Every time I turn on the news, I just cringe. Another school shooting, a child being bullied or even an attempted suicide. Children have so much coming at them all day long, that they need a way to release those stressors. They need to learn how to handle everything life throws at them.
This world can make even the calmest of adults go a little crazy. It is overloaded with stress and chaos. If adults have a hard time, imagine how hard this planet is for a child. They have to learn to cope with stress, how to handle their emotions and how to remain calm and focused.
Adults will use meditation to turn their senses inward, but with kids, they need to practice meditation consciously, with focus. They should be exploring the senses before they turn inside.
As parents, we dream of a world where children can stay calm, handle their emotions and grow to be happy and healthy. The modern world seems to put so much pressure on our children; social media, television and violence at school are all things that stress out our kids. And with the recent increase in school violence, the importance of mental health cannot be overstated.
Effects of stress on children can result in things such as:
- Poor sleep habits
- Disruptive behavior
- Lack of meaningful relationships
- Difficulty focusing
- Low self-esteem or depression
As a result, mental health issues in kids—such as anxiety and depression—are increasing. In fact, according to Beyond Blue, it’s estimated that around one in seven kids experience mental health difﬁculties and about half of all serious mental health problems in adulthood begin before the age of 14. There is also an estimate that over two million kids in the US have been diagnosed with ADHD—and for most of them the problem started before the age of six.
It seems that kids have the cards stacked against them. In this context, it is our responsibility as parents and educators—and as a society—to teach our young generation tools that can make a real difference.
That is where meditation, which is a practice of relaxation, awareness, focus and stillness, comes into play. It can give kids the tools to deal with their emotional challenges and help them to grow into healthy adults.
Thankfully, we are seeing a movement to integrate meditation and mindfulness in education. In some schools, meditation has served as an addition to physical education programs at various grade levels, and in others it has served as a replacement for Detention Programs. This movement of teaching meditation to kids is building momentum, and there are studies showing many positive results. Here are a few:
Better behavior. A school in Baltimore replaced detention with meditation class for kids, and had no suspensions throughout the entire year, after the meditation room was installed. A school that had the highest rates of gunfire, fighting, and suspensions in San Francisco integrated “quiet time” into the curriculum, and saw suspension rates drop by 45%, attendance rise, and grades improve significantly.
Less ADHD. A Midwest elementary school conducted an 8-week mindfulness program with 3rd-grade students, after which teachers reported less inattentiveness, less hyperactivity, and fewer symptoms of ADHD. Students were more focused and settled, calm and rested.
Better school performance. San Francisco schools offering meditation programs reported satisfactory English scores on the standardized California Achievement Test at a rate twice that of non-meditation schools. A California middle school providing daily meditation programs to their youngsters saw an increase in grade point averages for most participants in the program.
Less stress and depression. Students who participated in a meditation program reported significantly less stress and depression than other students. They had improved psychological well-being. Kids who practice mindfulness will experience fewer psychological complexes such as fearfulness, social withdrawal and anxiety.
“If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”—Dalai Lama
With meditation, kids learn how to better manage their bodies, their energy, and their emotions. There is an increase in emotional intelligence, positive outlook of life, and in the ability to regulate oneself. Kids develop better organization skills and learn to be more present and less judgmental, responding rather than reacting to their life events. They feel better, learn better and sleep better. It becomes an integral part of their development and their resources for navigating the world. It helps set them up for a happier and healthier life.
“You need to calm down!” “Sit still!” “Settle down!”
These are not things that children instinctively know how to do. We must teach them, through lessons and by example. Teaching kids is obviously very different from teaching adults. Kids have less patience, shorter attention spans and less capacity to sit still. On the other hand, they have a greater imagination, a sense of playfulness, and they learn by example.
Meditation tips for children
1. Short and sweet
Kids don’t have the patience to sit still for long. So, keep the practice short, especially for kids under the age of 10. They should never get bored with the practice, but leave with the feeling of “wanting more”.
A general guideline is to make the sessions as long as the child’s age, plus one. So if your kid is 8, make the session at most 9 minutes long. You can use a meditation timer app with a bell, to make it more interesting. Bonus: Kids love timers and bells!
2. Keep it fun
Everyone wants to have fun, right? Something to remember when teaching kids to meditate is to present the practices in a more interesting, fun, and engaging way. Never allow it to become boring. Make it feel like play—and the kids will want to do it all the time. Keeping it fun means that you need to choose techniques that are more engaging for kids—like working with their senses and imagination. It means that you need to adapt the meditation instructions so that they are more interesting, like a game.
