Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: 3. Focused Attention



I once heard at a positive behavior training led by Dan St. Romain that a child's attention span = their age + or - two minutes, up to the age of 14. This means a five-year-old kindergarten student can realistically only pay attention for a whopping 3-7 minutes. An eighth grade fourteen-year-old middle school student can give you 12-16 minutes before he or she checks out. Add in hours of screen time full of fast-paced entertainment, and a child's ability to focus in the classroom decreases, while their need for loud, animated, rapid and exciting entertainment increases. This leaves teachers to fight a losing battle, vying for the attention of 25-30 students while delivering lesson plans of minimal entertainment for more than quadruple the amount of time a child is actually able to pay attention. 

In The Science of Mindfulness lecture Dr. Ronald Siegel explains that our brains are wired to worry about the past, or future, instead of focusing on the present moment. Our ancestors were hunter gatherers who spent each day remembering every bad thing that had happened, and spent much of their lives anticipating more trouble in the future. The ancestors that did focus on the moment by enjoying a luscious piece of fruit, or the campfire, statistically, were not our ancestors because they died before reproducing. This, according to Siegel, is the mind they bequeathed to us. The problem with this is that when students are focused on the past or future, and not the present moment, they are not learning. Yikes.

But, don't worry! There's hope. In the past decade, researchers have been studying a new concept of science called neuroplasticity, which simply means that our brains are moldable, like plastic, as opposed to being hard-wired after childhood. Our brains are constantly being reshaped throughout our lives based on our thoughts and experiences. The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds is grounded in the work of the cutting-edge findings around neuroplasticity, and has found that the focus of our awareness determines which part of the brain are strengthened, and which are weakened, or lost. Therefore, when we get caught up in cycles of worrying, these are the networks that become stronger. However, if we practice being clear, calm and focused, we can strengthen these networks too.

Mindfulness is a technique that can nurture these positive changes in the brain because it allows us to slow down, and focus on the present moment, instead of the past of future. This helps build our skills of attention, concentration, and the capacity to direct our awareness in a certain way. If we practice being calm, and focused, we can strengthen these networks in our brain, and our minds will become less distracted. 

I have spent the past several months practicing mindfulness with kindergarten-8th grade students, and its amazing to see the impact that just 3-5 minutes of mindfulness has on them. It provides them the time and space to let go of anything that happened earlier in their day, or that might be happening later, that could be distracting their thoughts, and really allows them to tune in to the present moment so they can be focused in class. As I tell my students, "It's just like stretching before you work out or go on a run, we are doing an exercise that is preparing our brains to learn." And, just like we lift weights to strengthen our muscles, research shows that if mindfulness is practiced regularly, then those positive networks are being strengthened, and, overtime, it will become easier for students to concentrate, ultimately allowing more learning to occur. 

A couple great places to find mindfulness for children are: Stop, Breathe & Think Ap, Headspace ApMindfulness for Children, and my mindfulness audios

Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: 2. Stress Reduction

Have you ever taken a shower, and when drying off thought, "Did I even wash my hair?" because you were so focused on rehearsing that crucial conversation you are supposed to have with your boss that day? Or have you ever driven somewhere thinking about the millions of things you have to do just to arrive at your destination, and realize you don't remember the drive, that you were on complete autopilot? That's ok. Me too. It's not your fault, or mine. Our brains are preconditioned to stress over the past, or worry about the future, instead of focusing on the present moment. Research shows us that this stress is really bad for our health, but also that there's a lot we can do to change the brains we were born with, even into adulthood. 

First, in the lecture The Science of Mindfulness Ronald Siegel explains why and how our brains developed to always think about the past or future. "Imagine our ancestor Lucy was looking at some bushes, and spied a beige shape. She could have made two possible mistakes. The first mistake would be to think, 'I think it’s a lion, when it’s actually a beige rock.' The second mistake would be to think, 'Eh, it’s probably a beige rock when it was really a lion.' The cost of the first mistake is needless anxiety. The cost of the second mistake is death. So, we evolved to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once. The ancestors that did focus on the moment by enjoying a luscious piece of fruit, or the campfire, statistically, were not our ancestors because they died before reproducing. Our ancestors were the ones that spent each day remembering every bad thing that had happened, and spent much of their lives anticipating more trouble in the future. This is the mind they bequeathed to us." (thanks!) Therefore, our minds were not designed to be focused on the present moment; they were developed to worry, perseverate, anticipate and plan. 

