How To Practice Mindfulness When Working With Young Children

Episode 224 – Everyone is feeling more anxiety during the current pandemic climate and mindfulness is a useful tool to process difficult emotions. In this episode, we chat with Rachel Moline, PhD candidate and child and adolescent therapist, about how to include mindfulness in your day to day as a parent or ECE. She shares her tips and strategies to start noticing and responding to stressors in a way that helps you become more present when supporting young children.

Episode Transcript

Rachel MOLINE:

We bring our whole self to that child. We are connecting with them and noticing their thoughts, asking about their feelings. Every child loves that focused attention and that can be a powerful tool in developing and strengthening the relationship.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Rachel, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

MOLINE:

Hi, Ron. Thank you so much for having me!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

It is totally our pleasure, Rachel. Delighted to have you on the show. For our guests, we have Rachel Moline joining us. She is a PhD student in child and adolescent clinical psychology and a child and adolescent therapist who’s passionate about mindfulness as a tool to improve well-being. Rachel, let’s start off learning a little bit about you and why you decided to study this.

MOLINE:

Absolutely. So, I’ve always been interested in helping others. I would say that that’s been a longstanding interest and goal for me. And when I was in my undergraduate degree, I focused in psychology. And I was fascinated with the possibility of helping individuals get to know themselves better and get to learn tools and different ways of understanding themselves and empowering people to be the best versions of themselves.

And I researched pediatric pain. So, I think that the mindfulness piece for me really came out from a lived experience with having a chronic pain condition when I was a child and having used mindfulness as a tool myself in order to be well and stay well.

So, for me, there is that lived experience component paired with my insatiable drive for learning. And I am a huge nerd, which is why I am still in school, in university for a very long time and pursuing my PhD and working with kids in youth and their families.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Very cool. And we’ve talked a little bit about mindfulness on the Podcast before. But for any of our listeners who this might be a new concept or new idea, or as a refresher for everybody else, let’s start off with the basics. What is mindfulness?

MOLINE:

Mindfulness is really about contacting the present moment. It’s about being aware of what’s going on for you through your thoughts, your feelings, whatever’s arising and noticing it. And when you’re noticing it and acknowledging the feeling or the thought, doing so without judgment, doing so with curiosity.

So, mindfulness is, in essence, this open, receptive state where you can be in touch with your thoughts and feelings and being able to have the space to acknowledge and also allow whatever it is to arise.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And let me just touch on something you said there a little bit more, which is, “Without judgment and with curiosity.” Why did you decide to say those things in particular, as being somebody, in full disclosure, who spent very little time on mindfulness? So, I’m maybe hoping that, coming out of this, I’ll be convincing myself to learn more about it and practice it more personally, as well.

MOLINE:

Absolutely, Ron. So, the whole point of nonjudgmental acceptance, that’s what you’ll probably see if you [web search] “mindfulness”. The whole point of being open and being kind to yourself with whatever is arising, it’s almost like the active component of mindfulness.

So, if you notice your thoughts and feelings, that’s great. But if you notice your thoughts and feelings and then judge yourself for them… so, “Man, I’m really angry that this meeting went late and I’m running behind,” you could be hard on yourself, right? Like, “I should have kept better time; I should have done this.”

Mindfulness instead is noticing, “Oh, that meeting ran late. That was out of my control. I’m feeling flustered. That makes sense because now I’m having to shift around my afternoon and that’s okay.” So, that nonjudgmental acceptance and that curiosity really lets you accept whatever is arising.

And that is a powerful tool to self-reflect and to be able to be kind to yourself. Because it’s hard, right? If you have challenging thoughts and feelings, as you mentioned, just noticing them can feel almost like it’s insufficient, like it’s not enough.

So, when you notice something, but then you allow it to happen, that’s really like the active ingredient or the key component. It really lets you let that emotion kind of rise and fall. And it lets you kind of feel something else after or gives you more capacity to respond in a way that is consistent with who you are and what your values are. So, it’s noticing and accepting.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And can we just dive into that a little bit more, in terms of the goal or why it’s important to practice mindfulness?

MOLINE:

So, when it comes to practicing mindfulness, we can look at this from two lenses. So, as a parent or as someone who is working with kids, using mindfulness in your self can be so useful because we’re getting in touch with our feelings and our feelings drive our actions. So, getting to know ourselves is what we’re feeling helps us have more say in control over how we act in what we do.

It also helps us have emotion regulation. So, this is a term that your audience is probably very familiar with. It’s when you feel a big emotion, how do you respond to it? What do you do with it? So, when you practice mindfulness, you’re developing your emotion regulation because you’re being curious about what is happening for you. You’re being curious about your body, right?

