What Mindfulness Can Do for Kids and How to Get Started
Following is a conversation I had with Kate Berger, a child and adolescent psychologist, Mindfulness instructor, and owner of the Netherlands-based therapy practice, Expat Kids’ Club, for a conversation about the benefits of mindfulness in kids and ideas for how to begin weaving mindfulness into our families’ lives. Kate is heavily engaged in the movement to bring mindfulness into schools and other children’s communities, and is a big believer in the benefits of mindfulness in kids, especially with regards to emotional and mental well-being, both in school and in their inner lives.
This is an abridged and cleaned-up transcription of Episode 4 of the TiLT Parenting Podcast. To listen to the full episode, click here: What Mindfulness Can Do for Kids and How to Get Started PODCAST.
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Debbie: I had the chance to work with you during our first year living in the Netherlands when you worked with Asher both one on one and through a cool social skills group you had set up through your practice. But before we get into our conversation, let me share a little bit about your background: You have a BA in Psychology from George Washington University and a Master’s degree in Child and Adolescent Psychology from the University of Leiden, which is right here in the Netherlands. You have a therapy practice called Expat Kids Club which includes therapy for children, after-school groups, and consulting for businesses and families who are dealing with kind of life as an expat. And then you’re also the co-creator of The Families of Global Transition affiliate in the Netherlands. It sounds like you’re very busy!
Kate: Yes, that’s true.
Debbie: What I would love to talk about with you today is your work with mindfulness, which I know this is a big area of interest for you. I feel like mindfulness as a concept is getting more and more play in the media lately, but what exactly is mindfulness? How would you describe it to someone who is coming to this concept fresh or might be aware of mindfulness but don’t really have a true sense of what it means?
Kate: I really appreciate that you acknowledge the notion of mindfulness has become more mainstream these days. Unfortunately, with that comes a lot of misconceptions, so it’s fantastic to have this opportunity to straighten out some of those ideas. When we talk about mindfulness in practice, what we’re really looking at is present moment awareness—paying attention on purpose to the present moment…what’s happening right now. And we do this using various mind-body techniques like meditation, breathing exercises, movement, even sometimes mindful eating. So, anything that we can do to bring us back to what is happening right now.
When we talk about mindfulness in practice, what we’re really looking at is present moment awareness—paying attention on purpose to the present moment…what’s happening right now.
Debbie: Why do we want to be more mindful?
Kate: Really if you think about it, many of the stresses and difficulties we experience in life have a lot to do with what’s happened in the past or what’s going to happen in the future. And so we get pulled into those two directions with our thoughts and with our mind and aren’t present for what’s happening right now. We miss the opportunity to be able to respond to what’s happening in the moment and instead we get caught up in some sort of on auto-pilot mode, reacting to what’s happened in the past or what we think might happen.
Coming to the present moment is a powerful way to be able to cultivate awareness for what’s happening, and then create this opportunity and the power to choose how to respond to whatever sort of circumstances you’re in.
Debbie: I don’t know if I’ve ever heard mindfulness described in that way, but it makes absolute sense. Asher and I have our own fledging mindfulness practice now, and while I know that it’s good for us, it’s nice to hear exactly why.
So, let’s talk about children then, why do you think mindfulness as a practice can be so effective in children?
Kate: There are many reasons, but one of things we’ve discovered—and I say “we” because I feel like a part of this movement that’s bringing mindfulness to more mainstream institutions—is that there’s so much for today’s kids to have to pay attention to and think about. You know, there are video games and busy schedules and hectic lifestyles—it’s become really difficult for kids to focus and concentrate. We see this in shifts in looking at prevalence of ADHD and things like that.
Mindfulness is really useful because what you’re doing is training the mind, training the brain to come back to the present moment to create this awareness for what’s happening. And the reason kids actually tend to be so good at it is because there’s a huge component that’s about being open and curious to what you find in the present moment, almost like a Curious George for what’s happening, if you know that children’s story. And kids are better at open curiosity than we are as adults because it comes really naturally to them. Think about, you know, babies exploring the world for the first time, picking up food or feeling different textures of materials and things like this. This is the sort of curiosity that we’re trying to cultivate through mindfulness practice, and kids are doing it inherently because all these experiences are new to them.
It’s really neat because there’s a lot of neuroscience research going on looking into the implications on attention and concentration issues in children and how a mindfulness practice is useful in a school setting. Both test scores and a child’s ability to pay attention and focus and concentrate are actually seen as improving through exposure to a mindfulness practice. So, it’s really exciting.
Debbie: I read a fascinating article in The Atlantic last summer called When Mindfulness Meets the Classroom that talked about the very tangible, positive effects of mindfulness on kids when it was a part of their regular classroom day, especially when it came to emotional regulation or their overall sense of happiness and positivity versus being especially anxious. It seems like more schools are starting to play with it.
Kate: Yes. It’s exciting because there are some terrific programs running this force towards having mindfulness being incorporated into mainstream curriculum. In the UK there’s the Mindfulness in Schools Project, in the States, there’s Mindful Schools and many, many more that are trying to bring mindfulness into the classroom, even if it’s just a mindful moment where kids are encouraged to practice mindful listening or just observing what they hear. Or some of the schools that I’ve worked with are doing mindful lunches. So, the kids are going into the cafeteria and mindfully eating their sandwich or whatever. Or mindfully walking from the classroom to the gymnasium or things like that.
