As a seasoned educator with over 25 years in the classroom, I know how unsettling this coming school year is for children, parents and teachers. While on retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center years ago, I heard a dharma talk about letting our thoughts pass like clouds. The analogy of “staying in the station” and not getting whisked away by our racing train of thoughts occurred to me. So, I literally wrote the book on it. But, how do we convey the importance of living in the present moment to our children? Below are five simple steps to help center and calm yourself so you can be more successful in school, and in life:
1. Belly Breathing
All we need is…well, love, but breath. We can go days without food or water, but try holding your breath for even a minute and it’s clear that is our main human need. Teach your child to breathe in while they count to three, then breathe out counting to seven. Yes, seven! (Not to worry, kids count fast.) Research shows that, when we focus on the exhale, our heart rate and blood pressure lower and the body naturally calms down. You can also have your child place a hand on their belly to feel it filling with and, then, emptying of air. Many of my students also find that placing their hands flat, on a desk or table while doing deep breathing exercises for even five minutes before a test or big presentation, really helps them focus. You can set an oven timer or your phone clock and try to increase how long they are able to sit still. Kids are incredibly motivated by a running clock.
2. Say it to the Ceiling
Naming our feelings and becoming friends with them can decrease what we, as educators, call “the affective filter.” That is, when we befriend our emotions our ability to overcome anxiety, and willingness to take risks, increases. I tell children to say to the ceiling (or, with shy kids–whisper it to their elbow) “Hello, Fear, my friend!” Or “Good morning, Sir Sadness.” Boredom is a big one. “Oh you’re here again, Boredom Buddy, welcome back!” It may sound silly but, half the battle is teaching children to name and acknowledge their feelings. No judgment or resistance. The more children become aware of what they’re feeling, the better their life skills will be in facing that emotion head on and shifting their experience. Befriend your feelings and they will have less power over you.
3. “Stay in the Station”
This one is directly from my forthcoming book, Meditation Station (Bala/Shambhala, 2020). Tell your child to imagine that they’re in a train station. When a thought comes into their mind and tries to pull them down the track, just watch it pass. Wave to the train/thought. Feel the floor beneath them to ground themselves. Breathe deeply in and out. Touch their fingers to each other. Wiggle their toes. Anchoring yourself in your body and breath allows you to simply witness your train of thoughts racing down the track without going with them. Again, saying hello (and goodbye) to a thought is helpful. For example: “Hi daydream about playing at the park later.” (Or, let’s be real: “Hey, Fortnite”–insert whatever video game your kid plays).
4. Strike a Pose
Children naturally need movement. One advantage to being home during this time is that they have more opportunities to get up, move around and play. But, when they are expected to sit, staring at a device, for extended periods of time, it’s crucial to get them up and moving. Children may be familiar with basic yoga poses and you can show them some balance or stretching exercises to add to their repertoire. Many of these movements are named after animals which makes them even more engaging. Can they balance like a tree and make branches with their arms? How about wrapping their arms for eagle pose? There’s cat/cow, dolphin and cobra. The list goes on. A quick yoga/stretching “brain break” can help kids refocus.
5. Can you feel me?
Encouraging kids to tune into their five senses brings them back to the present moment. No need to worry about that quiz tomorrow (I mean, do study, but don’t fret) or think about the embarrassing Zoom moment from yesterday.
Right outside, in your own backyard or a local park, do a scavenger hunt of nature sounds. Play “I Spy” around the room to get their eyes off the screen and interact with the family. Can they close their eyes and guess what familiar smell is in a jar (or on a cotton ball?) Easy ones are: cinnamon, pine, chocolate or popcorn. For taste, place an M&M or raisin in their hand. Have them smell it, but wait to taste it. Then, ask them to place it in their mouth and just let the flavors be absorbed by their taste buds. Chew slowly, savoring the taste. Mindfulness demands that we pause, and be with each part of the experience. When I was a child, one of my friend’s mom’s used to make sensory bags when we watched The Wizard of Oz. She’d place cold, wet spaghetti in a bag and say it was the witch’s hair. You can cover containers with tinfoil and fill them with sand, beads, or Play-doh. Kids can reach in and guess what they’re feeling. If that is too creepy for your child, putting shaving cream or Slime directly on a garbage bag, on the floor or table, and allowing them to draw or write helps improve their small-motor skills.
All we have is this moment. There is so much change and uncertainty right now that many children are fast forwarding in their minds to the “what ifs.” Teaching your child to stay in the present requires specific skills and strategies. Belly breathing, naming feelings, befriending thoughts, stretching and activating the five senses will all help allow your child to “stay in the station” and not get whisked away by their racing train of thoughts. Woo-hoo! I mean, Choo-Choo!