By: Cynthia Hess, PsyD
Pediatric Neuropsychologist Fellow
There has been increasing interest in intervention strategies that target self-regulation in childhood. Self-regulation is the process through which the systems of emotion, attention and behavior are controlled in response to a situation, stimulus or demand. It develops rapidly in the early years of life. Self-regulation is necessary for social development because it supports and enhances peer acceptance and social success. Furthermore, it increases academic performance, particularly in elementary school. Problems with self-regulation and the accompanying executive functioning have been shown to correlate with a number of behavioral and emotional problems, particularly depression and anxiety. Mindfulness is emerging as an effective intervention for children struggling with self-regulation, especially when implemented at a time when children are acquiring these foundational skills.
Mindfulness is a way of paying attention, on purpose and non-judgmentally, to the experience of the present moment. Being mindful involves reflecting on the current internal experiences such as thoughts or emotions and the current external environment, such as sights and sounds, both clearly and objectively. This act of purposeful reflection enhances and facilitates self-regulation by promoting control, such as sustained attention and cognitive flexibility. Furthermore, it helps to reduce the incidences of such things as snap judgments, emotional reactivity or distressing thoughts.
Mindfulness-based social-emotional training has been shown to be effective in reducing stress, improving coping skills and building resilience when used with children. Mindfulness teaches children the skills needed to improve focus, calm themselves, plan and organize, and behave in a thoughtful manner. Research on adult populations shows that practicing mindfulness may reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and limited number of studies show some of the same benefits in children. Mindfulness is well tolerated by children and has been proven to improve psychological well-being. Introducing mindfulness practices to children has the potential to make a positive impact on a child’s ability to self-regulate, and thus facilitate their social, emotional and educational growth.
There are a number of ways to introduce children to mindfulness. One activity that children have responded positively to is being challenged to sit still and silent for as long as they possibly can. I have used this strategy in classrooms of children from pre-k to high school, as well as individually with children of all ages. Sometimes they are able to sit for 15 seconds, but they embraced the challenge of trying to beat their record by trying it again. Another mindful technique that works well with children is called “grounding.” Grounding techniques use the five senses to bring ourselves into the present moment. One grounding technique is finding five things in the room – they can be 5 things of the same color or any five things; four things the child can feel; three things the child can hear; two things the child can smell; and one thing the child can taste. Mindfulness can be playful and fun for children and families while effectively reducing stress, improving coping skills, improving ability to self-regulate and building resilience in children.
Helpful resources for families:
Mindful Games Activity Cards: 55 Fun Ways to Share Mindfulness with Kids and Teens. Susan Kaiser Greenland and Annaka Harris
A Still Quiet Place: A Mindfulness Program for Teaching Children and Adolescents to Ease Stress and Difficult Emotions By Amy Salzman, MD
I am Peace: A Book of Mindfulness By Susan Verde and Peter H. Reynolds
Breathe Like a Bear: 30 Mindful Moments for Kids to Feel Calm and Focused Anytime, Anywhere By Kira Willey
Britton, W. B., Lepp, N. E., Niles, H. F., Rocha, T., Fisher, N. E., & Gold, J. S. (2014). A randomized controlled pilot trial of classroom-based mindfulness meditation compared to an active control condition in sixth-grade children. Journal of School Psychology, 52(3), 263-278.
Masten, A. S., Best, K. M., & Garmezy, N. (1990). Resilience and development: Contributions from the study of children who overcome adversity. Development and psychopathology, 2(4), 425-444.
Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Oberle, E., Lawlor, M. S., Abbott, D., Thomson, K., Oberlander, T. F., & Diamond, A. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social–emotional development through a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. Developmental psychology, 51(1), 52.
Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & Lawlor, M. S. (2010). The effects of a mindfulness-based education program on pre-and early adolescents’ well-being and social and emotional competence. Mindfulness, 1(3), 137-151.
Sibinga, E. M., Webb, L., Ghazarian, S. R., & Ellen, J. M. (2016). School-based mindfulness instruction: an RCT. Pediatrics, 137(1), e20152532.
About the Author
Dr. Cynthia Hess recently graduated from Rivier University with a PsyD in Counseling and School Psychology. Previously, she earned an M.A. from Antioch New England in Applied Psychology. She also worked as an elementary school counselor and school psychologist for 15 years before embarking on her doctorate. During her doctorate, she did her pre-doctoral internship with RIT in Rochester, N.Y. where she worked with youth ages 5-17 who had experienced complex developmental trauma. Dr. Hess’s first post-doctoral fellowship was with The Counseling Center of New England where she provided psychotherapy and family therapy to children ages 5-18, their families and young adults. She also trained part-time with a pediatric neuropsychologist conducting neuropsychological evaluations. Currently, Dr. Hess is a second-year post-doctoral fellow in pediatric neuropsychological assessment, working with NESCA Londonderry’s Dr. Angela Currie and Dr. Jessica Geragosian.
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