Thankfully, today most of us don't need to worry so much about a lion having us for dinner. We don't need to think about the past, or plan for the future every minute of each day. We have the luxury to enjoy the moment. In fact, research shows us that we should do this more often in order to reduce stress. In the past decade, there has been a growing amount of research on neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Our brain is reshaped throughout our lives by our experiences, and our thoughts. We now know that it is where we choose to focus of our awareness that determines which brain networks are strengthened, and which are weakened, or lost. So, the more we worry, the better we become at worrying. However, if we practice being calm, clear and focused, we can strengthen these networks too.

Mindfulness, or moment to moment awareness, on purpose, without judgment, can help with stress reduction. If practiced often, it will build our capacity for managing stressful situations as they occur. Mindfulness helps create a buffer between the stimulus, and how we choose to respond to it. Stress reduction through mindfulness is wonderful for adults, but also for children. Children who come into the classroom from stressful home environments must calm the amygdala, the part of the brain that responds to stress, before learning will ever occur, according to Paul Tough's book Helping Children Succeed. If a child's mind is not calm, then learning is simply not happening. 

When I was teaching, I would have no idea which students were walking into my room with calm minds, and who needed some time to become calm. Therefore, I practiced mindfulness with all of my kindergarten through 4th grade students every day at the beginning of class in order to, as I would say, "calm our minds so we can grow our brains." According to Tough's research, the environment that teachers create in the classroom is the most important factor to learning. "Just as early stress sends signals to the developing nervous system to prepare for a lifetime of trouble, early warmth and responsiveness send the opposite message: You're safe. Life is going to be fine. Let down your guard; the people around you will protect you and provide for you. Be curious about the world; it's full of fascinating surprises. These signals trigger adaptations in children's brains that allow them to slow down and consider problems and decisions more carefully, and to focus their attention for longer periods" (p. 49). By practicing just 4-5 minutes of mindfulness, we created a classroom environment that was conducive to learning because students felt comfortable and calm, which sent the message to their brains that they were safe, and ready to learn. 

4th grade student. KIPP: Un Mundo

4th grade student. KIPP: Un Mundo

Click here to access mindfulness audio for the classroom for students ages 6-10. More mindfulness audio coming soon. 

Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: 1. Self-Control

I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a parent or teacher say, "He just needs to learn to calm down, control his temper, not talk back, stop yelling, or not hit his sister when he gets mad." In other words, he just needs to learn self-control. Expecting kids to just learn self-control is like expecting them to just learn math, but actually even harder because the part of the brain that learns math is developed, but the part of the brain that would help them calm down, the prefrontal cortex, doesn't completely mature until the early twenties. 

I learned this the hard way as a behavior interventionist at an inner-city charter school. I would be called to "deal with" these little Tasmanian devils who were destroying an entire classroom, and anything that stood in their way. I realized when kids had gotten to this point, there was no just calming down, or just taking or a breath, or just controlling their temper. They had lost it, and there was nothing I could do at that point except make sure they were safe from harming themselves and others. After the Tasmanian tantrum was over, the student always felt bad, knew exactly what they had done wrong, and could easily explain to me what they should do next time. I realized it wasn't that they didn't know that having a crazy melt-down, destroying the classroom, and cussing out their teacher wasn't the best way to deal with their anger; it was that they didn't know how to stop themselves once they started to escalate. If I didn't teach these students the skills they needed to calm themselves, then they were as ill-equipped as a student would be on a math test if they weren't previously taught the material. I finally understood that it was my job to teach them how to calm down, just like it was their math teacher's job to teach them to add.