“Why am I crunching my fist?” Or, “Why am I noticing my heart racing?” When you’re able to acknowledge what’s happening in your body and to give a name to it, to say, “Oh, that’s tightness in my chest,” or “Oh, that’s my heart racing, I’m feeling worried,” that is emotion regulation. You’re telling yourself, “I know what I’m feeling and this makes sense.”

And there are some amazing clinicians out there like Dr. Dan Siegel, who talks about how reflection on the mind, reflecting on ourselves and introspecting, really enables us to access our true selves. And in essence, when we have more emotion-regulation capacity, we can kind of distinguish ourselves from our feelings and our thoughts.

There’s a big difference between saying, “I am angry,” versus, “I feel angry.” Or, there’s a difference between saying, “I’m sad,” versus, “I feel sad.” So, mindfulness helps you acknowledge that the sadness is a feeling, that this feeling is temporary, that the feeling makes sense given the circumstances, that I can sit with this feeling. Because when we don’t know what we’re feeling, we don’t know how to meet that need.

And often when I work with kids, I explain this to kids, I ask them, “What do you do when you’re hungry?” They say, “I eat food.” “That’s right, but how do you know you feel hungry?” And kiddos are really good at saying, “Oh, my tummy is grumbling or my belly cramps.” And from that I say, “Right. So, you’ve learned what the signals your body [is] telling you. And then you know how to meet that need.”

The same goes with emotions. When we get curious about what’s coming up in our bodies, just like those signals of hunger, we’re able to acknowledge that they are important and that there’s a need to be met. So, with sadness, if you’re feeling sad, noticing that, allowing that to be there helps you meet that need, like reaching out for a hug from Mom or reaching out for connection from others.

If you’re feeling really angry, mindfulness can help you go from slamming doors and screaming to acknowledging, “Oh, wow, I’m feeling tightness in my hands and I feel hot and frustrated.” You can acknowledge that anger and maybe do something else with it, versus unconsciously going around slamming doors or clenching those fists.

When you bring that self-reflection and that noticing, you’re able to kind of meet that need because emotions are not problems to be solved. Emotions are powerful signals that have needs to be met. And mindfulness helps us learn about that. And when we learn about our emotions and we learn about what we’re feeling, it helps us with our emotion regulation, which in essence means we know how to act better in response to those feelings.

I had a clinical supervisor describe for me this example, that every person who’s ever got to the bottom of a whiskey bottle is trying not to feel what they’re feeling, that we try to self-medicate or try not to feel what we’re doing. We might distract ourselves.

Mindfulness basically says it’s distracting ourselves and doing something with those feelings but doesn’t actually meet that need. Why don’t we tune in, be curious, let that emotion be there long enough that we can meet its need instead of pushing it down or dealing with it in another way that might be less helpful?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

I’m going to go out on a limb as somebody who hasn’t really practiced mindfulness – and I noticed, that was a word you used, was “practice” – that it’s actually quite hard. Can you talk a little bit about that? Is this something that you can pick up pretty quickly? Or does it take a lot of time and effort and training or practice? Where does it fall on that spectrum?

MOLINE:

Yeah, that’s an excellent question. Absolutely, mindfulness is something that takes practice. But we have the science that backs up the fact that if you practice, you will get better. It’s like if you go to the gym and… now, I’m not someone who goes to the gym. But I like rock climbing and yoga. But if I went to the gym and I wanted to strengthen my bicep, I might do some bicep curls. And with every bicep curl, hopefully my bicep is getting stronger. And you get the muscle memory of how to do that bicep curl.

Mindfulness is exactly like a bicep curl for your brain. It is showing up and it’s easier, I would say, than going to the gym because you don’t actually have to go and do anything extra. It’s about setting that intention for yourself.

So, this doesn’t have to be something that you commit to for hours and hours a day. Starting mindfulness and starting the practice of being more aware of yourself, of getting to know yourself better, can be done on a daily basis without a lot of extra effort. In fact, it can feel so rewarding and relaxing and immersive, when you practice mindfulness.

So, this might look like waking up in the morning and noticing how your body feels. Like, “Do I feel tired? Do I feel alert? Oh, my shoulder feels a little bit stiff.” It can be as simple as checking in with yourself about what’s coming up in your body or even what emotions you’re feeling.

Your mindfulness practice could even resemble making the point to name your emotions out loud. Like, “I am feeling upset right now.” Not, “I am upset,” not, “I am worried,” just, “I am feeling this.” And then getting curious about it.

So, if you notice that you are driving to work and you’re gripping that steering wheel so tight, maybe bringing awareness to that and saying, “Oh, I’m noticing I’m holding that steering wheel so tight. Let me connect to my breath. Let me notice that.”

