Meditation for Kids: How it Works in School, at Home, and Beyond

Mindfulness practices and simple meditation techniques can help kids focus, relax, and excel in school.

By Kristen Sturt

Your grandkids are stressed out.

It may not always seem like it—kids are kids, after all—but the American Psychological Association discovered that about 44 percent of young people between ages 8 and 17 worry about succeeding in school. And that’s not all—peer relationships, family troubles, money, and appearance are significant sources of anxiety for school-aged children and teens.

That tension doesn’t get better as they get older, either. In 2015, a survey of 22,000 U.S. teenagers found they were "tired" (39%) and "stressed" (29%) in school. That same year, the American College Health Association revealed that 54 percent of college students felt "overwhelming anxiety" in the preceding 12 months.

While some stress is healthy and important for development, too much can cause problems ranging from lost sleep and headaches to mood swings and attention issues. Sometimes, the stress is temporary and will ebb with a particular situation. Other times, it becomes chronic. And while professional and medical intervention can be effective, there’s something kids can do on their own to prevent that pile-up of negative feelings: meditation.

Meditation and Mindfulness Help Kids Calm Down and Focus

When we talk about meditation and young people, it doesn’t mean sitting cross-legged and chanting "ohm" until they’re at one with the universe. Nope. It simply means taking a break to fully process emotions—becoming mindful of their surroundings and their reactions to them.

"Mindfulness is an umbrella term to encapsulate awareness of the present moment," says Katherine Priore Ghannam, Executive Director of Headstand, a San Francisco non-profit organization dedicated to battling "toxic stress" in children. Her instructors, who work in schools, use principles of meditation like deep breathing, stillness, and visualization to help kids become more mindful. "When people meditate, they increase their neuroplasticity (meaning their brain's ability to adapt to new things)," she says, "and that does often create more feelings of calm and better focus."

A growing but persuasive body of research supports this, and shows meditation can also enhance memory, improve behavior, teach kids to cope with difficult situations, and even bump up their grades. In one 2015 study of 99 fourth and fifth graders, mindfulness exercises including meditation were found to significantly reduce anxiety and improve emotional control. Another Connecticut school discovered that yoga and meditation decreased stress hormone levels in freshmen. Even kids with conditions like Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can benefit from meditation. A 2012 study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies showed that after eight weeks of mindfulness training, "adolescents’ attention and behavior problems reduced, while their executive functioning improved."

Meditation can start fairly young, too. Kindergarten and early elementary school are the jumping-off points for many children, though basic practices can begin in preschool. "We work with age groups as young as pre-K," says Ghannam. "I would encourage it for grandparents to start even earlier. You can really make an impact early on just by your own narration and modeling." While every kid can gain from the calming aspects of meditation, the benefits also evolve as they age, from added focus and impulse control for younger children to stress management for tweens and teens.

Most important to keep in mind, however, is how meditation is introduced: "You want to make sure they’re engaging in a way that’s joyful and creating patterns that sets themselves up for success in the long term." This means being a patient model and never forcing kids to follow your lead.

Busting Meditation Myths

While the benefits are manifest, there’s been resistance to teaching meditation to children, especially in schools. Some parents see it as religious indoctrination; one Ohio elementary school even shut its program down for fear of proselytization. "The stereotypes we encounter: Is this a religion? Is this a spirituality you’re teaching?" says Ghannam. "Our answer is no." She contends the mindfulness approach is research-based, executed by professionals, and wholly practical: "Our goal is never to create a kid who is a constant meditator … but for kids to understand themselves and their feelings, and to know there is a resource when they feel stressed or triggered."

Another criticism: In-school mediation and mindfulness practices take away from valuable time that should be devoted to math, science, and more traditional, highly tested subjects. Proponents argue—and studies show—that academics are actually helped by meditation, as kids become better equipped to focus and exercise self-control. At Ghannam’s Headstand program, for example, "We believe preparing all children for successful lives requires the integrated development of academic skill, character and the cultivation of self-knowledge."

Try It at Ohm

Meditation and mindfulness practices aren't difficult, and are easy to experiment with at home. Try these exercises with your grandchild:

If you’d like to learn more about meditation programs in schools, these are good places to start:

 

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