The Freedom to Focus
Gratitude, the ability to appreciate the abundance in our lives, is a concept more and more parents are teaching their kids — that, and the ability to pause and take a break for a moment.
Between rigorous academic expectations, a heavy after-school activity load, and constant text message alerts and Snapchat notifications, it can be hard for kids to be kids today — and to slow down in a fast-paced world. But it’s important that kids learn to do it.
The act of paying attention, on purpose, includes recognizing one’s own thoughts and feelings during various circumstances.
"With the multitude of electronic distractions kids have today added to the normal mix of distractions my generation grew up with, being focused is a bigger challenge than ever for many children," said Kaia Roman, a Santa Cruz, California-based mom who blogs at TheJoyPlan.com. "Kids feel the benefits from a ‘brain break’ — or taking time to focus on their breath and body’s sensations — and want to know how to find that calm whenever they need it."
Kids can easily become caught up in overwhelming thoughts and emotions without realizing there is a physiological response happening in the brain that they can address.
"It’s not about trying to clear your mind of all thoughts, but allowing thoughts and emotions to come and go without judgment," said Janine Halloran, a licensed mental health counselor and mom of two in Braintree, Massachusetts. "Living in the present sounds easy but takes practice."
Some children are easily able to embrace these concepts, Halloran said. Others need more guidance.
The key is to keep it simple and model the behavior.
1.) Start with simple breathing exercises.
"When kids associate deep breaths, visualization and ‘happy brain chemicals’ with a sense of calm, peace and fun, they’ll be more likely to remember and use those tools at other times," said Roman.
2.) Focus on the senses.
"Try listening, eating a treat or taking a walk using all of your senses," Halloran said.
More and more schools are incorporating the practice of renewed focus and taking a moment as part of their daily routine. Some teachers take breaks with their students during the day. Others use the concept in conflict resolution, Roman says.
Some schools have more formalized programs. Roman teaches elementary school-aged kids in Santa Cruz, California, in 45-minute blocks once a week and said she stresses "learning concepts related to the brain. We talk about the main chemicals in the brain that bring on feelings of happiness, like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, and how to give and receive happy feelings through simple things like hugs, kindness and laughter."
Roman said she hears success stories on a regular basis.
"My students tell me when they are having a fight with a sibling, they take a break, go somewhere quiet and take deep breaths, maybe find something soft to cuddle for an oxytocin boost, and then they feel much better and solve the conflict easily," she said. "My students also tell me about how they use techniques they've learned in class when they are nervous about a test or having trouble focusing on their homework."
"Kids who are experiencing stress can use mindfulness as a coping skill to help manage their stress in a healthy way," said Halloran. "Any child would benefit, but children who struggle with managing their emotions, anxiety, self-regulation and attention issues in particular would benefit."
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