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Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids

I've mentioned before in previous posts that I started practicing mindfulness, or mindful meditation, back in March when I stumbled upon Dr. Lindsay Bira's meet-up group. (See the video below about mindfulness if you have no idea what I'm talking about.) Mindfulness, again, isn't some weird, fluffy hippie stuff; it is research-based science that proves that you can train your brain to have better focus, attention and emotional regulation. After attending a couple drop-in mindfulness classes guided by Dr. Bira, I began to notice physical and mental benefits: my stress/anxiety level had decreased drastically, I felt like I could think more clearly (no more mommy brain!), and, overall I was calmer and happier. Knowing I would be returning to work as an inner-city charter school educator in the not so distant future, I began thinking about how practicing brief mindfulness techniques in the classroom could benefit the staff, but especially my (K-4) students who seemed to lack the basic ability to focus, emotional and behavioral regulation, and self-control. Coincidentally, Dr. Bira had recently trained an elementary school staff in mindfulness practices, and was happy to train ours. 

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How to Raise Kinder Kids, According to the Experts

Despite a tough political season, I still have so much hope for our children's future because of the many parents, grandparents, caregivers and educators (from both parties) I have spoken with who are ready to roll up their sleeves, and get busy raising a generation of kids that are kinder, more understanding, accepting and loving. Fortunately for us, there is a growing body of research called behavioral economics that explores the sometimes irrational ways we all make decisions and think about the world. The hope of the researchers, according to Karen Weese, is that maybe if we can understand a little more about the instinctive, irrational quirks of our kids' minds, then we'll be better equipped to raise children to become caring, respectful and responsible adults. According to Adam Grant's article Raising a Moral Child, studies suggest that anywhere from a quarter to more than half of our propensity to be giving and caring is inherited (i.e. nature). That leaves us a lot of room for nurture, for us to use these researched-based recommendations to mold our children's hearts, and encourage their actions. So, let's get started.

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One Year, Twenty-nine Words

Hi. Bye. Bubbles. Mama. Dada. Granddad. Up. Aqua. Ball. Baba. Tickle. Poof. Boo. Moo. Banana. Purple. Hello. Uh-oh. Quack. Woof. Puff. Chris. Thank you. Gus. Diaper. Good. Book. Ooops. and Butt paste... This is the list of words that we have heard our daughter June say in recent weeks leading up to her first birthday compiled by her grandparents, her dad and myself. If you've read my blog, or if you know me at all, I hope you know by now that I am not writing this to brag. As an educator, I am so passionate about sharing any information I can with other moms, dads, caregivers, or anyone willing to read, that will help them to know how important their role is in their child's brain development. In fact, in her book Thirty Million Words, Dr. Dana Suskind says, "the most important component in brain development is the relationship between the baby and his or her caretaker."

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Take a Moment to be in the Moment

Since about March I have been practicing mindfulness, or mindfulness meditation, which is simply trying to focus on the moment you are in, recognizing when your mind starts to wonder to other things, then bringing it back to the present moment over, and over, again, and again, without judgment. It's actually incredibly hard because our brains are preconditioned to perseverate over the past, or worry about the future, instead of being in the present. Practicing mindfulness has helped me tune-in to the moment, while in the moment, instead of thinking about the past or worrying about the future.

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Simply Tune-in

In her book Thirty Million Words Dr. Dana Suskind informs us that a child's brain grows 85% in the first three years of life, and that growth is completely dependent on the language environment in which the child is exposed to, which WE, as parents, provide (or not). In her book, she guides us to create the optimal language environment in "three simple steps", called the Three T's: tune-in, talk more and take turns. Lately, I have been making a very conscience effort to "tune-in" with my daughter, June, for the few hours we get to spend together each evening by putting my phone away, turning my thoughts off and engaging in her little world.

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Good News Grandparents, FaceTime is NOT Screen Time

My husband and I live 1,111 miles away from our family, which means our daughter, June lives 1,111 miles away from her closest grandparent. So, naturally, we get several FaceTime calls a week, and by "we" I really mean June. My mom doesn't even try to pretend like she's calling to talk to me anymore. She'll even text me saying, "What's June doing right now?" If I say she's napping, or she's out with her dad, she'll write back, "ok, talk later!" (I don't blame her one bit, though. I can't imagine being 1,111 miles away from June.) So, with six grandparents, and at least double that amount of aunts and uncles, we spend a good amount of time Facetiming. Luckily, FaceTime does not count as screen time.

