By Lucy Flood
Photography by Paulette Phlipot
Most kids welcome a new school year. But after several summer months, some young people find the back-to-school transition difficult. They grapple with questions like: Will I have friends? Will I be bullied? Will my teacher like me? Standardized tests and other academic pressures also pose challenges. In North America, where childhood ADHD, anxiety, depression, anger, and stress levels have been rising for decades, mindfulness experts work on ways to help children thrive.
Stephanie DeBone, lead teacher and owner of Preschool Discoveries in Driggs, incorporates mindful practices in her classroom. With inspiration from Susan Kaiser Greenland’s book The Mindful Child and Ellen Galinsky’s A Mind in the Making, she uses exercises to help her students look at and accept their feelings, calm their fears, and move beyond their stresses. “When they’re not holding back because of fears or stresses, they’re happier and more comfortable. They take more chances and get more out of school or play,” DeBone says.
But what, exactly, is mindfulness? According to the Oxford Dictionary, mindfulness is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” DeBone employs this definition by asking children to stop, check in with their feelings, think about what they want to do, and then act. Debone claims mindful practices have changed the way she teaches, forever.
Adults As Mindful Models
Experts on mindfulness agree: Children learn their behaviors from parents and other adults. So if we teach children how to have a healthier relationship with both their minds and life in general, then we must first show them what this looks like. However, while most of us long to be more present—rather than rushed and distracted—many of us have never received formal training on how to do so.
Luckily, mindfulness resources exist on both sides of the Tetons (see sidebar “Meditation Opportunities in the Tetons”). Jackson-based doctor David Shlim co-authored the book Medicine and Compassion. He offers weekly classes in Tibetan Buddhism and meditation. “The real benefit of meditation is learning how our minds work and how they respond to the world so that we can decrease the suffering we experience due to our uncontrolled, relentless thoughts,” Shlim says. Through his teachings, learned from Tibetan lamas while working as a doctor in Nepal, he helps adults create calmer, kinder, and ultimately clearer minds. Dr. Shlim offers his classes on Tuesday nights at 215 Scott Lane in Jackson. To learn more, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By favoring mindful practices over counting and singing songs, DeBone has noticed a shift in her preschoolers’ participation levels. “Kids who struggle with self confidence or who have a hard time focusing, now do better,” DeBone says. With a mindful toolset, her students are more apt to step back and observe their feelings before reacting; and their attention and listening skills have improved, too.
New scientific data supports DeBone’s findings. In July of 2012, the Journal of Psychiatric Practice reviewed Dr. William R. Marchand’s work on mindfulness. Marchand found that mindful practices reduce stress, serve as positive adjunctive therapies for anxiety, and promote general psychological health. An October 2012 Science Daily article reported findings from researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital that suggest mindfulness helps people become less reactive and recover faster from upsetting emotions. Further study indicates that mindful practices improve attention and focus and also increase empathy. For example, Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco implemented a Quiet Time program that reportedly reduced school violence, increased both attendance and test scores, and dramatically decreased suspensions.
Mindfulness in Practice
Before you teach mindfulness, you must first practice it yourself, Dr. Shlim explains. “No one would ask a piano novice to teach piano lessons,” he says. Luckily, living in the Tetons allows us all to draw mindful inspiration from the stunning natural setting. Cloud watching, wildflower walks, and journaling are a few exercises that promote mindfulness.
Teachers with an existing practice in mindfulness can try these basic exercises:
Funhouse Mirrors. Students pair up. One student slowly moves his or her body and the other student mirrors the movements. This practice helps children listen, focus, stay present in the moment, and maintain eye contact.
Loving Kindness Practice. Students lie on their backs with a lovey on their bellies and practice deep belly breathing. They rock their lovey, pretending to put it to sleep or rock it over the ocean. Students are guided to send friendly wishes first to their loveys, then to themselves, and then to a friend or loved one. Students may even send wishes to people around the world. “My oldest daughter often sends a friendly wish to the children in Africa without enough food,” Debone says. This practice helps children become aware of their breathing and also cultivates loving kindness.
Five Sense Breathing. Students sit in a circle and notice their breath in their bodies. Then they put their hands up to their mouths to feel the sensation of their breath. Next, they notice how their breath smells and how it sounds. Finally, they imagine their breath as a color.
Help children navigate the day consciously by implementing a few key steps. And remember: Accommodate short attention spans by limiting the exercises to no more than five minutes.
The Morning Practice
DeBone kick starts her day with a breathing practice. After packing her kids’ lunches and helping everyone dress, she takes a minute to pause and breathe with her children before heading out the door. She uses this time to help her kids shape an intention for their day. For example, her child might wish to make a new friend or take a new risk. “Even naming a fear can be a powerful way for a child to get the day off to a better start,” says DeBone. “Some days, just a deep breath together is plenty.”
End of Day Practice
Yoga instructor, mother, and mindfulness practitioner Deb Payne confirms the most vital thing a parent can do is listen to their child. Take time at day’s end to ask them about their day, and then share your own feelings. “Being honest and sharing your day—something that made you happy or sad, how you reacted, and what you may have done differently—helps children look more objectively at their own feelings,” DeBone says.
Meditation Opportunities in the Tetons:
215 Scott Lane, Jackson
Fridays, 6 p.m.,
165 Front St., Driggs
Sundays, 6 p.m., silent,
Oneness Jackson Hole
Akasha Yoga, 150 E. Hansen
Thursdays, 1:30 p.m. and Tuesdays, 7:30 p.m., Deeksha meditation
The Family Safety Network
120 N. First St., Driggs
Christina Riley offers an eight-week women’s support group, including one class on mindfulness and another on relaxation.
Deb brings yoga and mindfulness practices to the classroom.