In my research, I study the development of executive function skills, which are a crucial part of a child’s development. They help children regulate emotion, make decisions, and think critically. One way of promoting the development of healthy executive function skills is by encouraging children to practice mindfulness.
Working together with Jessie Forston at Learning Tree Yoga, my colleague and Distinguished McKnight University Professor Stephanie Carlson and I have created a curriculum for teaching the art of practicing mindfulness to young children. Practicing mindfulness helps them to understand the difference between being active and being calm, which can help them learn to relax, control their emotions and behavior, as well as improve their focus on tasks.
The video below shows examples of mindfulness exercises that were originally designed for adults that we adapted to be used with preschoolers. For example, one of the interventions has children place a stuffed animal on their stomach and take deep breaths. Because children tend to have more difficulty with deep breathing than adults, a teddy bear helps children focus and calm down. As a result, they learn that it’s a strategy they can use when they’re feeling overwhelmed.
While the interventions we’ve developed help weave together mindfulness and executive function skills for all preschoolers, we’ve found that these types of exercises have been particularly helpful for children who are facing adversity.
Practicing Mindfulness in the Community and Classroom
A good example of the effectiveness of this research in the community is work we’ve done with Regents Professor Ann Masten at a homeless shelter in Minneapolis called People Serving People. These families have very high levels of stress that act as a barrier to developing healthy executive function skills, so we recognized the importance of teaching these children simple strategies for calming themselves down before attempting to teach them those skills.
With all of these potential benefits, there’s also an increasing interest in introducing mindfulness practices into school districts across the country. Yet, there’s a need for more research to fully understand best practices and the most effective exercises that will help children develop the executive function skills they need to succeed in the classroom.
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