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I recently started back to work as a character development teacher after having spent seven months at home with my daughter, June. I have been shocked at myself because I thought I would soak in every precious, golden second I could with her after going from being with her 24-hours a day to approximately four, if I'm lucky. Instead, too often, I find myself thinking "I'm just going to grab my phone to turn on music for us", and ten minutes later I'm still checking Emails, or texting my mom pictures of her, or watching another clip from The Late Night Show about the political craziness our country has found itself in. I have to constantly remind myself to put my phone away, and tune-in. 

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The Rules of Two to Tackle the Terrible, Terrible-Two's

There is nothing I love more than a good tantrum. Seriously. Some people like to watch thunderstorms from their front porch, or cat videos on YouTube. Not me. I love a good ol' fashioned melt-down. (As long as it's not my child, of course.) I was out to lunch with a friend the other day, and she called me out on completely ignoring her to watch this mother daughter duo have it out in the middle of the restaurant. The toddler ran across the dinning room away from her mom twice. It was awesome. I even follow an Instagram account called @assholeparents that is dedicated to posting children having tantrums over ridiculous things like a boy's mom giving him the blue bowl instead of his sister's pink one, or a couple of parents not letting their daughter have birthday presents, when it wasn't her birthday. I highly recommend you follow the account so that us parents can bond over the absurdity of our children. 

And that's exactly the point. Tantrums, more often than not, make no sense, begin out of nowhere and over nothing, and, when met with logical reasoning, only seem to escalate. Last year, when I was working as a behavior interventionist, it was my sole job to understand the tantrums of five and six-year-olds, and to try to prevent their reoccurence. I'll be the first to admit that I had no idea there was so much neuroscience behind tantrums, and I wish I knew then what I have recently learned. In The Whole-Brain Child, authors Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson do an amazing job of explaining the brain science behind tantrums. The authors write that there are two specific types of tantrums that come from two different regions of the brain, not to be confused with the two different hemispheres of the brain, which are also extremely important to understanding tantrums. I'll explain...

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Teaching Children Tolerance

Disclaimer: This is more of an Op-Ed post, if you will. So far, all of my blog posts have been research-based, but this one is written about my experience of teaching children tolerance, empathy and respect as a behavior intervention and character development teacher. After the worst shooting in U.S. history, I feel compelled to do my little part of spreading love, peace and tolerance to anyone willing to read.

Sunday morning I sat in bed reading the news and watching videos on the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub that killed 49 men and women, and injured 53 others. I was so sad, and angry; I could literally feel my blood boiling in my body while tears rolled down my face. Luckily, I had been asked attend a prenatal yoga class that afternoon as a sort-of "graduate" to share how practicing yoga helped me in pregnancy, and through the birthing process. Before class started, the mommies-to-be in the room were asked to go around the room, and share how many weeks along they were, and how they were feeling that day. One of the women broke down crying on her mat about the Orlando tragedy, scared of the type of world she is bringing her baby into. We all sat crying, thinking about the pain and suffering of this sometimes scary world until one mom spoke up, and said "you know, it's ok to grieve, and we all should. But, we can also feel empowered, and encouraged that we have the opportunity to raise these children of ours to be the ones that spread love, that show tolerance and respect to others. We get to raise a new generation of people, and I think that's a gift."

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Grit and Angela Duckworth. Yes and Yes.

Have you heard of this buzz word "grit"? Of Angela Duckworth? Yes and yes? Then you must be as giddy as I am about her new book Grit. No, you haven't heard of her?! If not, please keep reading because her research on grit applies to you whether you're a CEO, an entry-level coffee runner aspiring to become CEO, an artist, actress, athlete, student, educator, a mom, or dad. Basically, if you want to succeed at what you're doing, then her research, and recently published book Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverancewill help you do just that.

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Save Your No's

Two summers ago, my girlfriend Aly and her one-year-old son Gatsby came to visit me. Being in a new place, her son was, of course, exploring everything. As he would get into things in our non-baby proof house I noticed Aly kept saying "Eh, eh, eh." "Gastby, eh, eh, eh!" "eh, eh, buddy!" Finally I had to ask her, "Ok, what's up with all the eh, eh, eh's? Why don't you tell him 'no'?" She said that she had heard it's good to save your no's. I asked her about this recently, after reading about it in the book Thirty Million Words, and she responded "I did that?" "Oh my god. I tell him no all the time now." Yep, sounds about right... Reality trumps the best of intentions.

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Work Hard. Be Nice. How to Evoke Grit and Goodness.

