I get a few quizzical looks from other parents when they hear that I’m teaching my four-year-old son to meditate. I’m not sure why it’s so surprising. Although the concepts of mindfulness and meditation have become almost ubiquitous in adult society as a means of managing stress, the use of mindfulness meditation with children, particularly with little ones, has received less attention. Perhaps that’s why my fellow parents look a bit confused. Or perhaps it’s the stereotype that those who meditate are beacons of calm and serenity; something which my children could never be confused with being.
Teaching children to be emotionally aware and resilient is incredibly important. Currently, children in primary schools are at higher risk than ever of experiencing stress or anxiety. In 2017, the House of Commons cross-party education committee concluded that Sats tests were placing children and teachers in a "high-stakes" system of testing damaging their mental health and wellbeing. Let’s take stock of that for a moment: the system of education that we’re placing our children into is systematically placing them under the sort of stresses comparable to adults who work in high-pressure environments. The difference is that adults are emotionally savvy enough to manage such stress, and when this is not the case, at least there are clear and definable pathways and opportunities for help.
Anxiety in primary schools
Does anyone really expect primary schools to be high-stakes hothouses of the sink or swim mentality? Are we blind to the pressures they’re under, or do we simply not want to contemplate the stresses that they must face in the name of primary education? Either way, those pressures are real; a survey by The Key showed that in a two-year period, instances of stress, anxiety, and panic attacks rose in 78 per cent of primary schools, with a 76 per cent increase in fear of academic failure, and 55 per cent increase in depression. Looking at these figures, my feelings are simultaneously opposed. Aren’t I doing a great thing by teaching my kids ways of noticing when they are stressed, and training them in ways to respond to those feelings in a healthy way? But then, what am I doing sending them to an environment in which they may feel like academic failures? The answer to this second point is fairly straightforward; I really value what schools can offer, and the positives benefits that my children can gain from being there are many. But we must address the costs and harms that Sats testing, in particular, contribute towards.
I have seen the early signs already in my kids. My eldest, who’s 6, worries about his handwriting and spellings to such an extent that on school nights, he just couldn’t switch off. My youngest worries that his friends won’t want to play with him; he's a boy who loves nothing better than witches and princesses, and even at 4, he is well aware of the playground politics. Be in no doubt, primary school can be a petri dish for stress, as well as for experiencing the joys of learning. Kids of primary school age are like sponges; that’s how they can learn the variety of complex foundations of knowledge such as reading, writing, and arithmetic relatively quickly. But these sponge-like super-absorbency powers can be both a positive and negative trait; they don’t just apply to what children learn about the world around them, they apply to what children learn about themselves. If school is causing them stress, this is how they will forever relate to learning or testing. If they feel inadequate during such processes, those feelings may be there to stay. If they experience stress and have no positive or healthy response to it, then neurologically speaking, the stress pathways in their emerging brains are becoming more and more prominent and engrained. For their future health and wellbeing, this isn't good.
The benefits of mindfulness meditation
There’s a plethora of evidence about the benefits of mindfulness meditation, including compelling neurological evidence that stress pathways in the brain can be rewired in just a matter of weeks, ensuring that when stressed, the go-to response is not that of anxiety, but one of calm. But of course, you can’t introduce meditation to kids in the same way as because, well, kids aren’t adults. There are a number of resources that you can try to introduce child-friendly mindfulness techniques. The most accessible in my experience is the range of books devised by “Relax Kids”, a company who specialises in just this area. With my boys, we’ve been using ‘A Monster Handbook’, which we use every night, after their bedtime story. The effects have taken some time to manifest, but on the return to school after the holidays this month, my eldest was able to recognise that churning in his stomach as nerves, was able to breathe deeply to relax, and was able to affirm out loud in the car that “I am brave”. These are huge steps. Teaching kids to be mindful is not about reducing their exposure to stress, but rather improving their response to it.
So, our routine. As mentioned, we use the Monster Handbook, which is great because it separates all the negative emotions out and names them: the Stress Monster, the Anxiety Monster, the Lonely Monster. Each monster has their own meditation, a single page which gets kids to identify how these feelings may manifest, and outline ways of addressing them. There’s a focus on breathing, on visualisation, just as with "adult" meditation, but it’s made fun, accessible, and calming. The use of positive affirmations encourages little ones to outwardly express their positive attributes – “I am imaginative, I am kind” and so on. This bit may sound a bit saccharine for the hard-nosed of us, but hearing your little one say such affirmations out loud is always a highlight of the day. Following the meditation, we talk about the last time they felt that monster, which may initiate a conversation about something they’ve been worried about.
Increasing focus and concentration
These techniques work just as well in groups as in one to ones, and can be easily adapted to the classroom. A few-minute read-through of a meditation once a class has returned from break time can increase focus, enhance calm, and foster concentration. Morning affirmations in which each child can say out loud what they are good at can increase self-esteem and encourage discussion. Such additions to the school day take next to no time to do, and can significantly calm the class and get them ready for learning. Relax Kids also have a host of qualified coaches available to deliver classes in schools, which could be used in PE time, as there are games, stretches and meditations and more to be delivered. Another great resource is the Cosmic Kids yoga channel on YouTube, which also serves the dual role of physical activity with a mindful tilt to it.
If you needed any more convincing about the benefits of introducing mindfulness into the day, think of the teachers. Even delivering a meditation can be relaxing, and certainly teaching a class of children who are a little calmer than normal will alleviate the pressures of teaching day to day. And when we’re all a little calmer, then who knows what may be possible?
Dr Richard Sly is a psychologist and freelance writer