Exploring Mindfulness, One Breath at a Time

Mindfulness is a hot topic these days, as more and more people search for ways to ease the stresses of everyday life. Current research increasingly shows the benefits of mindfulness meditation practice. This month, Laurie M. Scherer, a doctoral student in child psychology who specializes in mind-body practices, is offering a program at the Meeting House introducing the basics of mindfulness. We sat down with Laurie to learn more about the motivation behind her program and why it’s important for children to learn about mindfulness.

According to Laurie, mindfulness can benefit all children, but for children with social-emotional challenges, the positive effects are often amplified. In her program, Laurie will focus primarily on mindfulness as a tool to promote two key abilities: attention and emotional regulation. For kids with executive functioning difficulties, or trouble focusing, mindfulness is a powerful way to strengthen skills that help with maintaining attention. As Laurie explains it: “Everyone’s mind wanders, but it’s a matter of strengthening that muscle. Just like the more reps you do in the gym the bigger your biceps will be, the more times you nudge your attention back, the better your ability to focus will be.”

In terms of emotional regulation, mindfulness helps us build the habit of taking the all-important pause that enables us to choose how we respond to a given stimulus. This is an ability that is essential to forming positive social relationships. “How we choose to respond can make or break a friendship,” Laurie says, so helping children build the capacity to slow down better equips them to deal with interpersonal challenges in a constructive way.

Mindfulness is also a very embodied practice, and can help kids get in tune with the connection between their minds and bodies. In her program, Laurie uses yoga, dance, and other forms of movement to make the experience of learning about mindfulness engaging, multisensory, and fun. “If we can tap into kids’ natural ways of learning, that’s how you get kids to buy in,” she says. Though she is careful to emphasize, that the goal of introducing mindfulness is not to change anything, or even really teach anything. “It’s about welcoming any experience you have, exploring what you’re noticing and accepting it.”

Finally, mindfulness has been shown to have the broader impact of enhancing overall positivity and promoting compassion and self-acceptance. In this sense, it is a perfect fit for the Meeting House, as we strive to help our kids develop not only a strong sense of self, but a deep sense of connection to their peers and others in the community. “Mindfulness can be the cornerstone of achieving this,” says Laurie, “because you start with understanding what’s going on inside you, and then you are able to turn that outward to understand a friend.”

Taking Mindfulness Home

If you’d like to try a mindfulness activity with your child, Laurie recommends this simple guided visualization. It is a great calming exercise that helps children notice their feelings from a distance, label them, and then let them go. When you’re finished, talk to your child about what you each saw or try drawing your oceans. How did you both feel before and afterwards?

“Riding the Wave”

Find a comfortable position, sitting or lying down. Place your hands on your stomach. Begin by taking deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. As you do this, notice how your body feels. Bring your attention to the way your stomach rises and falls like a wave with each belly breath you take. Remember that our minds wander, it’s what they do. Simply notice when it does and bring it back to your belly breath, rising and falling. Now, imagine that you are the ocean. Notice what your water looks like. Notice how your waves feel today. Are they small, rough, calm, etc.? Notice if anything is inside your ocean. Does it have a color? A feeling? How does it move? Try to be curious about your ocean. Continue to breathe, in and out. Now, watch as whatever is in your ocean drifts away. When you’re ready, open your eyes.