Even though several weeks of summer break are left, it’s hard not to think about the impending arrival of the school year. For many kids, that can be a source of anxiety – not knowing what to expect, new teachers, perhaps even a new school building, new routines – and even perhaps sadness that the fun, leisurely days of summer are coming to a close. Amidst the thoughts and worries, it can be easy to lose sight of the present moment. By taking a few moments to focus on the here and now, kids can help ease any anxiety they may be experiencing and even learn to savor those few remaining days of summer play.
Research shows that mindfulness is good for our health, both physical and mental. And while some may envision a practice of sitting, eyes closed for long periods of time trying to clear one’s thoughts, for children and teens it’s a bit different. It’s not about developing a meditation practice. Instead, it’s really about pressing the “pause button” momentarily – focusing attention to the present moment and noticing what’s happening right now, both inside us and around us. Feeling the grass between our toes, the swirl of emotion in our chest, the playful smile of a family member. Following are a few exercises families can do together any time, but might be particularly useful as kids make the transition from summer to school.
As summer vacation winds down, take time to experience gratitude for what the summer offered: the longer days of sunshine, the chance to enjoy the outdoors, and the time for fun with friends or family. During a meal-time conversation, encourage each family member to identify their most favorite memory of summer, focusing on the sense of joy or happiness associated with that experience – the feel of the sand on the beach, the taste of strawberries from the Farmer’s Market, the feeling of riding the roller coaster, going on a bike ride, watching fireflies together after dark. Recollecting positive experiences like these can help kids to notice other positive experiences that may occur in the future. The sense of joy or happiness that arises could serve as a helpful anchor to come back to when the pressure of transitioning back to school seems challenging.
This exercise is to help focus our energies on the things we value. Whether it’s setting an intention for the whole fall, for a month, for the first week of school, or even just for the day – it’s about taking the time to identify something that is meaningful. For kids, an intention might be to meet a new friend, try a new activity, work on organization skills, or even just to notice a moment that makes them smile or laugh.
Making Time for Rest
Sufficient rest is important for all of us, especially when dealing with a new or stressful situation. At least two weeks before school starts, start transitioning to earlier bed times and earlier wake times so by the time school starts, everyone is feeling rested (this is true for parents too – the more rested you are, the easier it is to help your children deal with any fears or anxieties). If kids are having a difficult time quieting their minds and getting to sleep at night, try using an audio-guided mindfulness practice to aid in calming their mind and relaxing their body. Many children find the body scan practice useful. When looking for an audio practice, keep in mind that shorter lengths of time and simple vocabulary are best, especially for younger kids. For those with mobile devices, there is an app call Smiling Mind where you can find a practice based on a child’s age. The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA also has free guided meditations available on their website.
Toward the end of summer break and particularly during the first days of the new school year, make time as a family to go for a walk or bike ride, go to the park, or play an active game. On rainy days hold a dance party in the living room. Physical movement can help release energy or tension being held in the body and can help calm children.
For many families, the morning routine can be hectic as everyone is getting dressed, fed and ready to go. Having that sense of being rushed can add to anxieties kids may already be feeling about the start of school. On the first day of school, before walking out of the house, make time to share a brief breath awareness practice. Stand tall, take 3 full breaths, and focus on the sensations of the inhale and exhale each time. Finish by bringing a smile to your face. Remind kids that they can do this throughout their school day as well, whenever they need.
Inviting a Compassionate View
A brief compassion practice can also be helpful. While kids are feeling anxious, it can help to talk about how other people may be feeling as well. Is the teacher feeling anxious as he or she prepares for a new class of students? Are other students feeling anxious because they may be new to the school as well? Our “insides” often judge other’s “outsides” – we have no idea how someone is feeling on the inside, but it is easy to form judgments that might be based in our own insecurities. Rather than make assumptions, practice kindness and compassion – remember that others may be feeling the same thing. And, encourage kids to be compassionate toward themselves. No one expects them to have all the answers, and it is okay to make mistakes.
Taking a few moments each day to focus on the present moment can benefit the entire family, and help encourage skills in kids that will benefit them their entire lives.
UW Health offers mindfulness classes for middle schoolers and for teens. The next Mindfulness for Middle Schoolers class, intended for students in grades 6-8, begins October 20. The Mindfulness for Teens class, for high school age teens, begins September 28.
Leave a comment on telling us what you are grateful for this summer.
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