Be Well to Teach Well with Mindfulness Practices

Image Source: Natalie Hanna

As a guiding teacher for Cultivating Healthy, Intentional, Mindful Educators (CHIME) with Nebraska Extension, I have the pleasure of guiding early childhood teachers as they learn about, explore and practice the concept of mindfulness.

What is mindfulness?

“Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention here and now, with kindness and curiosity, so that we can change our behavior. – Dr. Amy Saltzman

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”  – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Why Practice Mindfulness?

  • Research suggests it may protect individuals from the effects of adversity on mental health and physical health
  • We can alter our perceptions and reactions through interventions that teach the practice of mindfulness
  • It may improve relationships and learning

Our nation is stressed right now with concerns over our health and well-being. Early childhood professionals are not exempt. Childcare is facing many challenges including workforce development, keeping up with COVID-19, managing staff shortages, overall health concerns, financial stressors associated with the childcare business, and personal concerns that accompany low wages in early childhood.

Children benefit from teachers who are mindfully present—consciously attending and responding to their needs (Jennings et al. 2017). In other words, teachers must be well to teach well.

Through frequent and consistent practice with mindfulness, one can build the capacity to be fully aware in the moment. We can then focus more intentionally on the children in our care and begin to discover what an infant or toddler is revealing to us. We begin to observe, notice, and reflect on what is happening both for the child and inside of us. These insights create a rich environment where relationships with children, families, and colleagues are nurtured (Siegel 2007).  

Isn’t being fully present with the children in our care what we all really want?

Research shows that for mindfulness to be effective with children, it must begin with the teacher. Thus, our CHIME class focuses on learning mindful practices to move teachers from reactive states of mind to being more reflective in their interactions with others. In CHIME, the practice is frequent and consistent over the course of 8 weeks.

The Benefits for Children:

Mindfulness has been shown to help children build skills for social awareness, self-management, strong relationships, and decision-making.

In her book “The Mindful Child,” Susan Kaiser Greenland refers to the “new ABCs of learning; attention, balance, and compassion.”  In practicing mindfulness skills children learn to soothe and calm themselves, paying close attention to what is going on around them. 

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) shares Recommendations for teachers

At home:

  • Experiment with being present during an everyday activity, such as washing the dishes. Notice the temperature of the water, the feel of the suds, and the sound the water makes on the dishes. Focus your attention on your physical movements.
  • Sit for five minutes during the day and close your eyes. Pay attention to the sensations of your breathing. Count your breaths up to 10 and repeat until the five minutes are up. If your mind wanders—which it probably will—acknowledge the thoughts and bring your focus back to your breath. Try not to judge your thoughts, feelings, or sensations.

At work:

  • Before entering work, take a few moments to intentionally refocus your thoughts. Notice what emotions you are feeling or thoughts you are having. Place a hand on your heart and take a deep breath while recognizing these feelings. Then enter the room.
  • Before picking up a baby, pause to take a few deep belly breaths, and slow down. Speak to the baby about what you are doing as you reach out and interact.
  • When changing or feeding a child, pause and notice your feelings and body. Then look at the child, make eye contact, smile, and talk about the present moment.

In our Cultivating Healthy Intentional Mindful Educators (CHIME) class this week, many of the preschool teachers were eager to share how they have been practicing mindful breathing and mindful movement, and how they have incorporated some of the breathing techniques into their classroom practices as well.

NAEYC shares the following strategies for adults

  • Deep belly breathing: put your hand on your belly and inhale deeply as you count to four, feeling your belly rise. Pause at the top of your inhale, then exhale for a count of six, feeling your belly contract. Repeat five times.
  • Progressive relaxation: intentionally contract all of the muscles in your body. Beginning with your toes and moving up to your head, relax your muscles.
  • Mental body scan: beginning with your toes and moving up to your head, notice any tension in your body and intentionally relax those areas. (This technique is especially helpful to ensure that you are calm and ready before attending to a task such as a diaper change.)
  • Intentional refocusing, take a few moments to bring your mind into the present. For example, without moving, notice 10 items of the same color. Or, using your five senses, notice the sensations you are experiencing.

Zero to Three shares Mindful practices for teachers and families to try when adults or children are experiencing big emotions. It is important to first practice these strategies when children are in a state of calm, in order to use them effectively when big emotions do arise.

There also many informal ways to practice mindfulness such as paying close attention to simple daily activities, like brushing your teeth or washing the dishes. For example, when you brush your teeth, notice the feel of the brush, the taste of the toothpaste, the temperature of the water. There is no single mindfulness activity or technique that works for everyone; whatever helps direct your attention to the current moment is a great way to practice.

As you begin your mindfulness practice, The CHIME program suggests asking yourself these reflective questions,

  1. What feelings am I having? 
  2. What am I sensing in my body?  Where do I notice it?
  3. What am I noticing about my thoughts?  My actions?
  4. What urges do I feel?  What do I feel pulled toward?  Away from?
  5. Do I feel in balance?  Out of balance? 
  6. How can this help me better understand the situation (as a caregiver, parent)?
  7. What will happen if I just lean back and take a deep breath?  Another?

May you be well to teach well. What practices do you think you would like to try?

LYNN DEVRIES, EARLY CHILDHOOD EXTENSION EDUCATOR | UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA

Peer Reviewed by Jaci Foged and Erin Kampbell, Early Childhood Extension Educators

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