As a Counselor, I am often concerned about mental health-related trends. For example, diagnostic terms being used to label everyday feelings like: “I feel disappointed” = “I’m depressed” or “I feel worried” = “I have anxiety.” With that said, there is a trendy term floating around right now that I can absolutely get behind, and that is mindfulness.
I am sure you have heard this word quite often lately, but do you know what it means? Simply explained, mindfulness is the ability for us human beings to be completely present, meaning totally aware of where we are, what we are doing, and how we are feeling. So, if you’ve ever gone through part of your day on “auto-pilot” (behaving purely out of habit, not paying attention to what is going on around you, placing thoughtless judgment on perception, dismissing or ignoring feelings, etc.), this is living without mindfulness.
Much research has emerged supporting the benefits of living with mindfulness. An organization called Mindful Schools has been compiling such studies to promote mindfulness efforts in school, boasting that such interventions can improve attention and focus, regulation of emotions, compassion, the ability to calm oneself, and perceived life satisfaction within our students. Um...yes, please!
What gets me happy dancing about mindfulness is that it is never too late, or too early, to begin exploring mindfulness tools and developing mindfulness skills! Like any valuable skill, effective mindfulness requires learning, practicing, and applying. For us older, adult-like folk, this development often requires one to kick some unhealthy habits and/or replace a few icky behaviors with some new, awesome ones.
Here are a few ways we can practice mindfulness in daily life.
For the Little Guys
Basic Level: Encourage attention to detail. While doing literally anything (crafting, eating, shopping, reading, dancing, driving…you name it!), ask these cuties questions that allow them to access and express their senses. For example: “Evan, your project is looking rad! Those cotton balls your using, how do they feel? And I’m wondering, what does that cardboard smell like?” Simply taking opportunities to teach young children to tune into small details can enhance their ability to be aware.
Intermediate Level: Get active & get noticing. Do something physical with the kiddos (jump rope, run around, play a sport, get your “Duck, Duck, Goose” on, etc.) and meanwhile, notice (aloud) how they are using their bodies and encourage them to do the same. For example: “Aaryn, I noticed you are awesome at jumping rope on two feet! Can you try jumping on only one foot?” or “Rita, you just ran so fast! Place your hand over your heart, what do you notice? Right! Your heartbeat is faster! What else is happening in your body when you run fast?” Helping tiny humans learn to check in with and identify their physical feelings encourages body awareness and is a stepping stone toward connecting to emotional feelings.
Advanced Level: Listening challenges. The simplest version of such an activity would be to ring a bell (or activate another sound) and ask your little buddies to raise their hands when they no longer hear the sound. Level up by playing a set of sounds or music for one minute and then asking for a description of what was heard. These challenges will help mini creatures (you don’t call you kids creatures? I do and I love them) practice focus, attention, AND awareness, all in one shot. Bam!
For the Tweens:
Basic Level: Ask daily, feeling-based questions. Try to vary the feelings you tap into too. One example might be: “Hey Quinn, can you tell me about 1 time today at school when you felt frustrated and 2 times when you felt happy?” Encouraging (or...ahem...even requiring) feeling reflection in pre-teens will help set the foundation for future, more challenging emotion identification. Pro tip: make this their exit ticket! For example: “Yousif, you can absolutely head over to your friend’s house, after you share with me 1 thing that made you laugh today and 1 thing that made you feel annoyed.”
Intermediate Level: Take observation walks. Take a simple family walk (around the neighborhood, the mall, even just around your home) and ask your pre-pubescent angel to pay attention to the environment around them. You could leave it open-ended, like: “Okay Marium, before we finish our walk, let’s each point out 5 things about our neighborhood that we’ve never noticed before.” Or more focused like: “Jeremy, how many trees/people/dogs/cars/squirrels do you think we will see on this walk? Good guess! Let’s find out.” The point is to consciously practice awareness of our surroundings, rather than quite literally walking through life without paying attention to the world around us.
Advanced Level: Teach them calming skills. My favorite for this age is called “Four by Four Breathing”. Essentially, this is just four rounds of taking a slow, four seconds long inhale through the nose, holding for two seconds, and letting out a slow, four seconds long exhale through the mouth. This is best taught when already calm and best used either when your darling is all worked up or to start off the day in a calm state of mind. I dig this trick for 2 reasons: 1. because physiologically, these slow, deep breaths will slow down a (nervous, anxious, upset, etc.) racing heart and relieve a (frustrated, angry, anxious, etc.) tense body. Reason 2: counting each four-second breath shifts focus and creates a healthy distraction, allowing your precious pre-teen to take control of their brain and let go of any thoughts not serving them at that moment.
For the Almost Adults (teens) and Adults
Basic Level: Disconnect when eating. During meals, do not check phones or other texty, emaily, social-media connected devices, rather, let’s connect with what is being eaten and with whom we are eating! Engage in conversation, ask questions with curiosity, pay attention to what is said, and actually listen to each other. (If you find your mind wandering, bring it back!)
Intermediate Level: Do one thing at a time. We need to stop multitasking! For example: when we are upset about something, we should press pause on everything else in life and focus on feeling and coping with whatever emotions come up. When taking on a task, we should give that one task our full attention, rather than allowing ourselves to pay partial attention to multiple tasks.
Advanced Level: Take on meditation or yoga. Both practices ask us to be totally present as well as either completely still or moving with total intention. New research supports that even 5 minutes of meditation each day can drastically improve our mindfulness!
Remember that living a mindful life takes time, energy and practice. On your journey to mindfulness, please be patient and loving with yourself, as well as with the younger ones you are leading down this healthy path.
Trish Brown is the Counseling Department Chairperson & 9th Grade Counselor at Mercy High School, as well as a Therapist for Better Help in Farmington Hills, Michigan. She is a wife, a mother, an Executive Officer for the PTA at her daughter's elementary school, and a lover of yoga.