The other morning, I asked my third grade students to write down what they are grateful for. One bright-eyed little girl wrote, “kindfulness.”
I congratulated her on creating a new word. It’s one that encompasses the heart of the practice.
Kindness + Compassion + Mindfulness = Kindfulness!
Kids can be outright mean to each other…occasionally with cruel intention, and much of the time without meaning to be mean. Come to think of it, adults can be pretty harsh and nasty toward one another too, when entangled in the drama. No matter our age, it does us all a lot of good to practice kindness and compassion for all beings, including ourselves.
Yoga and mindfulness offer a wide array of physical, emotional and psychological benefits to all who practice them regularly—at any age. Kids need mindfulness, too.
This is my eighth year as a school teacher. Fortunately, I’ve always been allowed to incorporate yoga and mindfulness into my classroom, whether it’s teaching bilingual third or fourth graders or angst-ridden middle and high school students. The practice definitely helps keep me sane as a teacher.
For the kids who get into it and try, kindfulness can make such a positive difference in their behavior and learning—and in the whole classroom culture.
Based on my experiences, here are some tips and suggestions on how to teach yoga, compassion and mindfulness to kids and teens:
Call it mindfulness.
Especially if you’re working in a public school or with a conservative population. Semantics matter. Don’t call it yoga or meditation.
Unfair though it may be, many people have adverse reactions and cannot separate Hinduism from “yoga.” Mindfulness is a more all-encompassing, less-criticized term.
Start by Simply Breathing.
Day one, I start by discussing with my class how and why breathing is the most important part of mindfulness—and of life.
Pranayama is a key part of yoga and mindfulness for kids, as it is an excellent tool for calming, relaxing and focusing the mind. Offer simple guided techniques such as breath counting (repeating “inhale” and “exhale” as you do each) and easy visualizations (breathe in white light, breathe out dark smoke through your nose like a dragon). Bumblebee Breath is always a crowd-pleaser, too.
Know Your Audience.
If you’re working with little kids, say up to age 10, getting on the ground and doing animal poses (dog, cat, cow, cobra, fish, etc) and making the corresponding animal noises is a hit. As is telling stories while going through the various poses.
With adolescents and teens, not so much. Many of my 8th grade boys were extremely anti-mindfulness but they were more into it when I incorporated pop music (for example, an MC Yogi song about Gandhi and “Imagine” by John Lennon).
Know the developmental level of the kids you are working with and experiment to find what works best for each age group.
Intersperse Mindfulness Practices Throughout the Day.
This is a good tip for adults as well as kids. Break up the monotony by interjecting a little mindfulness and/or yoga regularly for short five-minute spurts throughout the day. In my classroom, we practice a bit of breathing and maybe a couple minutes of yoga warm ups first thing in the morning, and again after recess.
Mindfulness can also be done on-the-spot (for example, when the class is getting really chaotic and the kids need to calm down and get ready to work independently). Extend the teaching of mindfulness bit by bit, expanding it to include mindful eating, mindful walking and mindful speech. Brainstorm with the student all the ways that we can incorporate mindfulness into the day.
Everybody Loves Relaxation.
If all else fails (or succeeds), savasana is typically a hit for groups of any age. Kids like to lie down on the floor. Alternatively, they can just put their heads down on their desks.
Kids get stressed, too. Guide them to relax their bodies and minds. Use a visualization if your students respond well to them. Even simple imagery like, “Imagine you’re floating on water or swinging in a hammock” can be fun and effective for kids.
Teach by Example.
More than anything, what kids want is to be heard, noticed and given attention. We, as adults, teachers and parents, can best teach children “kindfulness” by modeling it through our own words and behavior.
Give kids your attention. Really listen to them. Put away your phone or computer and turn your focus to the child(ren) in front of you. Their wisdom will astound you.
In her book, How to Meditate, Pema Chodron mentions the concept of “child-mind.” That is, developing a childlike, open and curious quality of awareness in the mind, without all the burdens of judging and evaluating and analyzing everything. Just being. She writes:
You could call meditation a practice of being fully conscious, as opposed to being unconscious, lost in thought and wandering away, which is a pretty typical state. In this practice, we remain loyal to ourselves.
Meditation accepts us just as we are—in both our tantrums and our bad habits, in our love and commitments and happiness. It allows us to have a more flexible identity because we learn to accept ourselves and all of our human experience with more tenderness and openness.
Every moment is incredibly unique and fresh, and when we drop into the moment, as meditation allows us to do, we learn how to truly taste this tender and mysterious life that we share together.
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