Mindfulness activities for younger children

Written by: Claire Kelly | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of experiences as they are happening with an attitude of curiosity and kindness – a useful skill in the current climate. Claire Kelly offers five tips for introducing these ideas with younger children

Your average primary school student is unlikely to stride into their first mindfulness class wide-eyed and openly receptive to what is to follow.

At best, they will have a healthy cynicism about what is about to unfold. At worst, they will do everything they can to distract, undermine and ridicule the unfamiliar content and activities.

The Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP) is a national charity that creates evidence-based classroom mindfulness curricula and training for teachers. Here follows five useful tips on introducing mindfulness to younger children.

Know what you are trying to teach

Children have an innate ability to identify a teacher who does not really understand their material. A teacher trying to teach mindfulness without having practised it themselves is a bit like a maths teacher trying to teach a French lesson without knowing any French. It is doomed from the outset.

While many teachers will have heard of mindfulness, they will perhaps associate it with “quiet zones”, “mindful colouring” or a “reflective period” of silence in assembly or registration. Such activities are done with the best intentions, but they are not mindfulness per se. Nor is mindfulness simply a breathing exercise, relaxation or yoga, a practice for emptying the mind or something you need to do in a silent, incense-filled room sitting with your legs crossed.

Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of experiences as they are happening with an attitude of curiosity and kindness. Training the mind, recognising its helpful and unhelpful habits, and developing ways to step back or work more skilfully with experiences underlies much of what we explore in both adult and younger mindfulness training programmes.

When people train to teach the Paws b course (a classroom-based curriculum for seven to 11-year-olds), they are expected to first have their own established mindfulness practice. This ensures that they understand and can model what they are teaching and skilfully hold a class who may, at first, find the whole experience of mindfulness alien.

Model mindful behaviours

At MiSP, we talk about the power of a teacher to “change the weather in the classroom”. In the midst of a busy school day, it is easy to forget that it is not just what we say to students that has an impact, but how we are with them.

How we are in ourselves presents a role model for the young people with whom we work. If we are anxious, exhausted or quick to fly off the handle, that will be received as evidence of what it is to be an adult, and simultaneously infuse the learning environment itself.

There is, therefore, a strong argument for teachers simply learning mindfulness for themselves, without the need to explicitly teach it to the students. Benefits can include improvements in their own wellbeing, increased mental space for creativity and planning, and the potentially transformative effect of being able to shift the teacher-learner relationship towards a greater sense of authentic presence and empathy.

Don’t try to freestyle it

There are lots of mindfulness apps and downloadable resources out there, and many are very good. However, (see our first tip) the “press and play” approach to mindfulness in educational contexts is a little like asking a student to read a manual on how to swim, and then leaving them by the side of the pool to get on with it while you do your marking.

Even if you have experience of mindfulness practice, offering mindfulness in schools requires resources and training to do it effectively, safely and with integrity. Exploring how the minds works, why we think and feel a certain way, how we respond to times of challenge, and how we can anchor ourselves in the practices we are learning can all lead to intense responses which need guided management.

Having a bespoke curriculum, with lesson plans, learning objectives, teacher notes and engaging slides and animations, will keep young learners interested and help move them along their learning journey.

When first devising the Paws b classroom-based mindfulness programme for primary schools, our imaginary target group was a class of mixed ability year 5 students on a wet Tuesday morning just before lunch. We reckoned that if we could design something that could keep their interest over 12 consecutive weeks, this would then be scalable to a range of different age groups and types of schools and contexts.

Normal rules still apply

You still need to explain to young people what they are going to learn and why this might be beneficial for them. The first lesson of Paws b clearly lays out the ways in which mindfulness might support their learning, wellbeing and other aspects of their lives.

There are no prescribed outcomes, but a list of possible ways in which the sessions might prove helpful in the weeks, months, and years ahead. There is no homework, but a recognition that, just like going to the gym or learning a new skill, it takes practice to see the real benefit.

You also need to achieve a fine balance between being "mindful" yourself and managing a classroom of up to 30 children. While being "mindfully present", it still may be necessary to use the "death stare" to discourage a student distracting her friend; you may need to stand ominously behind a class joker as you lead a practice, and you certainly need to keep your eyes open at all times.

Be patient

Like other lessons, some pupils will engage fully and some will not. However, it all sinks in, and when push comes to shove, they have their key practices and understanding to draw on when they need it.

As an exhausted deputy head in my 23rd year of teaching, I became evangelical about mindfulness as I noticed improvements in my own mental and physical health.

I taught MiSP’s Paws b programme in local primary schools to years 3 to 6. In one class, 20 per cent of the 30 children had SEND, and four had severe attention deficit issues and were regularly physically carried out of the classroom to "minimise interruption of class learning". I regularly broke up Paws b lessons with five minutes of running around the playground to keep their attention.

Then came the session entitled "Working with difficulty" in which they learn about the amygdala (part of the brain involved in the fight, flight, freeze response) and practices to help them notice their "stress signatures" and to ground themselves in moments of difficulty.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Jason, a student with the most severe ADHD issues, beginning to rock and clench his fists. This was usually a clear precursor to the explosion of energy to come. As the teaching assistant and I prepared ourselves, we saw Jason stand up quickly, look down at his feet, take three deep breaths and then ask: "Was that my amygdala, miss?". I replied, "yes, I think it might have been", to which he replied, "it’s okay, my prefrontal cortex is working again now", and sat back down.

While I can’t pretend that Jason went on to be serene and focused throughout the rest of his school year, what we witnessed in that moment was a child noticing a difficulty within himself, understanding why it was happening, and then reaching inside himself for something to help manage a moment that could have ended very differently. He had a sense of self-efficacy and a "toolkit" upon which he could draw whenever he needed to.

  • Claire Kelly is director of curricula and training at Mindfulness in Schools Project, a national charity aiming to bring mindfulness to young people and those who care for them.

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