The Brain, Mindfulness, and Youth

What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness refers to a particular way of focusing the mind, specifically:
  • Focusing on a single thing in the present moment, such as the chime from a bell or the feeling of the belly rising and falling as you breath.
  • Quieting other thoughts ("inner chatter") in your mind as you focus on this one thing.
  • Staying focused on purpose by refocusing your mind without being frustrated with yourself each time the mind wanders.
The last part is always the hardest for most of us.
I use it for whenever I get angry or sad. I normally just breathe, calm down, and close my lid.
Carden Student 2017

Must-Know Mindfulness Vocabulary

Smart Part: The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with language, intelligence, self-regulation, and executive functioning. Students want their smart parts "on" when they are at school, on a stage, or playing with a friend.
Lizard Brain: We use the term "lizard brain" to refer to the lower centers of the brain, such as the limbic system, that are part of the stress response. We use "Bob" to personify what our brains are like when the stress response turns on: focused on safety, reactive, and unable to use higher brain functions, such as language, clear thinking, and problems solving.
Stress Response: The stress response is designed to keep us physically safe by increasing our ability to fight a foe, flee from danger, or freeze to avoid detection from a predator. When the body detects life-threatening danger, the stress response turns on, increasing our physical strength, vision, and hearing while shutting down non-essential systems, such as digestion, reproduction, and immunity. This remarkable, life-saving response evolved for coping with physical threats to safety. Unfortunately, our brains turn on the same response whether we are experiencing a physical or psychological threat. Whereas a physical threat usually ends within 20 minutes, psychological stress can go on for days, resulting in numerous physical and mental health issues.
Relaxation Response: The physiological opposite of the stress response, the relaxation response is a separate response that turns off the stress response, relaxing the body and turning back on non-emergency body functions.
Flipping Your Lid: When the stress response turns on.
Putting Your Lid On: Turning on the relaxation response and bringing the prefrontal cortex back online.

Misunderstandings About Mindfulness and Children

Due to the popularity of mindfulness in recent years, there are many misunderstandings about mindfulness.

Myth #1: Mindfulness is about stopping your thoughts.
Closer to the Truth: Mindfulness is about changing how you relate to your thoughts.
Only very experienced meditation practitioners have sustained periods without much thinking, and this is typically for spiritual development. When practicing mindfulness for academic and psychological benefits, refocusing your mind each time it wanders is the main source of benefits. Not only does it promote more conscious control over what your mind is focusing on, but practicing accepting with kindness whatever arises in your mind significantly changes how your relate to your thoughts, self, others, and life more broadly.

Myth #2: Kids can't meditate.
Closer to the Truth:
Children as young as three can mindfully focus on something in the present moment with guidance.
Children can often be more in the present moment than adults. However, younger children are less likely to sit silently with eyes closed focusing on breath. By the time most children reach 6 or 7, they are able to do so for 2-5 minutes with some basic guidance.

Myth #3: Children don't have stress like adults.
Closer to the Truth:
Children in the US have very high levels of mental health issues, most of which are known to improve with mindfulness practice.
Over 50% of children 4-17 have a mental health disorder, and 21% (1 in 5) have a severe disorder. Mindfulness not only improves academic performance, but is also the treatment of choice for the most common childhood disorders For example, 11% of children in the US are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD). Currently 6.2% of American children are on medication for ADD, however, medications simply reduce symptoms and do not improve the child's ability to focus without medication. In contrast, mindfulness is one of two promising interventions for the treatment of ADD, and pediatricians are recommending it be offered to all families with a child diagnosed with this disorder. Depression and anxiety are also frequently diagnosed in childhood, with 30% of 13-18 year olds diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and 15% diagnosed with a mood disorder, such as depression.

Why Mindfulness for Children?

Whenever I hear the bell, I feel like I should be doing work, and then I focus on that.
Carden Student 2017
In today's multimedia saturated world, children find it more difficult than ever to focus their minds and control their behavior. Mindfulness serves as one of the few evidenced-based options for reliably increasing our children's ability to regulate themselves. Over the past decade, researchers have found numerous potential benefits for children:
  • Improved Focus and Attention: Numerous studies have found that students who participate in mindfulness classes and programs improve their ability to focus and pay attention.
  • Improved Regulation of Strong Mood: Similar to research on adults, studies examining the outcome of adolescent and child mindfulness programs consistently find that youth show improvements in their ability to manage their moods, especially depression, anger, and anxiety.
  • Improved Behavior and Social Outcomes: Of particular interest to many schools and parents, children who practice mindfulness are better able to manage their behavior and increase their prosocial behaviors with others, including reducing aggressiveness.
  • Improved Academic Performance: In school contexts, educational researchers have measured improved grades and academic performance for students involved in mindfulness programs.
  • Improved Physical Wellbeing: In a Canadian study that measured children's level of cortisol, researchers found that students in mindfulness programs had measurably lower levels of this stress hormone, providing strong evidence that mindfulness helps children to reduce their stress levels.
  • Treatment for Childhood Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD): Mindfulness is recognized as one of only two potential treatments that may "rewire" the brain to improve executive functioning and is now considered one of the frontline treatments.
  • Treatment for Childhood Depression and Anxiety: Over 50% of children between the ages of 4-17 years old have a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety. Mindfulness is well-established as the gold-standard for preventing depression relapse in adults and has shown to also be effective with youth to treat these issues and prevent relapse.

Dr. Gehart Teaches Children About Their Brains and Mindfulness

The Mindful Brain

Researchers have studied the effects of mindfulness on the brain with some exciting findings. First, experts now realize that the brain can grow and change, referred to as neuroplasticity. The brain adapts to how a person uses it by "rewiring" neurons along the most frequently used pathways. For example, the more you practice a particular musical instrument, the more neurons will connect and thicken along these pathways. Neuroscientists have found that mindfulness practice actually results in more grey matter in the parts of the brain associated with executive functioning (managing one's mind), self regulation (controlling thoughts, behaviors, and moods), and relaxation. Similarly, they have found that people who practice mindfulness also have decrease in grey matter in the areas associated with the stress response, presumably because they no longer use the stress response as frequently.

What neuroscientists believe happens with mindfulness is that the "smart parts" (prefrontal cortex) of the brain are used to make the brain focus on a single phenomenon, such as the breath. Each time the mind directs the brain to refocus on the breath (or other chosen object of focus) after it loses focus, it sends a signal from the smart part to the "lizard part" of the brain, the more primitive limbic system that controls our stress response. Thus, the more frequently one mindfully refocuses the brain, the more neural connections are created between the smart part and the lizard part. Over time, this increases a person's ability to consciously shut off the stress response, which results in all the benefits we see in those who practice.
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