And just by bringing our attention to the signals in our body, we’re practicing mindfulness. Just by acknowledging when we have thoughts and calling them thoughts is mindfulness.

So, for listeners, what this can even be is, when they are starting to notice a feeling of grief – which is something that unfortunately is quite common right now, given the pandemic in the second wave – really just acknowledging, “I’m feeling anxious.” Dan Siegel talks about “naming it to tame it”. So, even this simple practice of calling your emotions what they are can be powerful.

Mindfulness can look like breathing, being aware with your breath. So, even in the shower, closing your eyes, feeling the air come in and out of your nose. A lot of people like practicing conscious breathing, which is literally just noticing your breath. It can be counting your inhales and exhales. A lot of people tried to do that before bed and it becomes part of their nightly routine.

So, this is something that can be an ongoing, life-long practice. And with every single time you put that intention to connect to yourself and be curious about yourself and your thoughts and feelings, you’re putting in those reps which will really strengthen those areas of the brain that help us notice and reflect on our experiences and make sense of them.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and to your point about anxiety and being worried in particular are very important now during this pandemic. And for early-childhood educators who are likely all feeling a lot of stress and anxiety right now. So, very relevant for your mental and physical health, I would think, to practice some of these things.

And what about from the perspective of children? So, our early-childhood educators who are listening here today, very important, I think, for us all to consider this for ourselves. But then also, what about in the context of working with children?

MOLINE:

So, in the context of working with children, all of those beautiful benefits that I just articulated for yourself – in terms of increasing your emotional literacy, increasing your emotion, regulatory capacities – that’s a parallel process. All of that can also – and will be – cultivated in the youth who practice it.

So, when early-childhood educators are working with youth, they can bring in this tool of mindfulness and teach it kids to help them get to know themselves better, to help them reflect on what their feelings are and how important this acknowledgment of feelings is.

It can also be helpful with improving kids’ behavior because our actions are driven by how we feel; actions are driven by emotions. So, when we help kids to recognize what they are feeling and how they act in response, we are slowly increasing their capacity to have more choice over their behaviors.

And an example of that would be a kiddo who’s feeling really angry in a classroom, maybe threw a bunch of toys. Our first our first response might be to correct the behavior and say, “Don’t throw those toys.” That’s great – we’re adjusting the behavior. But the emotion, what caused the anger, has gone unacknowledged. And most kids know that they aren’t supposed to throw toys.

So instead, what a mindful reaction might be to throwing that toy is, “Oh, I’m noticing that you’re feeling angry right now.” This helps the child feel that what they are experiencing is okay, that it makes sense.

Because a lot of times I’ll have parents coming to me for intervention, for therapy, and they’ll say, “My child has anger problem.” And I always reflect on how anger has never gotten anyone into trouble. The feeling of anger has never done that. What people do when they’re angry is what gets them into trouble.

And in order to have more choice about how we act and respond to our feelings, we need to be mindful of them. Being aware and having that self reflection to say, “I’m feeling angry. Let me connect to myself. Let me take some breath.” That’s another mindfulness intervention, taking those breaths and having more capacity to kind of choose how they act.

And in fact, in the classroom, oftentimes when we’re correcting behavior and correcting behavior all the time, kids can develop a sense of lowered self-esteem. If someone feels like their actions make them bad or how they act means they’re a bad person, mindfulness helps give some distance from those labels and those thoughts. Because it’s not the child who’s bad, it’s their action that is undesirable.

And mindfulness says, “Anger is okay. Anger is an important emotion, just like all of the emotions that serves a function.” It says, “I have a boundary that I need to respect.” But what we do with that anger and how to impact others is an important consideration as well.

And mindfulness, like naming those emotions in the moment for them and getting them to connect to their body, is a more helpful way for them to respond so that maybe it’s not throwing the toys, that maybe it’s next time when they feel really frustrated, we can say, “Hey, do you remember our elevator breathing? Let’s connect to our bodies. We’re feeling angry right now.”

And there’s a simple instruction to connect to the breath, to take some deep breaths, calm the body physiologically with an understanding that we’re feeling anger – or whatever emotion it is – can be so, so useful.

And in the context of a parent-child relationship, it can be powerful. So, if a parent is extremely mindful and present with the child, the child lights up. Children love the attention of adults, especially when it’s someone they care about, like a teacher, an educator, a parent.

