Hocus Pocus Everybody Focus!
Sarah Salmon, expert in yoga, movement and relaxation for children, tells us how mindfulness can have a positive impact on a child’s concentration.
I first felt the benefits of yoga and stillness in my teens whilst tagging along with my Mum to her classes. Although I didn’t ‘know’ about mindfulness at the time, I could feel that I benefitted from the sense of peace I felt inside. Years later, motherhood shook me off centre and I found myself anxious and unsettled until I picked up regular practice again. This then led to a career in mindfulness, specifically focusing on children. On a day-to-day basis, I see how much it helps my family life; and it’s a joy to be able to share this approach to life with others.
So, what is mindfulness?
To be in a mindful state is to be fully awake and aware of our experience in the present moment without judging it. Focusing on our breath and what we are sensing takes us out of our heads and very gently into ‘now’ and can be practised whatever we are doing (it isn’t all about sitting with our legs crossed and ‘Omm-ing’, thank goodness!).
Mindfulness and concentration
During training to coach children in mindfulness four years ago, I suddenly had one of those delicious moments of realisation. I came to see that, for all the times I had said ‘Will you pay attention!’ to my children (often in frustration at the time, I’ll be honest), not once had it occurred to me that neither I, nor their teachers, had ever actually taught them how to concentrate. It struck me that it is often just an expectation we have, that children can, and should, pay attention. In truth, it is a skill like any other that takes time, practice, patience and awareness to develop.
Thankfully, a bit of mindfulness magic goes a long way in the quest for concentration and here’s why:
Neuroscientists have observed that during mindful practice there is reduced activity in the brain’s amygdala, the ‘fight or flight’ centre so often active in our hectic lifestyles. This results
in us feeling calmer and increases activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for concentration.
Mindfulness trains us to become the captains of our own ship (our whole self). As captains, we are responsible for the wellbeing of our crew (our body, mind and emotional state) and we need to take time to listen to the messages they send us in order to keep ship-shape!
If we are unable to concentrate, there may be something we can do to help ourselves, but we might miss it if we don’t take a mindful moment to look inward and observe what is going on. Once we become aware of why we are distracted, we can act constructively to aid focus again.
Five tips for using mindfulness to help concentration in our children
If mindfulness can be our magic wand, how can we use it to help our children learn to focus?
1. Regularly guide them to notice how their body feels and how they are breathing at different times; when they are calm and relaxed as well as when they have been upset. Let’s compare the two!
2. Help them enjoy the world through their senses. This brings their attention into the present moment and away from the thoughts that can distract them.
3. Help them practise breathing into their belly (a calming breath). Being in a quiet, low-lit environment helps them focus on the movement in their body as they breathe, as does placing a hand or beanbag over their tummy.
4. Be patient and understanding if your child is distracted. We can gently show them that we have noticed: ‘I can see your mind is somewhere else, what are you thinking about? How are you feeling?’ You may need to use your intuition if the child finds it hard to explain verbally, but the answer will usually be along the lines of:
- My body is uncomfortable (in pain, hungry, thirsty, needs the loo!).
- It’s too noisy, busy or bright in here.
- I’m feeling upset about something/someone.
- I’m scared/tired.
- My mind is too full and noisy.
- I’m not interested in this.
We can respond as best we can by de-cluttering our time and environment, dealing with difficult emotions, letting the child take a break to make themselves more comfortable or finding a more engaging approach or activity that suits them.
5. Be a role model. The situations here happen to all of us and the benefits of mindfulness are for everyone – take charge of your ship and set sail!
Sarah trained to teach yoga and mindfulness with Calm for Kids in 2013. She runs her own successful business focused specifically on mindfulness and relaxation for children, brilliant-beings.co.uk.