Seven Ideas for Incorporating Mindfulness into Your Routine While Children are Home

By FCPS & Fairfax County Government
May 21, 2020

What is Mindfulness and Why Does it Matter? 

To be mindful is to pay attention to the present moment and not be lost in thoughts or judgments. It is the practice of careful focusing. The goal of mindfulness is not necessarily to always remain calm, but rather to take notice of our feelings and our thoughts which helps us to take a pause before impulsively reacting. It helps us to make better responses to handle stress or meet challenges, while not missing out on enjoyable pleasant experiences. Mindfulness strategies have the potential to help children and adolescents maintain self-awareness and build skills in self-regulation and emotional control. 

Mindfulness and Anxiety 

Mindfulness practices can help us self-regulate by increasing our awareness of the emotions that rise in us. In times of crisis or uncertainty, it is normal to feel anxious, as well as other emotions such as sadness, anger, fear and grief. Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, emphasized that when feelings are “mentionable” they can be “manageable.” When we recognize and name our emotions, we can care for ourselves. 

Mindfulness practices additionally have the power to improve our internal stress response and give us the space to choose a response before we react. Strategies based in mindfulness can help us bring our bodies and minds back to a calmer state so that we can think clearly. When our stress response is triggered, our bodies prepare us to fight, flight or freeze. This is to protect us! However, our bodies have a hard time telling the difference between a physical stressor, such as being chased by a bear, and a psychological stressor, such as taking a test. During the stress response, we are able to run fast or fight a predator, but the downside is that we cannot easily access the thinking part of our brain, or our frontal lobe. Mindfulness strategies help us learn to calm our bodies down when faced with stressors. Neurons that fire together, wire together and over time with practice, we can become quite good at getting relaxed. This helps our ability to slow down and problem solve, rather than react quickly and say or do something we may regret later. 

Building Mindfulness Strategies into Your Routine:

Mindfulness practices are best to use as proactive strategies, in which we practice getting calm a few times a day and not just when we are experiencing big emotions. We want our mindfulness strategies to be automatic so that we can easily use them. Get the whole family involved. Pick one or two that you can start to fit into your routine. Think simple, short, but consistent!

1)    Breathing Exercises 

By focusing on our breath, we can stay in the present moment. Do not feel pressure to have a completely calm mind, free of distractions. Every breath is an opportunity to be in the moment. Every time you catch your mind wandering or your body wiggling and then come back to focusing on your breath, you are exercising mindfulness. The refocusing is where the good work is! The following breathing exercises can be done for several minutes at a time; they can also be broken down to fit a “mindful minute” time frame. While children are learning at home, breathing exercises might be particularly helpful as they transition from a break (such as lunch or free play), back to a focused learning period. 

  • “Core Practice” comes from the mindfulness curriculum, MindUP, to help children relax and focus their minds. The directions are simple and in the most basic sense you sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and breathe in and out focusing your attention to your breath. If you notice your mind wandering, just bring your attention back to your breath. Mindfulness expert Diane R Gerhart, Ph.D., creator of the mindfulness website, recommends that it can be helpful for younger children to learn to focus their attention through the practice of listening to a sound such as a bell or chime.
  • The website and app dedicated to mindful practices, Stop, Breathe and Think, has great introductory videos about mindful breathing for children, teens, and adults. 
  • Sesame Street has videos about “Belly Breathing” with Elmo and Rosita which are great for younger children. 
  • Using visual imagery for breathing can also be helpful. Visual cues such as watching a shape unfold can help us pace our breath and assist us in slowing down. Slowly breathe in as the shape gets bigger and breathe out as the shape gets smaller. Children may also want to try blowing bubbles, as the act of carefully forming a bubble, encourages them to slowly breathe out.
  • The app Breath2Relax offers a number of visual imagery exercises to help develop breathing as a stress management tool.
  • Parents may consider helping their children make a mindful jar, in which children can watch glitter settle slowly in a sealed jar of water, while focusing on their breath. Children's Wisconsin, a pediatric hospital, offers a number of mindfulness activities for children on their Healthy Kids Learn More website, including directions for how to make a mindful glitter jar
  • Listening to a guided mindfulness recording can assist us. Apps such as Calm, Insight Timer and Headspace have timers and guided mindful practices, some intended specifically for children.

2)    Progressive Muscle Relaxation/Body Scan 

Progressive muscle relaxation or doing a body scan in which we tense and release one muscle group at a time, can help us feel calm. This may be a simple strategy to try while resting or before bedtime. 

3)    Safe Place 

Mindfulness can help us to be in this current moment. We can appreciate the present and recognize that in this moment, there is safety, comfort and peace. 

