By Lesley Machon
Mindfulness, in its simplest definition, is the act of being present. Paying attention to our thoughts, feelings, sensations and environment; noticing what is going on inside and outside of us. Practicing mindfulness allows us to engage with the world consciously and intentionally, instead of operating from default programming. In this way we are freed up to respond to our surroundings instead of blindly reacting.
Breath and body awareness is the foundation for many other skills, including focus, impulse-control, stress and anxiety management, emotion regulation, decision-making, executive function, and compassion. As adults, this practice is new to many of us, but the sooner our children learn mindfulness, the more choice, power, and inner freedom they have access to.
Recently at the CJA, junior high students began working with kindergarten classes, helping the little ones cultivate awareness of their inner worlds. For one hour a week, older students give their full attention to younger ones, centering their time together around art, breathwork exercises, and reading stories. So far, the students have painted mandalas, made feeling storms, created breathing wands, made watercolour images of their magic breath, made photo garlands of their favourite memories, and read books that explore the concepts of presence and inner peace in fun and age-appropriate ways.
Together they learned the alphabreaths and practiced pairing visualization with breathwork through Heart Breaths, Wish Breaths, and Mountain Breaths. Each outbreath is a united effort, teenage respirations mixing with the audible exhales of kindergarten students.
The older kids have also learned how to read storybooks to the little ones–pausing to engage them with each page, and playing with pacing and intonation to bring each book to life. They have learned how to explain the mindful projects to their buddy, and do the breaths alongside them.
This kind of work is mutually beneficial, supporting the healthy development of younger children, while also serving the mental and emotional health of teens. Mindfulness skills can be taught to all learners at all ages, helping students better understand their own experiences and learn healthy ways to navigate challenges (Flook et al., 2010). Research validates how mindfulness skills can buffer teens against stress reactivity and common mental health struggles such as anxiety and depression (Thomas et al., 2021). One study of mindfulness in schools found that students who learned mindfulness-based conflict resolution strategies were able to use them outside of school with siblings and friends (Ager, Albreecht & Cohen, 2015). Mindfulness improves self-awareness and self-regulation skills that are associated with positive learning outcomes and success in school.
From a teacher’s perspective, it’s been incredible to witness the way younger kids are taking their experiences home. Parents are sharing stories with me about the way their young ones explain different breathing techniques, and sending photos of projects hanging proudly from bedroom walls. It seems evident that this initiative is meaningful for students in tangible ways.
The work we do at the Calgary Jewish Academy evidences a continuous effort to support students beyond simply meeting academic goals, to realizing their full potential. On that note, everyone involved in incorporating mindfulness into our educational environment is breathing deeper and with more ease these days.
J. Thomas, M. Humeidan, C. Barrack, K. L. Huffman (2021). Mindfulness, Stress Reactivity, and Depressive Symptoms Among “Third Culture Kids” in the United Arab Emirates. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 52(2), 192–208.
Ager, K., Albrecht, N., and Cohen, M. (2015). Mindfulness in schools research project: Exploring students’ perspectives of mindfulness—What are students’ perspectives of learning mindfulness practices at school? Psychology, 6(7), 896–914.
Flook, L., Smalley, S. L., Kitil, M. J., Galla, B. M., 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(1), 70–95.
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