context it can be life changing. I wish I had this book when I was in high school!

I had a student who was really struggling and the book completely transformed her life. All of a sudden she felt she had tools to work with her suffering. She’s now a recent graduate of UC Berkeley and we are still in touch! She’s thriving and credits the many exercises she was introduced to in the book. 

You’ve taught in India and Brazil, as well as the United States. Have you found any cultural differences in teaching mindfulness to children, or are the same activities and resources appropriate in different settings?  

In my decade as an educator I’ve been blessed to work in a variety of contexts, from high-powered international schools in India and Brazil to a leading progressive school in California, and now in a large urban public school district. 

In spite of the different cultural and educational environments, I’ve seen how the principles of mindfulness beneficially transform teacher practice and classroom climate. This is because regardless of background and setting we all want to feel connected and mindfulness enables us to connect deeply with ourselves so in turn we can authentically connect with others.

Obviously given whatever context you are in you will want to make your teaching relevant and culturally sensitive. While I may use similar activities I’d tweak them slightly depending on my population and age group. For example, in India I worked weekly with a group of children in a slum where I combined English tutoring with mindfulness and I noticed how I would have to present mindful eating in a much more sensitive way given their location.


What does “mindful teaching” mean to you?

Students are reflections of their teachers, and as teachers, the most important teachings we offer transcend academic skills and the acquisition of knowledge. Before teaching content, we must create a learning environment conducive for education. This begins by cultivating an inner sense of boundless love, so that we can receive students with warmth and create a classroom filled with peace—this is what “mindful teaching” means to me. 

Striving to embody the practice by “being the change” is what will ultimately transform education. One of my former students, Seldon, writes, “When we water the good seeds of ourselves, we will be impacting others. They may want to water their good seeds too, and it could sort of be like a chain.” Making this first step of “watering good seeds” with sincerity is critical for making the world a better place.

What is your personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you in your work?

A regular sitting practice is important to keeping my mindfulness tank full and to keep myself nourished. My personal mindfulness practice is to gently bring myself back whenever my mind and body are disconnected by using my breath and gathas which are short mindfulness poems like, “Breathing in, I’m alive. Breathing out, I’m grateful to be alive.” 

There are also many ways throughout the day to practice mindfulness. Mindful eating and mindful walking can easily be incorporated into your daily life because we all have to walk and eat. 

Probably the most powerful part of my mindfulness practice is my husband, Chihiro! He’s my greatest mindfulness bell, gently bringing me back when I lose connection with that peaceful space inside. When we come home from work the first thing we do is to give each other a three-breath hug; it grounds us and reminds us how grateful we are to have each other in our lives. When I become a parent, I hope to do the same for as long as my child will let me :)

All of these practices help me manage stress and be more thoughtful and responsive in my work. Mindfulness encourages me to work from a space of gratitude and joy and really try to understand the diverse perspectives that can exist in a school community—teachers, administrators, students, parents, etc. 

Most importantly, mindfulness practice is an effective way to stay connected to my intention for being an educator. It constantly rekindles the light inside, the light that motivates me to be an educator, the light that motivates me to make the world a better place.


related posts:

Child's Mind: Mindfulness Practices to Help Our Children Be More Focused, Calm, and Relaxed (recommended book)

Everybody Present: Mindfulness in Education (recommended book)

Mindful or Mindless? Analyzing Characters in Books and Movies

A New Series of Mindfulness Books for Kids (interview)

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