  • Right Now I Am Fine is a free resource book for kids and families who are feeling anxious about COVID-19. This book was created by Daniela Owen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, to explain what you can do to keep your mind and body calm now and during any challenging time. 
  • Older children may want to try a safe place guided imagery provided by Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. 

4)    Mindful Senses 

Mindfully observing our senses can help us sharpen our attention. Mindful tasting, listening, seeing and smelling are fun activities that are engaging for kids. It can be particularly helpful to check-in with ourselves by using our senses when we notice that we are checking out.  

  • A simple and quick strategy is to engage in a grounding exercise by bringing your mind and body back to the present moment by noticing the following: 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. 
  • Children and adolescents enjoy mindful tasting and parents might find it fun too! Try this strategy described in the MindUP curriculum: 1) Start by holding a small piece of food (such as a chocolate chip, raisin or orange slice) in the palm of your hand and notice how it feels. Notice the shape, the size and the texture. You can choose to have your eyes open or closed. 2) Hold the food near your nose and notice what it smells like. 3) Taste the food, but do not bite down yet! Notice how it feels in your mouth. Slowly bite down, chew and swallow. 4) Try to come up with as many words as you can to describe what you noticed. 

5)    Mindful Movement 

Helping children match their breathing to movement is another way to engage them in mindfulness activities. It is about helping children develop awareness around the movement of their bodies. 

6)    Gratitude 

Gratitude is the feeling of thankfulness, joy and appreciation. Taking the time to stop and think about what we are grateful for helps us to calm our bodies and have a more positive outlook, which may be especially helpful during times of uncertainty. 

  • The Greater Good Science Center recently aired an episode on their The Science of Happiness podcast on how to help children focus on the good things in life, even during a tough time as families are sheltering at home. This podcast featured a technique of asking children a series of questions using a "notice—think—feel—do" model developed by researcher Andrea Hussong. Gratitude is fostered in four ways by having children do the following: 1) reflect on something they have been given or have in their lives that they are grateful for, 2) think about why they’ve been given that gift, 3) consider how it makes them feel and 4)  identify if there is anything they want to do to show how they feel about it. 
  • Families may also want to make a collective gratitude jar in which they regularly write down things for which they are grateful on a slip of paper. Directions for making a gratitude jar are included in an article featured on Blissful Kids
  • For children who are looking for meaningful ways to practice their writing skills, they may want to try keeping a gratitude journal in which they write down things, events and people in their life for which they feel grateful. You can adjust the writing prompts, such as asking children to write about what made them smile or laugh today, or what made this day or week good. There is also a Grateful app that allows for daily journal prompts to be recorded.
  • Children may also engage in the practice of writing a short note of appreciation to a family member, teacher or mentor, thanking them for a special moment or teaching them a new skill. This may also be a great way to stay socially connected during our time of physically distancing.  

7)    Kindness—Caring for Others and Ourselves 

Compassion and empathy can be developed through mindfully practicing acts of kindness. It can make us feel safe, calm and connected to show acts of kindness. Small, frequent acts of kindness towards others, as well as ourselves, can become powerful ways to create lasting habits. 

  • Even while we are distancing ourselves from others physically, you can challenge your children to think about three specific acts of kindness for a friend, family member or neighbor. Kindness can take many forms. The websites Random Acts of Kindness and Pennies of Time offer a number of ideas. 
  • Self-compassion is when we are kind and understanding to ourselves when confronted with difficult feelings or personal failings. With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we would give to a friend. During this time of Covid-19, it is important to recognize that things can be difficult, and we may be noticing strong feelings in ourselves and in our children. We can help our children think about the kind words they would want to hear from a teacher, parent or friend, and then have them say those words to themselves. Children can also think about what kind words they might say to a friend who was having similar feelings or were in the same situation. Further ideas about self-compassion activities with children can be found at Mindful Schools

Need Even More Information?

Check out Mindfulness: Mental Armor During a Time of Stress with Jonathan Banks, Ph.D. This is a free webinar offered by NOVA Southeastern University's Shark Chats.

FCPS Mental Wellness Consultations are Available

Any FCPS parent may request a 30-minute phone consultation with a school psychologist or school social worker. Parent consultations are available for all grade levels and student consultations are only available for students in middle and high school.

Healthy Minds is for parents, educators, and community-based providers who are interested in supporting student mental health and wellness. It represents a collaboration between FCPS’ Office of Intervention and Prevention Services and the Fairfax County Government. SUBSCRIBE to Healthy Minds and receive a periodic digest of our most recent articles.