Refocusing young minds | by Maribeth Neelis

Posted on Thu, Jun 26, 2014

Teaching mindfulness in children can foster good behavior, self-control

It was the threshold of summer, and child psychologist Dr. Kristen Race was delighted to spend the day hiking with her 6-year-old daughter. Less enthused, Macy began listing her grievances almost immediately: achy legs, pebbles in her shoes, the possibility of a bee sting.

Frustrated, Race considered turning back but instead decided to ask her daughter how they might practice mindfulness. They began by concentrating on the sounds—a gurgling river, chirping birds, scampering dogs. Then they observed the sights and smells they encountered along the trail. By the end of the hike, they had walked farther than planned and both felt uplifted, grounded by the mindfulness practice, an exercise that has become commonplace in the Race household.

“Just five minutes a day will make a big difference,” says Race, who recounts the above adventure in her book Mindful Parenting: Simple and Powerful Solutions for Raising Creative, Engaged, Happy Kids in Today’s Hectic World. “But, if you don’t have a consistent mindfulness practice, it’s difficult to call upon in the heat of the moment.”

Proving Mindfulness

happy familyIn the past few years, mindfulness—paying attention to the present moment, without judgment—has garnered much attention. Google and Target offer mindfulness training. The practice is taught to law-enforcement officers and military personnel to enhance performance under stress. Mindfulness has even reached prisons, where it aims to reduce anxiety and curb violence.

Recent peer-reviewed studies show consistent mindfulness practice increases the density of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex (decision-making), the left prefrontal cortex (positive emotions), the hippocampus (memory) and the insula (empathy and self-awareness), building neural mass much as physical exercise increases muscle mass. “Mindfulness exercises strengthen certain structures in our brains, making them stronger, more efficient and easier to use,” says Race, a nationally acclaimed mindfulness teacher who lives in Steamboat Springs.

Understanding Mindfulness

“When I explain the brain to kids, I describe it simply in two parts: the prefrontal cortex, or the smart part of our brains, and the limbic system, where we find the alarm part of our brains,” Race says. Stressors, large and small, can trigger the amygdala in the limbic system, which responds by flooding the body with stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.

Meant to promote survival, those hormones prompt a fight, flight or freeze response. This overrides the activities of the prefrontal cortex, like impulse control, problem-solving, and emotional regulation. A relic of a bygone era, that instinctive reaction is usually unwarranted. What’s more, Race explains, a daily barrage of non-life-threatening stress shifts the amygdala into overdrive.

“In the midst of our hectic lives, we’re constantly sparking a false alarm in our brains,” says Race, the mother of two young children. “And when that part of the brain is stimulated, we aren’t able to use the prefrontal cortex for executive function.” In children, fight, flight or freeze can manifest in a number of often-misinterpreted behaviors—tantrums, mood swings, defiance, anxiety, aggression, or even depression.

Nurturing Mindfulness

Carefree family of threeRace says practicing mindfulness with children helps them develop new patterns of response, making them more resilient to stress. It also increases self-awareness, which teaches empathy. When children recognize their own feelings, it’s easier for them to distinguish and relate to those emotions in others.

As the founder of Mindful Life and the creator of the Mindful Life Schools program, Race trains teachers across the country to integrate mindfulness strategies into their classrooms. When she makes the case for mindfulness, her position is backed by more than personal anecdotes.

A study of her Mindful Life Schools program confirmed what she found evident in her own practice: short, frequent doses of mindfulness can have a profound effect. The preschool classes who practiced just 30 minutes a week for 10 weeks showed significant improvement in emotional regulation and behavioral self-control.

Practicing Mindfulness

Dr. Sheryl Gonzalez-Ziegler, founder and managing director of The Child & Family Therapy Center at Lowry, begins by teaching children and parents what she considers the foundation of mindfulness practice, diaphragmatic, or deep-belly, breathing.

Shallow breathing is part of the fight, flight or freeze response. From a physiological perspective, increasing lung capacity lowers blood pressure, slows the heart rate and reduces stress. Demonstrating an appropriate reaction to stress is also essential when teaching mindfulness to children.

“I ask parents to be mindful of what they model for their children in terms of stress management, emotional intelligence and communication,” Gonzalez-Ziegler says. I have seen that, in order to have the greatest impact in helping the child, the whole family needs to be aware of and working on their own stress, emotions and communication.”

Race encourages parents to go a step further and articulate the constructive ways they are managing their emotions. If you are struck in traffic, explain that you are feeling frustrated and how you will handle it. Talk about how deep breathing can help you relax.

For Gonzalez-Ziegler, mindfulness is effective because it empowers the individual, regardless of their age. “(Mindfulness) has an empowering effect on children who become keenly attuned to their bodies and the connection that their thoughts and feelings have on their bodies,” Gonzalez-Ziegler says. “They experience success, as they learn to control what has felt so out of control for too long.”

For the skeptics, she says just try it. You will find children enjoy learning about the mind-body connection. Even toddlers can begin exploring mindfulness.

Mindfulness Exercises

Deep-Belly Breathing (Ages 4+)

Tools needed: Hoberman sphere

Slowing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure, deep breathing increases attention, decreases stress and anxiety and sharpens the mind’s ability to focus and learn. Begin by practicing one to three minutes.


  • Sit up straight in your chair with your shoulders back.
  • Watch the sphere as it expands and collapses.
  • Begin taking deep breaths along with the sphere, inhaling as it grows and exhaling as it shrinks.
  • Focus on filling up your lungs with air and then pushing all the air out.
  • Imagine breathing in happy thoughts and breathing out all the sad or scary thoughts.
Body Scan (Ages 4+)

Tools needed: A mat, or comfortable spot to lie down

A body scan fosters emotional awareness. It helps children (and adults) become more adept at recognizing emotions and how they trigger feelings in their bodies. Begin by practicing two to five minutes.


  • Lay down in a comfortable position on the floor, with your arms resting gently on the ground and your eyes closed.
  • Picture a light of your favorite color glowing above you.
  • Listen to the sound of my voice. Let all of the other sounds in the room fade away.
  • Picture the colored light glowing in your feet. Feel their weight as they rest on the ground. Notice the position of your feet and the sensations inside your feet.
  • Move your way up, calling attention to each part of the body for a few seconds, asking participants to focus their thoughts only there.

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