I’m not going to lie… as I say on my about me page, I want my daughter June to be smart. I want her to do well in school, then be showered with academic scholarships to college, have an amazing career, and single-handedly close the gender pay gap… that's all. 

But, unfortunately, her mother (me) isn’t exactly the sharpest crayon in the box. I had to work so hard to graduate college with a GPA that wasn’t laughable, attending office hours daily, studying for weeks for finals, hiring tutors for $20-25 an hour to break down subjects like trigonometry, biology and economics to an elementary level so this twenty-year-old could slide by with a C. I remember getting a whopping 13 out of 30 on my first college test. I called my dad hysterical telling him I don’t know how I got in to college, but I wasn’t cut out for it, and to make room because I'd be moving back into his basement at the end of the semester. Fortunately, I did have a couple things going for me. I was very curious, I had a little bit of social intelligence, and I learned to get through tough situations with a lot of grit and perseverance. Because of these qualities I did graduate college, and didn't move back into my dad's basement... until six years later when I started grad school.

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ATTN: Busy Moms! Talking to Your Babies is Even Better than Reading to Them

Dana Suskind, the author of Thirty Million Words, just tweeted this article about a recent study in Ireland that shows that chattering away (or as we Americans say, "talking") to babies is EVEN BETTER than reading to them. If your child is anything like mine this is great news because my little wiggle worm won't sit still long enough for me to put socks on her feet, so forget about reading a whole six-page children's book.

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Breeeeeeeathe (Adult Version)

My last post "Breeeeeeeathe" was all about understanding what happens to a child's brain during a meltdown, and how to cope. I offered the idealistic advice to stay calm when your child is having a meltdown because kids learn by example and modeling, but I'll be the first to admit that my colicky baby made me lose it more than once to the point that my dear mother paid for June and me to fly home for a week of TLC after getting a horrible case of the shingles. Parenthood is no joke, y'all. I was doing everything I could to keep my colicky baby from crying for three and a half months straight that I completely exhausted myself, hints the shingles. Now I'm back (hi!), re-engergized (thanks, mom), and ready to share with you what I've been reading about how to find calmness in the midst of stress, anger or chaos.

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I was talking to my BFF about her son who is in his “terrible twos”. Really, there’s nothing terrible about him; he is wonderful, but he is beginning to express himself, and sometimes his little feelings are angry or stressed. She said to me, “I know it sounds silly, but I am teaching him to just breathe.” I didn’t know how to articulate it then, but after gathering my thoughts (a.k.a. researching what others had to say about breathing as a calming strategy) I was able to write down how powerful simple breathing techniques are for kids because they actually aren’t simple, at all. Regulating your emotions, or self-regulation, is one of the most challenging things to learn for any of us, but according to James Heckman, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, an important determinant of a child’s success. Without self-regulation and executive function, there is little chance of achievement in children or, anyone! (Suskind, p. 110).

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Parents, You are Powerful

I went to get my hair cut the other day, and took June in with me to meet the best hair dresser of all time, and mommy-to-be, Erin. “Doesn’t being a mom just make you feel so amazing?” the owner of the salon said with her shoulders were back exuding this glowing confidence. “It just makes me feel like a real woman.” I responded, without even thinking “I know, I just feel so empowered. Like, I made that little thing, I can do anything.”

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ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE… and language

I keep seeing this fact: By the age three 85% of brain development has already happened. Unlike any other organ in the body, the brain is underdeveloped at birth, and the development of your child’s brain is almost completely dependent on one thing: Y.O.U. And not only that, if those parts of the brain, known as the prefrontal cortex, aren’t nourished in the first three years of life, then those parts of the brain simply may never develop. An underdeveloped brain is totally preventable, yet almost entirely untreatable after the age of three. 

That’s a lot to handle, huh? First you have to grow this baby in your body for 9+ months, and now you have the responsibility of growing its brain for the first three years of its life?! Luckily for us, two women have done a ton of research on how to develop your child’s brain to its fullest capacity, and guess what: it’s FREE, accessible, available to all mommies and daddies, and, in fact, you don’t even have to leave the house in the hot mess state that you inevitably are as a new mom to get it. The only two things your child needs for their little brains to grow are love and language, and, momma, you got that.

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