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Teaching Children Mindfulness can Help Them Regulate Emotions and Improve Focus

By Fraser Sensory Supports Specialist and Senior Occupational Therapist Karmen Nyberg and Pam Dewey • mindfulness, mindfulness and kids, teaching kids mindfulness, mindfulness helps regulate emotions, emotional regulation and mindfulness, mindfulness and behavior, mindfulness and autism, mindfulness exercise for kids, mindfulness exercise for children • June 22, 2023

Mindfulness used to be viewed only as a meditation technique, but in recent years, mindfulness practices have expanded to teach children self-regulation and executive functioning skills. Mindfulness offers a way to slow down, relax and re-center yourself. It also pushes you to pay more attention to your surroundings and those around you. states, “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”

Therapists and teachers use mindfulness to teach children skills like attention and focus, impulse control, emotional and sensory regulation. Learning mindfulness techniques can help children regulate their emotions and focus better.

Children’s brains are still developing

Teaching mindfulness practices can build lifelong skills for children. Their brains are also more equipped to absorb the information. The New York Times states, “While our brains are constantly developing throughout our lives, connections in the prefrontal circuits are created at their fastest rate during childhood. Mindfulness, which promotes skills that are controlled in the prefrontal cortex, like focus and cognitive control, can therefore have a particular impact on the development of skills including self-regulation, judgment and patience during childhood.”

Mindfulness teaches kids to regulate their emotions

Fraser Sensory Supports Specialist and Senior Occupational Therapist Karmen Nyberg says occupational therapists often use mindfulness strategies to help children improve their emotional regulation skills. Greater Good Magazine states, “Emotion regulation, an important aspect of mental health, is the ability to understand, monitor and manage your emotional states (for example, to calm yourself when you’re agitated, or handle other difficult emotions like sadness or anger).”

“Mindfulness is about being present and aware. By paying attention to thoughts and feelings, children can better identify what the emotion feels like in their body, what situations create different emotions and how to manage these feelings,” says Nyberg.

Learning to recognize emotions teaches children how to control and react to these feelings. When a child doesn’t understand their emotions, they might hit their brother when he takes their toy. But with mindfulness, a child recognizes they’re feeling upset because their brother took a toy. Instead of hitting, the child might say they’re upset or practice a mindfulness exercise, like deep breathing.

Research also supports that mindfulness helps with emotional regulation. A 2019 study followed a group of sixth graders who were taught mindfulness techniques over eight weeks. Of the findings, Harvard Graduate School of Education writes, “About half of the students also volunteered for brain scans, and those revealed positive effects for the mindfulness group, too: their amygdalas — the part of the brain that controls emotion — responded less to pictures of fearful faces than they did prior to the mindfulness work, suggesting their brains were less sensitive to negative stimuli, or, in other words, that they were less prone to get stressed out and lose focus.”

Mindfulness helps focus

One of the best-known benefits of mindfulness is improved focus. Being able to focus helps children perform better in school, listen at home and, later on, be successful in college and employment.

“Mindfulness exercises promote attention and focus by training children to concentrate on their breath, sensations or specific actions,” says Nyberg.

It can improve behavior

When children learn to understand emotions and be mindful of their actions, their behavior can also improve. Crockett Elementary School in Phoenix, Arizona, decided “to bring mindfulness in as part of the school culture to promote self-regulation for struggling children, as opposed to punishment.” Greater Good Magazine states, “Over the three years the school spent infusing mindfulness into their culture, they saw outstanding results, including a reduction in annual suspensions — from an average of 45 to three. The school also rose in state-wide school ratings (from a C to a recent A+ from the Arizona Education Foundation).” In other words, infusing mindfulness techniques into the start of each day, lessons, breaks and lunch taught children to regulate their emotions, focus and in turn, improved their behavior at school.

Mindfulness can help parents and teachers, too. A teacher at Crocket Elementary stated, “When I started getting upset or frustrated, I’d see myself from outside and say, ‘I’m getting frustrated, my voice is rising.’ So, I stop myself and take 30 seconds, walk around the room, return, and then talk to the student in a calm tone. It’s made me a better teacher.”

Parents can also practice mindfulness

Like teachers, parents can also benefit from practicing mindfulness. Parents can learn the same skills as children, like emotional regulation, better focus and relieving stress. It also allows parents to model these practices for their children, which helps children pick up these practices. 

Mindfulness can help children with autism and other conditions

For children with autism, mindfulness can also help with emotional regulation, focus and behavior. For children with sensory processing differences, mindfulness has some specific benefits.

“Mindfulness activities help children develop a greater awareness of their bodies and tolerate a variety of sensory experiences,” says Nyberg.

By engaging in mindfulness exercises, individuals with sensory processing differences learn how they respond to sensory stimuli and then can make appropriate choices about reacting.

Many children with autism also have difficulty with communication skills. Some mindfulness activities build social skills, like empathy and perspective-taking.

Here are a few mindfulness exercises to try with your child:

  • Encourage mindful coloring. This is when a child drawings or colors to express their emotions. Or, they focus on coloring, which requires a child to think about the present moment and attend only to what they are doing rather than what is happening around them.
  • Lead your child in a 5-4-3-2-1 scan.