Debbie: Several years ago I went to this spa called Miraval in Arizona and mindfulness was the philosophy behind the spa. So for example, mindful eating was introduced as this idea of just eating and not reading at the same time or if you’re folding laundry or something, not feeling the need to catch up on Netflix while doing that. But is that what you’re talking about when you’re talking about mindful eating at school or mindful walking among kids?
Coming to the present moment is a useful skill to develop concentration and an ability to respond rather than react.
Kate: Yes, exactly. Because we do all of these things on auto-pilot. The classic example is “who were you with in the shower with this morning?” Very often, we’re not experiencing the water hitting our body and all these things. Coming to the present moment is a useful skill to develop concentration and an ability to respond rather than react. But there’s a wonderful side-effect that’s about really savoring the experiences as they’re happening. So, eating our food and savoring and enjoying the taste of it. Taking a walk and feeling what that’s like on the feet to hit the ground and have the sun on your face and all these kinds of things. So, it’s wonderful that people who practice mindfulness are developing a deeper sense of appreciation and gratitude and increased happiness.
Debbie: I remember when Asher was quite young, maybe two or three, I picked him up from preschool and took him to Greenlake in Seattle. We walked out to the end of a dock and decided to play a game where we’d notice everything we could hear and then we did the same with everything we could see and everything we could smell…I guess in some ways that’s the same thing you’re talking about, but it might seem more natural to do when you have a child who’s just discovering the world. As our kids get older, perhaps those things start to get less interesting or maybe it’s jut that Minecraft is more interesting.
Kate: I get the question all the time, “Am I doing mindfulness right or am I doing it wrong?” There’s no right or wrong way to do it. It’s just going out and seeing whatever you can see and hearing whatever you can hear—that’s being mindful, that’s being present. But it’s a hard thing to explain if people haven’t experienced it before.
Debbie: Let’s talk about differently-wired kids. How can mindfulness be especially helpful for kids who might be anxious or super intense or highly sensitive or really inflexible—the traits we see in kids who have ADHD or Asperger’s or sensory integration disorder?
Kate: It’s really exciting because this is a direction that the mindfulness practice and intervention is definitely taking. I recently did a training specifically about using mindfulness interventions with teens with ADHD and/or autism diagnoses. And one of the reasons I think is very important to mention and that I’m most excited about is, you know, these kids often are getting feedback from the environment that something’s wrong with them and that they’re not good enough…they can’t be like the rest of their peer group and these kinds of things.
A mindfulness practice helps these kids to develop awareness and a curiosity and compassion for what’s happening with their mind and their body. And so through that, one of the most exciting things is about the confidence that develops with that—the empathy for the self. So rather than feeling really different and horrible and isolated; actually feeling okay with who you are and understanding what you might need in a situation to be able to move forward. So, that self-empathy, that compassion for the self is a big piece that I really love.
A mindfulness practice helps these kids to develop awareness and a curiosity and compassion for what’s happening with their mind and their body. And so through that, one of the most exciting things is about the confidence that develops with that—the empathy for the self.
With that of course the bigger picture is: If you have young people who are able to be compassionate for themselves and take care of themselves, they can think about what they bring into the environment, how they interact with other people, what their relationships are like. And if we have these connections between them and the rest of us, the ripple effects of that energy and compassion is really exciting.
Debbie: That’s really interesting. And I love what you said about teenhood too, because that’s a difficult time for any child, neurologically typical or atypical. And I think for kids who may be aware of their diagnosis and may feel good about who they are as children, once adolescence hits and the hormones start to change, they may shift into a space where they want to be more like everyone else. So, I could see how it could be especially useful for these teens to have that self-empathy.
I know that your after-school mindfulness program is based on the curriculum from the Mindfulness in Schools Project in the UK. When you run an after-school group for kids, what does that actually look like?
Kate: I run an eight-week program where the kids come once a week. We start with the beginning of what we call we “playing attention,” which is understanding that we can use our attention and we can shift our awareness in different ways…that we have the power to do that. We do that through really fun activities and having the kids sort of check in on what they’re paying attention to and developing that self-awareness for where they are in each moment.
With kids, we don’t typically have them sit and meditate because that’s really challenging. Some of like them do it—I’ve seen five or six year olds sit for ten minutes, which is amazing—but it’s really just doing any kind of activity that’s helping them to build that awareness. We do movement, walking, different kinds of yoga movements. Another one of the classes is about mindful eating, where we use a chili pepper and chocolate. Right away when the kids discover what they are being encouraged to eat, it’s interesting to notice the immediate thoughts that come with that—the aversions or the excitement.
So, the course is really fun and exciting and engaging. There are videos and worksheets and take-home practice, too. You know, trying to foster a lifelong process of being mindful, being present is a big concept. So the course is really just about introducing that language to kids and so they can go off and apply it in a way that works for them.
