Mindfully me: Teaching meditation to children

There is a growing awareness of the mental health crisis affecting young people, with research from Unicef last year showing Ireland’s teen suicide rate as the fourth-highest in the EU, writes Marjorie Brennan.

As concerns mount about the societal pressures young people face, ways of tackling stress and building resilience are coming into focus.

In recent years, mindfulness has been to the fore as a valuable tool in helping people cope with the stresses of modern life.

While research on mindfulness practice in children is not as extensive as that in adults, studies of interventions with school-aged children show mindfulness can reduce stress, anxiety, and bad behaviour, improve sleep and self-esteem as well as contributing directly to the development of cognitive skills.

Psychologist and children’s therapist Louise Shanagher saw the gap for bringing mindfulness into primary school classrooms several years ago and her Mindfully Me series of books has recently been published by Lilliput Press.

With illustrations by Rose Finerty, and accompanying video and affirmation cards, the series uses effective and evidence-based techniques to promote positive mental health and well-being among children aged four to eight.

A native of Athlone, Co Westmeath, Shanagher, 33, studied at NUI Galway and did a master’s degree in organisational psychology at the University of Manchester. She wanted to combine her experience in psychotherapy and play therapy to make the practice of mindfulness as relevant as she could to children.

In my first job, I was working with teenagers who had severe issues, and I felt it’d be great if they had had some kind of mindfulness training early on in their lives, as it could have helped them avoid some of those issues. I was learning mindfulness through meditation, and it had a huge impact on me.

The danger with terms such as mindfulness is that they can become buzzwords which lose their meaning. In this regard, how would Shanagher explain mindfulness to a child, or an adult?

“I would say that mindfulness is paying attention to this moment, to the here and now. For children, it’s about not thinking about something that has happened before, or something that might happen — it’s noticing what’s happening now.

"Another important part is to pay friendly attention to what is going on in the present moment: what can I hear, what can I see, what can I feel? It’s also important to bring kindness to that attention. We can be too critical or hard on ourselves.”

One of the key benefits of mindfulness is helping children acquire resilience and coping skills.

“Mindfulness and self-compassion go together and they’re excellent for building a more resilient mind. It’s about learning a set of skills to help you cope no matter what life throws at you. It’s like you’re creating a strength within yourself.

“Children can learn this skill, and use it when life gets stressful — at exam times or if they have issues with their friends,” says Shanagher.

Edel Walsh teaches junior and senior infants at Ballyleague NS, Co Roscommon. She uses the Mindfully Me programme in her class and has found it hugely beneficial.

“I have a special time every day when I use it. It creates a lovely, calm, safe and happy atmosphere for the children.

They love that time of the day, I feel like it’s a little break for them. It gives them a chance to talk about their feelings and it gives them the words to do that. It also gives them the tools to deal with whatever is coming up for them,” she says.

There is a lovely line in the book: ‘I love to be me, I’m perfect as can be’. I feel it is such an important message for children. We say it every single day and it really helps reinforce that message.

Walsh adds that she has received positive feedback from parents, many of whom have bought the books and use them at home. “That is even better again because they are getting the message from both school and home,” she says.

According to Shanagher, while the perception might be that young children would struggle to concentrate long enough to be mindful, they are more likely to embrace mindfulness than older children, whose ability to focus can be affected by the use of technology.

“If you introduce it to them early, at the age of three or four, then it becomes a normal thing for them. But sometimes as they get older, if they spend a lot of time on tablets, you can feel the impact of that on their attention.

“I do go to secondary schools but it’s about normalising and talking about mental health and wellbeing — and that starts from day one. If you introduce it in secondary school they’ve maybe built up resistance, so I think it should start in junior infants, and you can introduce a little of it in pre-school.”

Shanagher says that she and the teachers she works with see more instances of anxiety in children now.

“Every school I go into, teachers say they see more and more anxiety in children, whether it’s increasing or they’re just noticing it more. But I think there’s a combination of factors, including the increase in technology and the fact they’re all so busy.

"There are kids doing two or three activities every evening after school. There is no time to just be — and that puts pressure on the mind.”

    Tune in

    How to practise mindfulness with your children:

  • Get them to put their hand on their belly and notice it moving as they breathe in and out. Do this for about five breaths at first; you can increase the number of breaths as your child practices.
  • Explain to your child that when they feel their belly moving like this they are paying attention to what is happening right now.
  • Remind them that if their mind wanders to another thought they need to come back to feeling their belly move as they breathe, just noticing what it’s like to be breathing in this moment.
  • For younger children, try putting a small soft toy ‘breathing buddy’ on their belly as they lie down and ask them to watch their breathing buddy move up and down as they breathe.

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