So, when you bring your whole self, mindfulness is a parallel process. If we’re encouraging mindfulness in our children and in our youth, we need to be present as well. When we bring our whole selves to that child – we’re making eye contact with then, we’re down on their level, we are connecting with them and noticing their thoughts, asking about their feelings – the child feels great. Every child loves that focused attention. And that can be a powerful tool in developing and strengthening the relationship.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yes, I was really tuning into that because a lot of is resonating with me, with kids at home. And I always worry about that, too, if you if you’re sort of responding to, call it bad behavior – throwing a toy, let’s say, is the example – I always worry that it just creates a further spiral because, like you said, it makes them feel bad because they’re getting in trouble. So, then that might sort of incentivize more or might make them, I guess, result in further bad behavior because they feel bad because they’re getting in trouble, sort of thing. So it’s not really addressing the root cause, I guess, as you say.

MOLINE:

Absolutely. And it’s not that we’re going to let every time they throw a toy slide because that is an undesirable behavior. But we can be more conscious and be more intentional about how we respond to those behaviors. And mindfulness enables us to see beyond the behavior. It enables us to see what is driving it, to use your words. So, I love how you framed it that way. What is causing them to throw that toy?

And anger is not an emotion that we want to get rid of. It gets a really bad rap but anger does serve an important function, as well. So, I think that in bringing more mindfulness to our interactions with kids, not only when they’re engaging in undesirable behaviors but even when we’re just connecting with them and playing with them, we can just help them get to know their thoughts and feelings better. We can label it. We can say, “I’m noticing your smile right now.” And they can tune in and see how it feels.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool, some great takeaways there, Rachel. Before we part ways with you today, any resources that you maybe yourself use or might recommend to our listeners in relation to this conversation?

MOLINE:

Absolutely. So, Jon Kabat-Zinn develops mindfulness-based stress reduction. If you [web search] his name and search him on the web, he’ll have some excellent resources about mindfulness.

Dr. Daniel Siegel is a psychiatrist in L.A. and he basically has some fantastic books; he has a fantastic website. And he talks about how to engage in mindful parenting, how to encourage your child’s brain development by being mindful in your parenting interactions.

If you are thinking more about the emotions – how to work with these emotions in a mindful way – there are some great resources from this therapeutic intervention called Emotion-Focused Family Therapy, which was developed by Dr. Adele Lafrance and Dr. Joanne Dolhanty.

And if you look up Emotion-Focused Family Therapy, there are some fantastic resources there as well about how to respond to the emotions that you see in kiddos and how you might help regulate them and respond to them in a mindful way.

And ultimately, there are some fantastic games and activities that are freely available all over the web. So if you [web search] “mindfulness activities and kids” or “mindfulness activities and school”, there is a plethora of things that will come up. And you’ll notice different options for focusing on the breath meditation, counting the breath, looking at elevator breathing. Teaching diaphragmatic breathing is another way.

Doing activities like mindful eating: so, bringing a piece of food or fruit and getting the child to focus on how it smells, how it feels, how it tastes and being fully immersed in the activity of eating.

There are so many excellent ideas and free resources that are widely available. Sitting Still Like A Frog [www.Shambhala.com] is an excellent website as well that has some guided meditations for youth. So, there are no shortage of resources – those are just a few of my favourites.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

So great, I love all those! And also, I just want to take a quick moment to really reinforce to all the early-childhood educators out there to force yourself to take the time to practice mindfulness and to look after yourself. I think educators are usually in a position of serving others – the children around them, the families that are part of their childcare programs, on lots of cases, families at home.

So, while all of this makes sense, we have to force ourselves to create time in our day to do these activities, which Rachel has so clearly outlined as being so, so important and so helpful. Rachel, thank you so, so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast. It’s been delightful having you on the show with us!

MOLINE:

Well, thank you so much for having me, Ron. And to kind of connect back to that importance of practicing it for yourself, I don’t want this to feel like an added task or another stress, another thing that you feel bad about not doing. So, if that’s coming up and your reaction to hearing this is, “Oh my goodness, how am I going to make time? I should be doing this mindfulness,” just pause. Acknowledge that that part of you is speaking up and welcome it. Say, “Okay, I notice it.”

And be kind to yourself. This is something that you can just do by feeling the sensation of your breath every day. And it’s a real gift. So, as parents, especially when they’re exhausted, educators, you see your face in so many stresses right now: an analogy is putting on your own safety mask first, your own oxygen mask on first. So, when the plane is going down, you’ll hear the news that you should take the oxygen mask, put it on yourself first before you put it on your child.

You can’t help anyone else if you haven’t helped yourself. That’s a really helpful analogy that I like to share with parents: take care of yourself first because your feelings are also important, too.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, absolutely. And I think we’ve heard that analogy before in the Preschool Podcast, which is just to show that we have to look after ourselves, to look after those we love.

MOLINE:

Synchronicity!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Wonderful. Well, thanks again, Rachel, for joining us. It’s been great having you!

MOLINE:

Thanks so much. Bye, now!

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!

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