On a recent Tuesday morning at Lafayette Elementary School in Northwest Washington, Sofia Parodi took a coveted seat at the head of the classroom and asked a fellow fourth-grader to switch off the lights.
“Close your eyes and take three deep breaths,” she instructed her classmates, who fell into a familiar rhythm of silently counting their breaths, then sharing their experience with their classmates.
Sofia was the day’s mindfulness helper, a temporary apprentice to Linda Ryden. Ryden is Lafayette’s peace teacher (yes, that’s her title), who leads about 500 of the school’s students in weekly courses on mindfulness — a practice aimed at enhancing self-awareness and reducing stress by focusing, without judgment, on the present moment.
The idea behind mindfulness is to provide a sort of mental reset button, freeing yourself from a crush of distraction, swell of anger or parade of fears and regrets that can dominate thoughts and derail behavior. Exercises such as counting breaths or focusing on one of the five senses become anchors to turn to and return to when your thoughts wander.
At its best, the practice works like a rewarding timeout for all ages — a more effective version of “Seinfeld’s” Frank Costanza screaming, “Serenity now!” And with research linking mindfulness to improved focus, mood and behavior, the movement has ballooned, spreading from health-care institutions to Fortune 500 companies, the military and athletics. Now, it’s increasingly being used at schools and with children.
“Education seems to be the last domino to fall,” says David Trachtenberg, program director of Minds, a group that formed two years ago to teach mindfulness, primarily at public schools in the metro area. The group, which has worked with 3,000 students, aims to boost kids’ emotional awareness and resilience — to help steady them against the onslaught of social and academic pressures in their relentlessly wired world.
With high-stakes tests beginning in elementary school, increasingly overscheduled afternoons and pressure to do more demanding extracurricular activities at ever-younger ages, kids are feeling overwhelmed. Mindfulness advocates hope the practice can help them cope with the demands.
“There’s a lot of pressure on kids, I think, to do activities that can be reported on your résumé and not a lot of support for just hanging out in your back yard,” Ryden says. “One of the things that mindfulness is giving the kids is a little space.”
Trisha Stotler, a meditation teacher who works with Minds, agrees.
“Kids are really stressed out,” she says. “We’re seeing really high levels of anxiety and depression in kids getting younger and younger.”
Stotler leads Minds’ parent program in Fairfax County, where several teen suicides last year raised the profile of mental health and social and emotional learning programs, according to Trachtenberg. That’s where mindfulness comes in. In its mental health programming in Fairfax County schools, the Josh Anderson Foundation, a suicide-prevention group, has partnered with Minds to teach mindfulness as a tool for stress management.
Students who have lower levels of stress are also better able to learn, according to practitioners.
“You can do the best lesson in the world, but if the student’s upset or angry or is preoccupied with something else, that great lesson’s going to be wasted,” says Frankie Engelking, director of student and community wellness at the McLean School in Potomac, which has made mindfulness a core aspect of its culture. Nearly half of the faculty has trained with Mindful Schools, an organization based in California that offers online and in-person courses in practicing mindfulness and teaching it to kids.
So, how exactly does one teach it to children? The idea of getting squirmy kids to sit still or angst-ridden teens to meditate might seem far-fetched.
But kids often take to it, readily turning to the practice as a way to self-soothe, and taking the techniques home with them.
“When I’m mad, and I get into a fight with my brother or anyone in my family, I go up to my room, and I start breathing, doing mindfulness, and it calms me down a little so things get back to normal,” says Jacopo Cascone, one of Ryden’s fourth-grade students.
Jacopo’s classmate, Virginia Burke, says that when she has trouble sleeping, she’ll count her breaths and listen to the ticking of her watch to relax.
“Kids are very in touch with their bodies,” which is the access point for mindfulness, says Stotler, who is helping to develop the children’s curriculum for Minds.
“I almost wish it was called ‘bodyfulness,’ ” because tuning into the body taps into emotional awareness, she says. (Physical tightness, for example, might signal stress.)
At the McLean School, many classes routinely start with a brief mindfulness practice. On a recent day, a teacher led a handful of sixth-grade boys in a visualization exercise. She asked them to picture a room painted a favorite color, then fill it with people who make them feel safe. One boy said he imagined his dad; another thought about the staff at Chipotle.
“Many of our students have anxiety or challenges focusing,” says Michael Saxenian, who initiated the program at the McLean School when he became head of school two years ago. “Mindfulness allows them to regain that focus.”
And it’s catching on: Students and parents have begun asking for the practice, according to Engelking.
“I thought it was weird at first,” says Bella Gleim, 14, a ninth-grader at McLean. Now, she says, “I realized that it totally helped . . . with everything in my life.”
A minute of breathing, and Bella can overcome the arresting anxiety of blanking out during a test, she says. “Then I’m totally focused, the answers are coming back, and that way I can finish my test confidently.” At a recent volleyball match, she opted for a timeout instead of getting angry with her losing team.
"I was about to yell at them for not doing the right thing, and then it would’ve gotten into a mess,” she says.
That recalibration, which supplants yelling, for example, with a more thoughtful choice, is the ultimate win, practitioners say.
“Mindfulness creates more and more space between the trigger and the response,” Stotler says, calling that space “the mindful pause.”
Parents talk about wanting to create that space in their dealings with their children. That’s what brought Carla Naumburg to mindfulness.
“I literally typed into Google, ‘how do I yell at my kids less?’” says the Boston-based clinical social worker and author of the upcoming book, “Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness With Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family.”
Mindfulness has helped Naumburg. But she’s not perfect, she says, and mindfulness doesn’t ask for that.
“The core of mindfulness is kindness,” she says. “If you find yourself beating yourself up . . . you’re not having a mindful moment.” Instead, she says, face a parenting flop by considering, with curiosity, what triggered it. “When we can start to notice our feelings and then get kind of interested in them, that’s when we can make a different choice about how we’re going to behave.”
By learning these skills themselves, parents will be better able to impart them to their children, Naumburg says.
She suggests parents test the techniques when they aren’t feeling stressed. Pay attention to your breath. Try some “magic breaths” with your kids, she says — “put the word magic in anything, and kids love it.” Or take them on a “noticing walk” where everyone reports their observations.
When it comes to younger children, props seem to help.
At a recent Tenleytown class for families, volunteers with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington used visual aids to teach mindfulness.
Instructor Ofosu Jones-Quartey walked around the room blowing bubbles. Children followed, leaping at the soapy spheres and popping them. Jones-Quartey repeated the exercise but asked the children to simply observe the bubbles, allowing them to pop on their own.
Instructors explained to the class that the bubbles represent their thoughts, which are equally fleeting, and the difficulty of just observing things without trying to catch them.
And, as with all skills, mindfulness improves with practice.
Shafer Bergman, a sixth-grader at McLean School, says that he used to twiddle his thumbs and look around the room during mindfulness work. But eventually, “I got real good at it,” he says.
“It’s like a part of my day now,” he says. “It’s not something physical like, you just drop and do push-ups. It’s something in here,” he says, tapping his temple, “that you can always do.”