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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Best Practices in Teaching Mindfulness to Children (interview)

photo courtesy christopher willard
Christopher Willard has a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. His research focuses on the psychological applications of meditation and mindfulness practice. Willard’s experience includes teaching mindfulness exercises to young children, teenagers, recently-paroled prisoners, and therapists. He is the author of Child’s Mind, as well as the workbook Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety and an edited volume with Dr.Amy Saltzman on Teaching Mindfulness Skills to Kids and Teens.

How can parents and teachers introduce mindfulness to different ages of kids? For example, what would you say to a 5-year-old as opposed to a 10-year-old or a 15-year-old?

Common sense dictates to an extent what we do and how we introduce these practices to different ages, as well as really knowing our kids and their particular interests and needs. The Wellness Works program, for example, has worked a lot bringing mindfulness to autistic young people and kids with other special needs.

But basically, I would most likely integrate mindfulness somehow into play with a five-year-old, perhaps through a game that is already familiar, or through bodily movement if sitting still and short attention spans are an issue.

With a ten-year-old, I might be somewhat more inclined to bring mindfulness into some other activity -- arts and crafts, or maybe integrate it into athletics.

Fifteen-year-olds are more likely to need a motivator of some kind -- suggesting it can help with athletic or musical performance, with social anxiety, with worries or even with mood.

Mostly, it comes down to what interests the kid, and where mindfulness can fit into that. Because we can bring mindfulness to everything we do -- we want to think about what it is that these kids are already doing.

In a recent interview, Nikolaj Flor Rotne mentioned that it’s important to be very careful in using mindfulness practices with victims of trauma because “the person can be confronted by the traumatic experience once again.”

On the other hand, you mention in 
Child's Mind that “Mindful grounding practices can work as a psychological life preserver, helping people pull themselves to safety.”

What practices do you use in your work with sufferers of anxiety and PTSD? Are there any practices you avoid in this type of situation?

Trauma is very tricky.

When we slow down and create space as we do with open-awareness practices, we create space for everything, including the space for trauma to rush back in.

So we want to be careful swimming in the wide open ocean of mind, we want to have a strong anchor.

For that reason, practices that are physically grounding are helpful, using the five senses is helpful, and keeping eyes open is helpful, rather than pure open-awareness practices. And again, knowing your kids is key.

Fundamentally, trauma is about the past entering the present moment.  The more we train our minds and bodies to remain present, the less chance the trauma has to overwhelm.

Working in conjunction with a trained therapist is highly recommended. Doing practices together for a long while, rather than sending kids off to do them alone will create safety and help kids to have someone there if they do get triggered. 

We are like guides, we have to be there guiding kids through this hard stuff before they can go off on their own, especially those with trauma histories who might “drown” in the ocean of their thoughts.

What does "mindful teaching" mean to you?

Mindful teaching is teaching with intention, with presence, with awareness, non-judgment, and from the heart. It’s taking care of ourselves and our larger community as well as our kids, but it does start with us.

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

My practices these days are more focused on the body -- that's just where I am in my journey of practice. I've spent years in my head reading books and writing and thinking and talking, but it’s time these days for me to listen more to my own body's wisdom in guiding me.

The growing evidence about the body's wisdom and nerve centers in the heart and intestines is exciting -- in DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) they talk about wise mind, emotion mind and rational mind.

What I've been discovering is that “wise mind” may in fact live in my own body!

related posts:

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

How Teachers Can Share Mindfulness with Their Students (interview)

Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety (recommended book)

Teaching For-Credit Mindfulness Classes (interview)

Teaching Mindfulness to At-Risk Youth (interview)

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