For example, instead of asking the kid to “watch your breath”, you can ask her to place a small toy on her belly, and watch the toy move up and down as she breathes deeply. Ask her to try to make the toy move as slowly as possible. There you go, you just taught her deep breathing without her even noticing!
Of course, the approach depends a lot on the age—is your “student” a kid (6-9), tween (10-13), or teen (14-17)? The way you would teach a 5-year-old is different than the way you’d teach an 11-year-old. Those teaching meditation to kids will need to adapt these principles and the techniques according to the age and personality of the kid.
3. Use the gift of imagination
Most children find it hard to understand abstract concepts. Rather, children enjoy activities that allow them to use their imagination and creativity. So, make sure you engage their imagination in the practice. One way to do this is to make the meditation a challenge. You’ll have to get in touch with your own creativity and imagination for this, and it depends a lot on the kid.
For example: Physical stillness is a powerful door to meditation. When teaching that, you can frame it as a challenge: “Let’s play a game called Buddha-Statue. We sit in this special posture, pretend to be a statue, and slowly count from 10 back to 1. If you move before that, you lose.”
Another way is by creating an interesting “meditation space” at home or at school. Kids love to be transported into another world, with different experiences and weird objects. You can add an extra layer of meaning by saying things like: “This is a sacred space, a magical space. Whenever you enter here and practice meditation, all your problems disappear, and you start feeling very calm and happy.”
4. Be flexible and supportive
At the end of the practice together, ask them about how their experience went. Then, whatever they share, validate it. Accept everything the child says, even if he is clearly exaggerating, as we are allowing space for his imagination to develop. If you are leading a group of kids, reaffirm everyone’s experiences, and make sure no child is confused, lost or unhappy about it.
5. Lead by example
Kids learn more by imitating than by following instructions. They like to imitate adults and feel older. So, the best way to teach a kid to meditate is for you to meditate! All eyes are on you, so be sure to set a solid example of how to incorporate meditation into your daily life.
Let your kid see you sitting motionless and peaceful as you meditate. Eventually she will ask you what you were doing, and then it will be the time to teach her. Or else to increase her desire and curiosity by saying something like, “It’s a special practice that adults do, but I can teach you if you like.”
Children learn most everything through their senses. They see things, hear instruction and feel rewarded. Using their senses will make teaching them much easier. Here are a few interesting techniques to use as you begin.
Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Imagine that your ears become as big as your body. They can hear everything. Pay attention to the sounds you hear in the room you are in. Stay a few seconds with each sound and then move on to the next. Start hearing sounds very far away. See how far you can go. Now see if you can hear the sound of your own breath. Keep hearing the sound of your breath, moment after moment.
The mantra “om” has a deeply calming effect on the mind—especially due to the prolonged “mmmm” sound. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath in through the nose. As you are breathing out, slowly chant ommmm. In the beginning it is loud, and then slowly it gets softer and softer until your exhalation is finished. Repeat the process many times, breathing in deeply, and chanting OM when breathing out. With every breath, try to make the OM sound last longer, and be softer. It may seem like a game at first, but once the child gets used to it, she will learn to relax.
Make the room dark and light a candle. This different atmosphere, coupled with the fact that most kids love fire, will make it an enjoyable practice for them. Sit two to three feet away from the candle. Open your eyes and gaze at it gently. Keep your eyes watching the flame very carefully, like a hawk watches its prey. Don’t move the eyes neither left nor right, neither up nor down. After two minutes close your eyes and look at the afterimage of the candle that may appear in your mind. Tell them that the candle is just for meditating. This will keep it very special.
There are many types of meditation, most of them involve being still. But what to do with kids who have a hard time sitting still? Who struggle with fidgeting and toe tapping? Use it! Tapping along to a beat or metronome can be quite relaxing for a child. Frame it as a challenge: “Let’s see how well you can follow the beat!”. You can start with a rather quick beat, then slow down. Once the beat has slowed, ask the child to sync his breath with the steps.
For a fidgety child, try to have them make a circle on their index finger with their thumb. Have them go fast at first, then slow down over time. You can use a beat or have them circle according to their breath. The key is the repetition. Repetition requires less focus over time, thereby allowing the mind to relax.
Imagine how different your life would be if you had learned the art of meditation when you were younger. Would you have made better and more clear decisions? Would you have taken the time to think before you acted? I imagine it would have make a huge difference in how you handle stress, too.
Our children are the future and we have such immense love for them. We want to teach them how to manage their lives and themselves. What a beautiful gift to give them and to the world by teaching them to meditate.
For more information on how to help children with mindfulness, check out this book: