Close your eyes and visualize a third-grade class. Now, describe what the students are doing.
Chances are, you’re picturing a lot of activity: kids running around a playground, perhaps, or enthusiastically waving their hands in their air, hoping to be the next to contribute to a class discussion. But if you happen to visit Katie Schwab’s classroom on the McCarthey Campus right after lunchtime recess, you may just be surprised by what you find.
On this particular January day, as the third graders made their way back to their room, they began to do some unusual things. First, someone turned off the overhead lights. Then the group began to spread out around the darkened room. Some students took cushions from the window seat to put under their heads, while others chose to lie flat on the floor without support; one lucky person grabbed a spot on the classroom couch. Any quiet chatter trickled to silence as a class member began to lightly play a tongue drum, its chimes a calm ocean wave softly rolling across the room.
Katie's aim is to equip students with a variety of centering techniques they can use to identify emotions and how they’re manifesting in their bodies, and then reset and regulate their nervous systems.
“I would like everyone to start to find your rest,” said Katie. “Maybe close your eyes. If you’re sitting up, be still and grounded to earth.”
As each student settled into their position of choice, a soft voice came over the sound system: the narrator of the day’s Mind Yeti meditation exercise, “More Love, Not Less.” As they made their way through the meditation, the students repeated affirmations such as “Whatever is going on inside you, you are worthy of your life” and “When I am sad, I deserve more love, not less.” After being led through a range of emotions, students were asked to insert whatever feeling they were experiencing in that moment.
While meditation isn’t something you often see in elementary school classrooms, for Katie, it’s become an important tool in her teaching quiver. Over the past few years, she’s noticed how factors including the pandemic, overwhelming world events, and a constant exposure to technology have put kids in a heightened state of anxiety—one that can be hard to come down from. “Just being present is a challenge,” she said.
So this year, Katie decided to bake a mindfulness routine into her class schedule, inserting purposeful time for meditation or relaxation in the space between the class’ midday recess and a period of quiet individual work time. Her aim is to equip students with a variety of centering techniques they can use to identify emotions and how they’re manifesting in their bodies, and then reset and regulate their nervous systems. It’s been a new experience for most of the children, and while many admit it was hard at first, as the months have passed, they’ve gotten good at it and started to recognize how it’s making a difference in their lives.
“After we do mindfulness, I feel calmer,” said Nina E., “and it’s easier to do some stuff.” Classmate Will W. agreed, adding that the practice has helped him better focus after recess. He’s even started meditating at home with his mom before bed. “It helps me fall asleep faster,” he said.
Katie’s class has also had the chance to build on their skills thanks to bestselling author Dr. Pedram Shojai, a Rowland Hall parent of two (his son is in Katie’s class) who shares the benefits of mindfulness with people around the world. Like Katie, he knows that young minds are being overwhelmed today, and that technology—designed to trigger a dopamine release in young brains, particularly boys’, to make money off their attention—is a major culprit. “The attention economy has really gotten all the way down to children as young as three,” he explained, so it’s imperative that kids growing up today learn how to center themselves amid tech noise that isn’t going away. “You need to learn how to hold that line, and have control over your own mind and your own consciousness and your own attention.”
Meditation and other mindfulness exercises can teach kids how to do just that. During his visit, Dr. Shojai continued to help build the kids’ toolbox of mindfulness techniques by introducing them to Jedi skills (Jedis meditate too!) and mindful movements such as peripheral vision training, which coordinates the eyes, mind, body, and breath to activate a state of relaxation. He also had them practice a tried-and-true technique to calm the fight-or-flight instinct they feel when wound up: bend your knees to relax your calf muscles, put your tongue against the roof of your mouth, and breathe from your lower diaphragm.
By building mindfulness into our children’s everyday routines, said Dr. Shojai, we’re normalizing the practice, making it more likely that the skills will become second nature to them—“the gift that keeps on giving in every facet of their lives,” he said. This is especially true if children begin practicing the skills between the ages of six and eight. Plus, there is now solid science behind the ancient practice of meditation. “After six weeks of just 10 minutes a day of basic meditation, fMRI scans show 10 to 15 percent greater density of the cortical neurons in the prefrontal cortex. That means you’re actually growing a part of your brain by meditating,” Dr. Shojai explained. “The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive function—higher-order thinking, negation of impulses, and higher moral reasoning.”
Meditation can actually grow the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher-order thinking, negation of impulses, and higher moral reasoning.
Those are the kind of outcomes that any parent or caregiver can get behind. But don’t worry if your kid is older than the recommended age, or even if you're an adult who wants to jump into meditation, said Dr. Shojai; it’s never too late to start building those skills and reaping their benefits. (Check out his tips below.) Katie can certainly attest to this. While she introduced meditation into her classroom to benefit her students, she can’t help but notice how the practice has helped her as a teacher. “The nature of my work is multitasking,” she said,” but this practice helps me slow down every day so I can be present with my students.” After all, she added, “They look to me however I’m showing up on a given day.”
Mindfulness at Home
Interested in bringing the benefits of meditation into your home? Here are Dr. Shojai’s top tips:
- First, understand what meditation actually is. There’s a lot of misunderstanding around meditation, and as a result, it can be hard for people to try it or to stick with it. Meditation doesn’t just look like sitting quietly in a room by yourself with your eyes closed. There are numerous techniques you can use, depending on what works best for you (that’s why Katie’s students have been trying so many options). “I meditate when I’m skiing through the trees or on a chair between runs,” said Dr. Shojai. “There are a thousand ways to climb the mountain. Find what works for you.”
- If you want to add meditation into your family’s routine, add small moments of mindfulness—and keep them fun. Don’t worry about doing too much. “Keep it easy and keep it gamified,” said Dr. Shojai. For instance, defuse a moment of tension by suggesting that everyone put a hand on their lower belly and take 10 deep breaths, or ask everyone to take five deep breaths together before starting dinner. “The key is intercepting things we’re already doing with behavior that can be modeled,” he said.
- Model the kind of behavior you want for your kids. Remember that your kids are watching you for clues on how to behave. “If mom’s a nervous wreck and she’s like, ‘You should meditate,’ and she‘s no good at it, it’s not going to happen,” said Dr. Shojai.
- As with any other positive behavior, praise kids when they’re successfully applying their new skills. The aim of mindfulness is to activate the prefrontal cortex to override a natural instinct to react (say, by hitting a sibling who’s teasing them). When your child is consciously stopping a negative reaction, show them you noticed that choice. “It’s all about positive reinforcement,” said Dr. Shojai. “The important part is to acknowledge that a child’s agency did it.”
- Remember that it’s going to take practice. “As parents, we’re also pulled into the instant gratification attention economy, where we expect things to happen faster than they do in nature, but kids’ little nervous systems need time to absorb these skills,” said Dr. Shojai. It’s okay if your child (or you!) makes mistakes while building these skills. Remember that another chance to practice them will come up.