Reviving an Ancient Practice
Mindfully Teaching Children
Jessica Knopke leads a breathing exercise where each child blows a gentle, slow breath on a feather to make it “wiggle and dance”
Photos by Rana Faure
Jessica Knopke enters a classroom at ThistleWaithe Learning Center, asks the young children to form two lines, and quietly demonstrates how to lay their mini-yoga mats on the floor. The children follow. They all breathe in and out and then a young girl chimes a bowl as her classmates put their hands on their stomachs to feel their breath. Knopke then leads a breathing exercise where each child blows a gentle, slow breath on a feather to make it “wiggle and dance” in the air. Once all feathers have been collected, Knopke calmly leads the children in a conversation about difficult emotions and how to use their breath to make themselves feel better.
In approximately 20 minutes, Knopke has taught a room of three and four year olds one of the most essential mindfulness skills, and they all understood. “Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment without judgment,” Knopke, owner of Lily Pad Yoga, explains. “When we practice mindfulness, we can manage difficult emotions, be kind to ourselves and each other, and pause before we react.”
It is believed that the concept of mindfulness dates back to approximately 1500 BCE as part of the Hinduism practice of yoga. In the past few years, mindfulness has experienced resurgence in the United States. Recently, educators and mental-health professionals are recognizing the benefits of teaching mindfulness to children.
“I believe these are life skills,” says Gina Gratz, a third-grade teacher at Increase Miller Elementary School in Katonah. “Mindfulness helps children with attention, resilience, and compassion.”
Gratz uses mindfulness activities throughout the day, and, like many teachers who incorporate mindfulness, she makes sure to include a brief practice during their morning meeting and when the children return from lunch, helping them calm down and get into their “mindful bodies” to prepare for their lessons.
The classroom is not the only place in a school where mindfulness can occur. Melanie Gilbert, a psychologist at Mt. Kisco Elementary School, has created “calm down stations.” Gilbert, who is working with twelve staff members to facilitate mindfulness teachings in various classrooms, recognized that some children might need to step away in order to compose themselves.
“Our calm-down stations are filled with items such as squishy toys and Velcro,” Gilbert explains. “Whenever a child needs a minute to calm down, they can step right outside their classroom and breathe. Students who become overwhelmed or have emotional regulation issues use these cubbies to calm down, preventing bigger issues.”
At Katonah Elementary School, principal Christy Harris incorporates a mindfulness exercise into the school’s sharing assemblies where Knopke teaches a new skill each month, and the students and teachers practice together. This skill is then incorporated into the classrooms, along with any others the teachers use.
“Mindfulness is something we started to layer in because we see it as a tool to help children be themselves—be the best learner, best friend, and the best thinker,” says Harris.
Harris has observed mindfulness in action throughout the school. She recently witnessed a student practicing mindful breathing to calm his anxiety. “Instead of a 30-minute trip to the social worker, he stepped out for two minutes and was then able to rejoin his class,” Harris recalls.
Mindfulness can be practiced at any age. At John Jay High School psychologist Anne Marie Simone and her colleague, Jennifer Lovallo, are working with 14 students on Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT), which teaches mindfulness as part of the program.
For high school students, mindfully focusing on one task or emotion can be challenging. Simone helps students understand that multi-tasking is taxing, while being mindful about a single topic is more efficient. They also teach mindful behaviors and how to effectively control emotions.
“If a teacher says you never handed in that assignment, but you know you did, you may begin to feel reactive,” Simone explains. “We teach them to stop and focus on their long-term goals. It’s better to walk away and cool off than go head to head with the teacher.”
From preschool through high school, mindfulness can make a difference. “When children learn these skills and grow with them, it’s amazing,” says Knopke. “If they feel nervous, anxious, or fearful, they are not in a position to learn. Mindfulness gives them strategies to feel calmer. It affects our central nervous system. It works.”