When I gave the middle-school students the list of benefits mindfulness provides, they immediately stopped talking.
“Which one do you find most interesting?” I asked.
“Reduces anxiety – especially, test taking,” said Robert.
“Improves social skills.” Martha smiled at her classmates and tapped her foot.
“Strengthens focus and concentration,” Brittany paused. “I have ADD.”
Every time I describe the ways mindfulness boosts our brains’ executive functions – attention, decision-making, emotional regulation and impulse control – I feel a bit greedy, like the kids in the circle before me. I want some of that (social skills) and that (focus) and less anxiety, negative thinking and overwhelm.
Mindfulness not only improves cognitive skills, located primarily in the prefrontal cortex (the brain region behind our foreheads), but it lowers our stress levels. Indeed, the practice of mindfulness changes the very structures of our brains: we create thicker wiring (more mental activity) in the “smart” parts of our mind (the cortex) and reduce the gray matter in our fight-flight center (the limbic system, near our ears).
The children and teens I have worked with – in over a dozen in-school programs and ongoing community classes – report how powerful they find the practice of paying attention to the here and now. A light goes on inside of them and they understand, in their hearts and minds, that they can pause and choose their response, in any moment.
“I was so upset when my coach benched me,” said Sally, a Ninth Grader. “And normally I would have had a complete breakdown. But I took a breath,” she laughed. “Then I looked around the room and tried to find three circles.”
Counting shapes, colors or even letters in our environment engages the left (thinking) brain, cools down the right (emotional) brain and quickly pulls us back into this moment. With that intentional pause – here I am, in this gym, right now – we get that “space” Victor Frankl famously identified: “In that space is our power to choose.”
Sally understood that her response to being benched was her decision: she could cry uncontrollably and leave the game. Or she could sit still, bring her focus into the gym and allow the strong feelings to come and go, like a rain storm or large wave.
Students perform better, in all parts of their lives, when they access their own, internal pause buttons. Frankl wrote, “our growth and our freedom” are determined by our choices. Consider how quickly we lose our freedom and power, when we succumb to the I-Can’t-Handle-This! reaction.
“What would happen?” I asked the middle-school students, “if I just started yelling at my friend for taking my work? What happens when you let your anger take the driver’s seat?”
All of us want a chance to slow down, get perspective on our feelings and handle our challenging moments, more skillfully. We all benefit, enormously, from the calm that arises when our minds are in the here and now.
But the space that Frankl wrote about – and Stephen Covey popularized in the “Seven Habits” books – is something we have to decide to take. Our brains were designed, primarily, for our survival: I fight you, I run from you, or I freeze. With mindfulness, we have the tools to reshape our minds, just like we tone our bodies through exercise. We practice pausing, placing our attention in the moment, and our brain thickens the connections made during that neural activity.
“I noticed that I was really annoyed that my cousin was following me all over the park,” said Abby, a nine-year old, who took my class last Summer. “So I just stopped walking, looked around at all the people, and then realized I could go ask my mom for help.”
Mindfulness helps students of all ages: the research touts its benefits for everyone, ages 3 to 99. (Consider the four-year old who tried to help his dad, “This is the way you calm down. Breathe. Like this.”)
In college, I learned that if I studied hard, read a great deal and wrote out my notes, I would remember more information and feel smarter. With mindfulness, we can actually become smarter – cognitively and emotionally. We pause, make a choice and strengthen our neural wiring.