Two Harvard scientists sampled people during daily activities to find out how often the mind was wandering from a task and it was found that mind wandering occurred in 46.9 percent of the samples1. This means that almost 50% of our day is spent in mind wandering or an internal orientation to thoughts unrelated to the present activity. Mindfulness on the other hand, as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”2. Mindfulness changed from being a mostly religious based concept to a physical and mental health based concept in part due to research relating to the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) program initiated at the University of Massachusetts in 1979. Now almost 40 years later, concepts of mindfulness are being used in health care settings as well as in elementary, middle and high school education programs3. Mindfulness practices are more widely used in business settings and have been applied to parenting principles. What makes mindfulness such a popular topic?
Research on Mindfulness
Keng et al. examined the research on mindfulness in a review of empirical studies with adults4. Conclusions were that mindfulness practices demonstrate “…various positive psychological effects, including increased subjective well-being, reduced psychological symptoms and emotional reactivity, and improved behavioral regulation”5. Particular benefits noted were that people who meditated showed “…higher levels of positive affect, life satisfaction, vitality, and adaptive emotion regulation…”6. This means that adults who use mindfulness principles in life generally have more positive feelings, are less likely to react negatively in stressful situations, and have a more even demeanor overall.
In 2019, Dunning et al. reviewed research relating to mindfulness based interventions (MBI) within children and adolescents in a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials (RCTs). The results indicated: “Across all RCTs we found support for significant effects of an MBI, relative to the comparison condition, for outcome categories of Mindfulness, Executive Functioning, Attention, Depression, Anxiety/Stress and Negative Behaviours”7. This indicates that in children and adolescents the benefit of mindfulness based interventions increased the ability to manage stress and anxiety, attend to activities, and use prosocial behaviors. Kids who use mindfulness principles may be more likely to use higher level critical thinking to evaluate situations, increase attention to tasks, and decrease anxiety levels.
In 2021, Sun et al. examined mindfulness interventions with preschool age children in a systematic review. Preschool programs frequently emphasize teaching activities relating to social emotional learning or SEL. Results of this research indicated that “…positive effects were found for SEL domains of: behavioral self-regulation, emotion regulation, attentional capacities, executive function, ADHD symptoms, peer and prosocial behavior, and other general indicators of social-emotional functioning” 8. The ability to regulate emotions and focus on tasks leads to very important larger concepts, with Sun et. al noting that “…early self-regulation is linked with literacy, math, vocabulary, and adaptive classroom behaviors…”9. It was further found that those with “…stronger self-regulation skills are better able to manage stress and socialize with peers and teachers”10. This means that learning and social relationships are affected by a child’s ability to self-regulate, and mindfulness based practices may contribute to that regulation process. In turn, being more regulated may contribute to increases in the ability to attend to specific academic concepts and lead to greater academic success.
How Does it Work?
Mindfulness changes your brain structure itself11. Brain scans of people who engaged in long term meditation practice using magnetic resonance images (MRI) determined that there were changes in the physical structure of the brain, especially with respect to cortical thickness12. In particular, “Brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants than matched controls, including the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula”13. This means that these areas of the brain are likely to be creating more neural connections to increase the ability to pay attention and process information in the environment. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for impulse control, decision making, personality traits and social behavioral presentation14. As this area is showing increased volume, the actions of controlling impulses, making decisions, and creating social responses may be getting more use. The insular cortex of the brain is responsible for cognitive processing of emotions and highly specific emotional expression components of empathy15. Empathy requires one to understand not only their own emotions but also the emotions of others, which is crucial in forming positive and lasting relationships with others16. The area of the brain responsible for building empathy may be more active in people who practice mindfulness. The mindfulness practitioners tested in this study used practice principles noted as “…a specific nonjudgmental awareness of present-moment stimuli without cognitive elaboration…” and consistently practiced “…sustained mindful attention to internal and external sensory stimuli” 17. These study participants were not Buddhist monks, but instead professionals in business and healthcare who meditated on average 40 minutes daily, had previous meditation practice, and had participation in at least one 7-day meditation retreat18. The activities within the meditation practice were to engage an internal focus on “…thoughts, emotions, and external stimuli such as sounds”19 by labeling them without judgment and returning the focus to the breathing pattern. The study notes: “Beginners are taught to maintain focused awareness on interoceptive stimuli and then are gradually taught to expand their awareness to focus on thoughts, emotions and external stimuli such as sounds…”20. The imaging results in this study did show changes in the insula, which is “…an area associated with the interoceptive processes”21. The results of this study indicate that people who practice mindfulness on a daily basis may have more brain capacity for attention.
