Improving children’s minds with mindfulness

Thinking back to elementary school, I have to wonder how my teachers pulled it off: Getting a classroom of 20 to 30 eight-year-olds to sit still and listen to the teacher, or sit quietly while doing an assignment, is no easy feat. I doubt I’m alone in thinking of any elementary school classroom as existing in a state of “controlled chaos”. And that popular perception of children as chaotic, hyperactive beings with short attention spans both demonstrates the need for mindfulness – to help them learn to sit, and to practice attention – and makes it seem impossible to teach it to them.

Fortunately, others are not as intimidated by the prospect of teaching second-graders to be present. Susan Kaiser Greenland took her own experiences using meditation as a mother to create both a book, The Mindful Child, and to design the Inner Kids Program to help reach children with the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. The philosophy and setup are similar to a traditional Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: The program lasts about 8 weeks, either in one 45-minute session per week for older children or two half-hour sessions per week for the younger ones.

The mindful attention activities are similar as well, but adjusted to the concepts and abilities of children. One activity is “breathing with a pinwheel”: It might be hard to get children to focus on their breath without distractions, but focusing on an external object like a pinwheel is easier, and still a route to recognize how fast or hard you might be breathing. Another favorite of mine is the “hopping game”, in which children must hop over small obstacles in unison with each other and the beat of a drum, which requires them to be aware of what everyone else is doing.

The Inner Kids program doesn’t just consider the sensory awareness of mindfulness; it also incorporates the Buddhist philosophy of “loving-kindness”, promoting compassion toward oneself and to others. This is a tricky enough concept to introduce to adults, and I would expect that even children (particularly those old enough to have noticed the bullying that seems to be everywhere these days) would be cynical. The activities are framed as “friendly wishes”, starting with friendly wishes to yourself (to be happy, to have fun), then to someone else in the room, then to people outside the room.

But it’s one thing to just read the descriptions of the activities and see that they parallel adult versions nicely while sounding like something children could do; the real question is, does the program work well enough to actually help children? And (this is me being cynical again) to help spread the program to schools across the country, it’s not enough to say it helps with something ephemeral like compassion or life awareness; the focus must be on something academic. Fortunately, there’s good evidence that mindfulness training improves cognition in adults, so there’s reason to hope it can do something similar with children.

The first study to investigate the advantages of Inner Kids focused on second- and third-graders (children between 7 and 9 years old). Children were randomly assigned to either the Inner Kids program or spend the same time quietly reading. The random assignment is crucial to making sure that the program would work even with children who aren’t interested from the start or who have parents that believe in the importance of what the program is trying to accomplish. Before and after the 8-week program, both parents and teachers, who completed the “Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function” (BRIEF). “Executive Function” is a broad term, hard to define (and I say this even though it’s my area of expertise), but it includes both the kinds of attention tasks we’ve looked at in adults, and the marshmallow task with children. Instead of focusing on these artificial laboratory measures, the BRIEF gets at adults’ real-world impressions of children’s executive functions, in a survey of questions about how well children remember instructions, control their emotions, plan ahead, and resist temptation.

Crucially, the Inner Kids program helped children who started out with poor executive functions. The program didn’t help everyone; you couldn’t look at the averages of the kids in the Inner Kids program and say “yes, they got better, while the kids in the silent reading did not”. But, you could look at the kids whose parents or teachers started out suggesting executive function problems, and see that they had improved more than similar kids who got quiet reading. This is consistent with other studies on training executive function: It’s the kids who start out toward the bottom that get help, while the kids who are already doing reasonably well have less room for improvement and no clear need for special intervention.

This is just one step to creating a strong scientific case for spreading this program through more school systems. Random assignment is a gold standard of psychology research, but parent and teacher impressions of improvement are at risk of all sorts of bias – and it’s just unfathomable that the Inner Kids parents could have gone 8 weeks of asking “what did you do at school today” without hearing about the program and potentially expecting to see some benefits from all this work. Laboratory tasks may be more artificial, but they would work with the BRIEF to show reliable improvements for these at-risk kids. Although executive functions have been linked to academic success in other studies, the case for training mindfulness in kids would also be bolstered by some schoolwork-related measures. But at the very least, we have some concrete evidence that mindfulness training can be adapted for children, and may provide some very important cognitive training for the children who need it most.

ResearchBlogging.orgFlook, L., Smalley, S., Kitil, M., Galla, B., Kaiser-Greenland, S., Locke, J., Ishijima, E., & Kasari, C. (2010). Effects of mindful awareness practices on executive functions in elementary school children Journal of Applied School Psychology, 26, 70-95 DOI: 10.1080/15377900903379125

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