Wisdom//

Mindfulness Is Really About Attention and Impulse Control Training

"Mindful Tools" that support attention and impulse control training.

Luca Rossatti/ Getty Images
Luca Rossatti/ Getty Images

Welcome to room 228 where sixth-grade students at Somers Middle School read, write and pause:

“Move into a mindful body. Close your eyes or soften your gaze. When the sound of the singing bowl ends, raise your hand.” Focusing on the sound of the bowl ringing, students raise their hands one by one as they hear the soothing sound fade. “Hands down. With your eyes still closed or with a softened gaze, focus on your anchor spot as you take three rounds of full breaths.” Once the student leader completes their third round of breaths, you hear, “Eyes up. Great job, everyone!”

Class Peace Rocks

Mindfulness is paying attention to what is happening in our surroundings at any given moment with kindness. We do this through our senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste—as well as our thoughts and emotions. My classes practice every day, before instruction. It’s so important to me that my students benefit from this type of practice that the first line in my sub plans is to allow for a mindfulness practice after attendance. I write, “Ask who is next to lead the mindfulness practice. The students know what to do.” Then about every two weeks, another mindful tool becomes part of a toolbox of strategies to help us be our best selves.

The time we spend tuning into ourselves provides us with a moment when we don’t have to do anything but be present and breathe. I’ve noticed that for some children, this is a relief. When asked how they feel after practice, students report feelings of calmness, relaxation and for some, tiredness. Yes, mindfulness can produce the wonderful byproduct of feeling at peace. However, there is real skill-building happening every time we practice sitting in stillness; one, recognizing the nature of attention, and two, improvement of impulse control.

As teachers and as parents, we have been telling children to focus and pay attention, haven’t we? I know I have! But how many of us have taught children how to pay attention? I know I never taught that lesson, not until I cultivated a personal practice with mindfulness and started teaching the young people in my life. The number-one skill mindfulness offers is the ability to recognize the nature of attention so that we can be more cognizant about where we place our focus. If children can track where their minds wander, if they are staring out the window and notice that they are doing this, they may be empowered to refocus their attention on the task at hand.

Mini “Mindful Tools”

The second skill that is developed is impulse control—to help prevent those things that we may say or do that we wish we could take back. With a mindfulness practice, children gain the ability to notice where those impulses are coming from within their bodies. A mindfulness practice can help create the space in between something happening and a reaction so that we can respond to a situation rather than react impulsively. This is not to say that children will never be impulsive or will be focused all the time. A mindfulness practice is not meant to suppress normal child development. What it does is provide our children with extra tools to help them navigate life’s challenges with greater ease.

Here are two “mindful tools” to begin the journey of awareness.

Breathing Sticks—These are great to use and fun to make! All you need is a pipe cleaner, six fun beads, and your breath. Curl up one end of the pipe cleaner (I like to make hearts!), select six of your favorite beads, place them in any order you like on the pipe cleaner, then curl up the other end to keep the beads contained. Sit in a “mindful body”—spine long and straight; close your eyes or soften your gaze. Holding your breathing stick, move all the beads to one side, then inhale through your nose (others shouldn’t hear your breath, just breathe naturally), then exhaling through your nose, move one bead over to the other side. Continue “anchoring” or focusing your attention on the beads as you move as many or as few as you want.

When you notice your mind wandering, which is normal (the mind’s job is to think), acknowledge it with kindness, maybe say “thinking” to yourself, and then bring your attention back to the beads, your anchor. Every time we place attention on something and then notice we have lost that attention but then redirect our attention, we are strengthening the part of the brain that is in charge of focus and concentration. It is as though we are doing a bicep curl for the brain. Notice how you feel. Think about when you can practice your attention skills.

Breathing Sticks

Glitter Jars—These are also fun to make! You’ll need a Mason jar, or you can reuse a plastic water bottle. You’ll also need one tube of glitter glue in the color of your choice. I like to use Crayola’s brand and any brand of loose glitter. Squeeze all the glitter glue into the jar. Fill your bottle with warm water if possible, but cold water will work, too. Shake it, turning it upside down several times. Do not worry, the clumps of glue will eventually dissolve. Then liberally add some loose glitter to make it extra sparkly. To practice your attention and focusing skills with a glitter jar, shake up your jar and then focus on the glitter as it settles slowly to the bottom. When your mind wanders, notice it with kindness, say to yourself “thinking” and then return your attention to the sparkles as they settle. Keep noticing the wandering and redirect your attention as many times as you need to. Set a timer and start out with small practice times, then work your way up to more extended amounts of time.

Glitter Jars

Have fun with the above practices. Experiment using a Tibetan singing bowl (below) for mindful listening illustrated at the beginning of this post. Concentrating on the sound of the bowl, especially the pulses of sound as they become quieter and quieter, is a great way to bring the mind into focus. Students are also motivated to lead a mindfulness practice when they learn they have an opportunity to ring the bowl.

Class Singing Bowl

Be sure to debrief after each practice asking students how they feel and what they noticed. Invite students to think about when they can practice their attention and impulse-control skills and/or use these tools to help them be the best person they can be—one breath, one movement, one moment at a time.

I’d love to learn how these mindful tools are helping the kiddos in your life be their best selves. Be sure to keep in touch.

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