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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Breathing Buddies and Vibratones: Mindfulness for Young Children (interview)

photo courtesy Nikki Scarborough Photography
Renee Metty's organization With PauseTM offers mindfulness training for a variety of audiences including schools and parents. Ms. Metty is also the founder of The Cove School, a preschool specializing in mindfulness and social and emotional learning, and is president of the West Seattle Preschool Association

How do you respond to concerns that an emphasis on social-emotional learning takes time away from other types of instruction?

Being a former public school teacher, I understand the state mandates and time constraints that classroom teachers face. Despite that, my priority has always been the social emotional learning piece because that is what primes students to be learning ready.

A growing body of research shows that certain parts of the brain and nervous system inhibit functioning in other parts of our system. When we (adults and youth) are stressed, anxious, depressed or operating from a fight- flight response, we are unable to access the higher-level “decision making” part of our brain – the part needed for academic learning.

So, for me the question is how do we flip the equation and prioritize mindfulness and social emotional learning in schools as a gateway and foundation for students’ academic learning.

What can principals and other administrators do to promote mindfulness in their schools?

photo courtesy Renee Metty

Mindfulness is the doorway to any social emotional learning program. Social emotional learning programs are usually skill based and typically assume that the children already know how to pause. 

Mindfulness helps us recognize what is happening internally with our own experience and not just knowing and identifying emotions externally at a cognitive level. The practice of mindfulness also includes the key components of seeing your experience without judgment or evaluation and being able to shift focus away from the past or future while noticing and letting go of past behavioral conditioning.

As for principals and administrators, they can slowly introduce small moments of awareness by bringing their staff to presence with a few conscious breaths before a staff meeting. Find ways to incorporate mindfulness into the program in an embodied way and include it with routines that already exist throughout the school. Invite short moments of awareness multiple times a day.

The most important piece of information about bringing mindfulness into a school or program is for the person promoting mindfulness to model it themselves. I cannot stress enough how essential it is to start with yourself when trying to implement a mindfulness program where you work. The mindfulness work you teach will be informed by your own practice.

Yoga instructor Kelli Love suggests that parents or teachers try mindful eating with their kids and “take a few mindful breaths together as an opening or closing ritual to the day.” What are some additional ways to practice mindfulness with young children?

Young children are typically in the moment, but they are not always aware that they are in the moment. A favorite activity of mine is to let your child/ren take the lead and follow them around. When they become interested in something, let them explore and then ask them what they noticed and begin giving them the language to describe it:

What do you see? How does it feel? How do you feel when you see it? Where do you feel that in your body? 

One of my favorite times to suggest practicing mindfulness is at bedtime. Many families have some type of bedtime routine so it is a nice way to incorporate it into something you are already doing. One great way to do this is through ‘breathing buddies’: You can lay in bed with your child and place a beanie baby or stuffed animal on their belly. As they breathe, have them notice what is happening to their breathing buddy and what is happening in their body.

What is important about practicing mindfulness with children is making sure you introduce and practice mindfulness when they are in a calm, regulated state, not when they’re feeling stressed. I know sometimes bedtime is the most difficult time of the day, so if ‘breathing buddies’ becomes a part of your nightly routine, eventually children can access this when it is more challenging.

photo courtesy Renee Metty
Another way would be to ring a singing bowl or vibratone (a tubular like instrument with a smooth, bell-like metallic tone) and be mindful of sound. They can listen until they no longer hear the sound anymore.

Children also like to touch things, so items of varying texture like silly putty, massage balls, and cotton balls are helpful in noticing different attributes.

Also, if you have formal sitting practice, invite your child to sit with you, but don’t insist on it. 

Mindfulness is used best as an invitation, not something a child is required to do.

In a recent interview, Ronit Jinich of Mindfulness Without Borders expressed concern that: “If you keep telling kids, ‘Oh, you’re not being mindful,’ it can be [mis]understood as scolding. They may see mindfulness as a form of self-criticism or judgment.”

I was reminded of this when I read this quote from a parent at your school: “I’ve been asking Ted what was his favorite part of that day at preschool… he came home saying something that sounded like ‘pause and breathe.’ He said it was his favorite, but it sounded like what we tell him when he’s upset. We probed and probed, but he excitedly insisted it was the best, and didn’t seem distressed at all.”

How can parents and teachers explain mindfulness to their kids so that it has positive associations for them?

photo courtesy Renee Metty

It is important not to use mindfulness as a disciplinary tool.

It is key to practice mindfulness during positive times, so, similar to the bedtime routine, you make it part of the daily routine as opposed to grasping for it when bedtime is difficult. It works best when both adults and children are regulated when introducing mindfulness.

Mindfulness in general is best experienced rather than talked about. As with anything else you do with young children, less is more. So if you incorporate it by taking 3 deep breaths before you all walk out the door to start your day, you may just say “That makes me feel good” after that third breath.

Mindfulness for children is all about how the adult in their life models it for them. Children will attune to us.

What does “mindful teaching” mean to you?

Mindful teaching for me is an embodied presence which includes equanimity and compassion.

  • It is attuning to the students in the room, noticing my own triggers and how they impact the learning of others and how I connect with each person I encounter. 
  • It is being open and receptive and remembering that those in my presence are mirror reflections of me. 
  • It is the courage to show up and be seen and to see others. 
  • It is a capacity to hold who and what is before you and create connections of relevance, community and learning. 
  • It is gratitude for the gift of impact you can have on one student’s experience.

image courtesy Renee Metty

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

My own practice is both formal and informal. It ebbs and flows, but my intention is to sit 30 minutes per day. Some days it is 20 minutes and other days it is 45 minutes. I also sit several silent retreats a year.

There are some days that get away from me and I don’t do a formal sit, but I do practice daily mindfulness. As one of my teachers, Chris McKenna puts it, “short moments of awareness repeated many times.”

  • Taking a few moments to breathe before I start my day. 
  • Taking a moment to feel the warmth of the sun on my face. 
  • Walking from my car to house mindfully with all of my attention at the bottom of my feet. 

These shorter moments of awareness help me with noticing impulses like that moment right before I reach for my phone in the car or the beginning of frustration with my own children.

My practice helps me with my work on many levels. With three young children, two businesses and just everyday life, I see a huge difference in my ability to manage the day to day. It also influences my experiences at work with children and adults and how I connect with them. It informs the choices I make.

My practice is the foundation of my being and allows me to attend to life with less judgement, more compassion and a gentle curiosity.


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