In additional to changing the physical structure of the brain itself, mindfulness also changes your way of thinking22. One component of mindfulness practice is noting the attention of the mind and guiding the mind back to the present moment. This is one way for developing metacognition, or the ability to think about one’s thinking process. Attention processes that may be affected by mindfulness practice include “…orienting (the ability to direct attention towards a set of stimuli and sustain attention on it), alerting (the ability to remain vigilant or receptive towards a wide range of potential stimuli), and conflict monitoring (the ability to prioritize attention among competing cognitive demands/tasks)23. Once this change in the thinking process occurs, it may have a domino effect on larger areas including higher life satisfaction, conscientiousness, self-esteem, empathy, autonomy, competence, and optimism, among other areas24. Instead of thinking negatively about an overwhelming amount of information, mindfulness practitioners may be able to see the information, categorize the information and create a response that is more directed to the situation. Being able to see additional possibilities in a situation may lead to more feelings of autonomy, which in turn can elicit more self-worth and greater optimism.
Mindfulness and Parents
Mindfulness principles have also been applied to parenting practices. In the late 1990’s Jon Kabat-Zinn modified principles for the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program into parenting25. Elements of Kabat-Zinn’s mindful practice for parenting include:”…(1) greater awareness of a child’s unique nature, feelings, and needs; (2) a greater ability to be present and listen with full attention; (3) recognizing and accepting things as they are in each moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant; (4) recognizing one’s own reactive impulses and learning to respond more appropriately and imaginatively, with greater clarity and kindness” 26. Kabat-Zinn emphasizes use of mindfulness practice but also “mindfulness as a way of being” which “…requires first of all remembering to open to and welcome the unwanted in critical moments as best we can…”27.
In 2019, researchers examined mindful parenting and the use of emotion socialization strategies28. As parents are constantly providing children with information on emotional expression and coping, they are indirectly shaping a child’s response to his/her own emotions and the emotions of others. This study examined whether parents who used mindfulness practices were able to influence the emotion socialization of their children. The results indicate that the higher the level of mindful parenting, the more likely children and adolescents were to use supportive emotion socialization strategies:
“In other words, when parents have the capacity to bring a centered awareness that is nonjudgmental and non-reactive to interactions with their children, they are more likely to encourage emotional expression, to comfort their child, and to assist the child in solving the problem that resulted in the negative emotion in the first place. They are also less likely to be punitive or to minimize the distress their child is experiencing and less likely to respond with distress themselves”29.
The three main concepts of mindful parenting that the researchers focused on included present and focused awareness during parent and child communication, non-judgemental acceptance of the child’s emotion, and the ability to stay “non-reactive in the context of parent-child interactions”30.
Mindfulness and Kids
Children have been exposed over the past decade to varied mindfulness-based curriculums in school districts focusing on increasing awareness of thoughts and emotions as well as the effects on behavior, “self-management of attention,”; and increased ability to choose alternative actions based on self-aware behavior31. A study from Flook et al. shows that mindfulness-based programming in elementary school students may affect the development of executive functioning32. Executive functioning is an important part of overall cognitive functioning as it encompasses “Working memory, mental set-shifting, and response inhibition,” which all contribute to a child’s overall ability to self-regulate33. Self-regulation of emotional and attentional states contributes to overall academic performance as well as social interactions. Mindfulness is a skill that may be learned: “Practicing mindfulness is likened to practicing a sport or playing a musical instrument, in that proficiency is cultivated through repetition and continuous practice”34. To learn more about how children and mindfulness techniques, you may also contact the LKS office at 310-739-9337 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Parents and Caregivers:
1 Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010
2 Kabat-Zinn, 2022
3 Semple et al, 2017
4 Keng et al, 2011
5 Keng et al, 2011
6 Ken et al, 2011
7 Dunning et al, 2019
8 Sun et al., 2021
9 Sun et al., 2021
10 Sun et al., 2021
11 Lazar et al., 2005
12 Lazar et al., 2005
13 Lazar et al., 2005
14 Wikipedia, 2022
15 Wikipedia, 2022
16 Psychology Today, 2022
17 Lazar et al., 2005
18 Lazar et al., 2005
19 Lazar et al., 2022
20 Lazar et al., 2022
21 Lazar et al., 2022
22 Farb et al., 2007
23 Keng et al., 2011
24 Keng et al., 2011
25 Kabat-Zinn & Kabat-Zinn, 2021
26 Kabat-Zinn & Kabat-Zinn, 2021
27 Kabat-Zinn & Kabat-Zinn, 2021
28 McKee et al., 2018
29 McKee et al., 2018
30 McKee et al., 2018
31 Semple et al., 2017
32 Flook et al., 2010
33 Flook et al., 2010
34 Flook et al., 2010
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