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Sunday, November 3, 2019

Conscious Stories Teach Mindfulness and Connection

Andrew Newman is the author of an award-winning series of Conscious Stories for children, including The Elephant Who Tried to Tiptoe, The Boy Who Searched for Silence and The Hug Who Got Stuck. A native of South Africa, Andrew now lives and works in the United States, where he regularly visits schools and libraries to share his stories with children aged 4-10.

In this interview, Andrew shares his thoughts on mindfulness, positive self-talk, and spirituality with Catharine Hannay, editor and publisher of

Catharine: In your TED Talk, you explain how a frightening nighttime experience as a five-year-old eventually led to your work helping parents and children use the last twenty minutes of the day to foster a feeling of safety, love, and belonging. Why is this type of bedtime ritual so important, and how is it connected to mindfulness?

Andrew: Think of that moment that the kids leave your classroom for break and you lift your head for the first time in an hour, sigh deeply, and say something to yourself like “that went better than expected” or “Wow, that class did not go well.” This is your reflective moment of integration. It is a chance to reconnect to self, reset and review. 

The last 20 minutes of the day is like this for kids. It’s a time the body relaxes and the mind naturally reviews the day.

How you feel when you go to sleep is how you feel when you wake up. Kids need help to integrate the experiences of their day and ‘make sense’ of their world.  

Integration starts to happen as they wind down for sleep and then goes on happening during sleep when the brain is stabilizing and enhancing memory.  If they had a few difficult moments in their day, their inner voice may be strategizing and creating negative self-beliefs like “I’m no good”, “Nobody likes me” or “I have no friends.” 

These thoughts corrode self-esteem and natural confidence. They come from a survival brain state, and have corresponding negative feelings of shame, guilt, despair. 

We don’t want to ignore these or magic them away, but we do want to offer another, more positive perspective. When parents or carers (caregivers) connect and show love at bedtime they counteract the difficult moments of the day, sending the kids to sleep feeling safe, loved and like they matter.  Then they can wake into natural confidence and self-esteem.

Catharine: Your books started out as bedtime stories for parents to connect with their children, but they’ve also become popular with teachers. Do you have any tips on how to use the stories appropriately in a group setting as opposed to with an individual child?

Andrew: Each story starts with the Snuggle Breathing meditation. This can be used one-on-one or in a group. It’s not necessary to break up into pairs, but you can as an exercise before taking the 4 breaths. I breathe for me. I breathe for you. I breathe for us. I breathe for all that surrounds us.  

When I do a school visit I use this breath at the start of every class as a transition tool… even if we aren’t reading a story!  I also pass the ownership of this breathing to the kids very quickly. I do it once, then the next time I ask “Who wants to lead the Snuggle Breathing Meditation”. There are always hands up!

The activity pages at the back of the book are also easily used to engage students around the theme of the story. To support this we have free classroom teaching aids online. They have 3 sections. 
1. Embedded Learning Opportunities,  
2.Self-Talk Statements, and 
3. Guiding Questions 

image courtesy Andrew Newman

I have a special Mindfulness Tip when reading The Boy Who Searched for Silence. There are 3 pages in this book with few or no words. This is when you sit as deeply connected to yourself, breathing and wishing the kids well (regardless of what they are doing). It’s important to drop any controlling energy during the story, so the atmosphere of togetherness comes to the surface. This creates safety and belonging.

Catharine: In your opinion, what’s the connection between mindfulness and spirituality? 

Andrew: I know this subject can get tricky in education. For me, mindfulness is a form of spiritual expression when it is modeled and taught as accepting of all aspects of the human being. The moment we begin to leave out the inherently natural inquiry into the divinity of life, we risk creating detachment and leaving kids with a feeling that ‘something is missing’. 

I’ve helped many adults who suffer because of an inner disconnection to their spiritual self. They struggle to find purpose, place or belonging. When we welcome wholeness, this restlessness settles into comfort and belonging.

Catharine: How can secular mindfulness and SEL programs encourage kids’ spiritual growth without challenging or conflicting with their families’ religious beliefs?

Andrew: I was director of Edinburgh’s festival of spirituality and peace in 2012. The event was a dynamic interfaith, artistic meeting point for people of all faiths and none. It taught me that gathering, celebrating, and sharing are human values that we all do. 

My stories have been built around common human values that are hard to argue against. We will all compare ourselves to others like The Elephant Who Tried to Tiptoe, and then need to fall in love with ourselves. We will all get stuck in sticky thoughts like The Hug Who Got Stuck. (Sticky thoughts are negative self-beliefs like nobody likes me or I'm no good.We will all search for meaning and understanding of God, like The Prayer Who Searched for God. These are human qualities regardless of faith. 

Perhaps as a teacher you need to be selective about the language you use. If you teach movement, maybe hands can’t be in “prayer position” but need to be “palms together in front of your chest” – just remember, as you lead these classes that you are modelling a depth far deeper than the words or the hand positions or any potential conflicting debate. You are modelling congruence, love, inner-connection, permission to be and so much more.

Catharine: What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it influence your work as a writer and therapist?

Andrew: I have a daily meditation practice that take 30 – 40 minutes each morning. It includes breath, movement and sound and involves, kneeling, sitting and lying. I get something different from each posture, and this practice holds my attention more than long sitting practices. 

Then I start and end my day with journal time. This leads me inwards to the inner place my stories emerge from. When I do these practices, then my days go much better. I am less affected by other people's negative energy. My boundaries are easier to take care of, so I don’t merge or lose myself in the busy classroom atmosphere or the pain my client may be feeling. 

When we are connected to ourselves, we don't seek as much approval from the outside world (teachers or parents). If we are not connected to ourselves, we will seek approval in the external world. One example of merging is when a child copies the teacher, parent or friend. They act more like the other person than like themself.

A great way to connect to yourself is to do one of your favorite creative things. Write. Draw. Sing. Dance! These are very expressive.

No matter how hard the day gets, I know I have this deep inner space I can return to, rest safely and be fully myself. Like it says in the story, Silence is my friend.

Andrew has generously offered a 20% discount if you order his books from
CODE: MINDFULTEACHERS20 for 20% discount

Thank you, Andrew!


related posts: 

Mindfulness and Yoga for Young Children: Tips, Books, Apps, and Activities

Three Ways to Handle Negative Thoughts and Strong Emotions

Resources for Practicing and Teaching Mindfulness