The practice of mindfulness has crept its way into elementary and preschools.
Biologist, Jon Kabat-Zinn, coined the term “mindfulness” in the 1970s to describe the act of “paying attention on purpose” to the present moment, with a “non-judgmental” attitude.
Mindfulness techniques are being used in the classroom to help children cope with stress and anxiety as well as to help them calm their mind, find center, and focus attention. Advocates believe designating school time to such training leads to improved behavior and academic performance.
As a teacher, I appreciate learning the art of mindfulness to enhance my classroom management repertoire. As a mom, I welcome a daily dose of meditation as a respite for harried parenthood. But I am a grown up.
Teaching preschool and elementary school aged children mindfulness is both redundant and a band-aid. Why? Because they are mindful by design and their stress is not self imposed.
Children live in the present. Watch a 4 year old mix a leaf, grass and stone soup for the missing class tortoise or his classmate run wildly away from an invisible queen across the school yard. Stop to observe a pair of nine year olds twirl until dizzy or a crew of fifth graders so engrossed in conversation they forget to heed a busy crossing guard and it will become apparent that children are led by heart and body in the moment.
Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget concluded children’s understanding of time and capacity to think in abstract terms are driven by cognitive development.
A preschooler’s foundation for time begins with a sense of what happens before and after a concrete experience. His understanding of duration and the future does not match that of an adult. That’s why a child under 4 is confused by words like “tonight” “later” “today” and “tomorrow,” and will often create ones like “yestertime.” Even a child nearing Kindergarten will understand the phrase, “we are having lunch after I pick you up from school” over “we will have lunch at 12 o’clock.” By elementary school, a first grader learns to tell time only to the hour and half hour. Minutes are not introduced until second grade.
While children between ages 7-10 have a more mature sense of time, abstract, hypothetical thought is not fully developed until age eleven. Up until early middle school, young people still benefit from a personal connection or concrete experience in order to make sense of a sophisticated idea.
For example, after reading Crenshaw, a middle grade novel which tackles the theme of homelessness, my ten year old went on to ask questions about our family’s financial condition and whether we have enough money to pay the rent in an effort to make sense of this cruel reality. Even after I reassured him, the boy worried.
Encouraging my son to read a book I, the adult with my adult view of the world, thought would benefit his growth only produced anxiety. He was not cognitively ready.
Adults can minimize the stress we create for and impose upon children by limiting its source. But with poverty, trauma, and violence not as straightforward and repairable as developmentally rigorous academic standards, competitive athletic expectations, over scheduling, and the pressure to be well liked, well rounded and successful, we need to nurture their emotional health while simultaneously addressing the larger issues.
But meditation, deep breaths, and mantras are not the answer.
Children need love.
A veteran teaching colleague recently reminded me it is consistent love from a trusted adult whether it is a parent, relative, community member, or teacher that makes the difference for a child regardless of external forces.
Even as the family in the story Crenshaw struggled through hunger and financial hardship my son observed, “Living in a van didn’t seem so bad because the family loved each other.”
Children need time.
Time to move, play and socialize; time to create, discover and stretch their imagination; time to get from point A to B, be bored and to wonder.
The time scheduled for mindfulness in school should be allocated to these activities because this is how children find their center. This is what helps them focus. This is what teaches body and environmental awareness. This is how they were intended to manage stress.
Children are inherently present, non judgmental, and stress free. So let’s give them love. Give them time. And then, let them be.