Debbie: From what you’re describing, it sounds like it’s not necessary to have this formal mindfulness practice where you sit quietly for a certain period of time and that kids can find all kinds of ways to start incorporating mindfulness into their lives.
The kids who are most successful in taking on these ideas and applying them to their lives are the kids whose parents are also practicing or have the intention to incorporate mindfulness in their day-to-day life.
Kate: Absolutely. And I should say, a big thing we’re finding is that the kids who are most successful in taking on these ideas and applying them to their lives are the kids whose parents are also practicing or have the intention to incorporate mindfulness in their day-to-day life. So, we really encourage parents to get involved—to either do the exercises with their kids at home or do their own adaptation or even take a course themselves that’s just for adults or parents. Because that seems to be the way that kids are going to continue with their own practice—if their parents are modeling this at home.
Debbie: That was my next question: How can parents support the development of mindfulness? Is it having visible thinking, like talking out loud about what’s going on? For example, “I’m really enjoying the taste of this right now…” Is it that simple?
Kate: Yes, in some ways it is. It’s really modeling your own awareness in moments. And I think the most powerful ones are the ones where parents lose it or get frustrated. For that to be a moment where you say, “Oh my gosh, I’m feeling really frustrated, I notice my heart is racing. I’ve got knots in my belly, my fists are clenching, and I’m asking myself why or what did I do wrong or right?” And to be aware of that and to say, “What do I want to do with this? What do I think I need?” Including your kids in that can be really neat, too.
Debbie: During our first year here in Amsterdam, Asher was so unhappy that we, as he described it, “destroyed his life” by picking up and leaving the home and the city and friends that he knew. So on good days…days where we’d have a few magical minutes of lying in a hammock and having popsicles…I would try to soak in every moment. I did that both for my own personal wellbeing so I could have the memory to counter the more difficult times, but also to help him to start to appreciate things in the moment and recognize this is not all hard or bad…that we have this full range of experiences.
Kate: Right. It’s especially challenging in a transition like you’ve described. There’s this inherent stress in relocation and parents want to be supportive and bring all the tools we have and share them with children. And to be able to do that, it has to come from a place of knowing where you are in each and every moment. It’s looking in the mirror or putting on your own oxygen mask first and being mindful of where and what you’re bringing into those interactions. So in that sense, for parents who are cultivating their own mindfulness practice, it can be so powerful and wonderful.
Debbie: Do you have any favorite tips or resources that you can share with parents who want to learn more?
Kate: Absolutely. One of my favorite books that I’ve been using lately is called Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel. She originally wrote it in Dutch, but it’s been translated. It’s fantastic—it’s comes with a CD with exercises and I really like the way it’s presented and packaged. And in terms of research and information, the Mindfulness in Schools website has a ton on information about their efforts or again, Mindful Schools for people in the US. There’s also the MindUP Foundation that Goldie Han is a big spokeswoman for.
In terms of practice, one of the first exercises we typically start doing with children is mindful listening. So, maybe setting a timer on the phone for thirty seconds or if you’ve got one of those Tibetan singing bowls, that’s what we use in practice. But you don’t even need a timer if that’s too much to think about. Just take a few moments to just sit and listen and observe anything you hear—in the room you’re in, or outside, or maybe sounds coming from within the body—and just noticing that. And then maybe also noticing the immediate urge to want to label those sounds or any emotions that might be attached to that annoying truck that keeps driving by…things like that. So, just noticing the sounds, catching the thoughts that come in, and then coming back to noticing the sounds.
Debbie: Lately I’ve been using the HeadSpace app to try to learn how to meditate. The app starts every meditation with a few minutes of just listening and it’s really interesting how quickly it shifts things. Even as you say thirty seconds is enough to realize there’s a lot going on that we’re tuning out.
Kate: Yeah, I love HeadSpace. And it’s the nature of the mind to wander and jump to the past or the future. So, even when we take that moment to check in it’s like: “Whoa, I didn’t know that was happening.”
Debbie: Well, this has been super interesting. I’m fascinated by the idea of mindfulness and I also feel like it’s one of those things where a little bit of effort can probably yield some substantial and immediate rewards. Thanks so much for sharing this fascinating food for thought on not only on how mindfulness can benefit differently-wired kids and the parents raising them, but also how we can start weaving it into our everyday lives.
Kate: Oh, thank you. It’s been my pleasure.
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Want to get learn more? Here are links to the resources mentioned in the article:
- Kate Berger’s practice The Expat Kids’ Club
- Sitting Still Like a Frog (book)
- Headspace mindfulness app (iTunes)
- “When Mindfulness Meets the Classroom” (The Atlantic Article)
About Kate: Kate Berger, MSc is a child and adolescent psychologist, consultant, and the founder of The Expat Kids Club which has provided counsel to hundreds of youngsters and, their families, as well as major corporations, from the U.K., Germany, Singapore, and the U.S. Kate is also the Co-Chair & Co-Founder of the Families In Global Transition affiliate in The Netherlands, and is a dedicated mindfulness meditation practitioner and certified instructor who teaches mindfulness to young people through the collaborative Mindfulness International.