Teaching Mindfulness to Children

Christopher Willard, PsyD. taught “Child’s Mind: Professional Training for Mindfulness With Young People” at BCBS April 20-22, 2012. He is a psychologist and learning specialist at Tufts University and in private practice in the Boston area. He is the author of Child’s Mind, Mindfulness Practices to Help Our Children Be More Focused, Calm and Relaxed, and is working on a series of follow-up workbooks for teens that he teaches nationally and internationally. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy.

Insight Journal asked Willard to talk about the challenges and rewards of teaching mindfulness to children.

Insight Journal: Your book seems to focus mostly on ways to practice with children. What’s the fundamental difference in how children learn to practice compared with adults?

Christopher Willard: One of the fun things about working with young people is that their brains are not yet fully developed, meaning they often have a lot more diversity in their learning styles than adults. This can be frustrating at times, but also offers up a world of possibilities for creative teachers to engage various methods of learning, whose knowledge is far deeper and more nuanced than just “I’m a visual learner” or “I’m a verbal learner.” Whether that is kinetic or movement oriented learning, using stories or song, or fully engaging kids’ natural medium of play, there is a range of possible ways of teaching once we look at all the options. I know I had to get creative and find other modalities after working with a kid who told me “Dr. Willard, breathing is played out!”

IJ: Some of the first practices taught by the Buddha to those just starting the path are about dana. How does that figure in your approach to teaching children?

CW: I think that in teaching children we ought to consider actions, as young people inhabit and understand a world of action, such as dana, or generosity. It is one of the most skillful actions we can take, with immediate rewards both for us and for others. It also teaches the value of non-attachment. A wonderful way of practicing dana at the holidays or birthdays is one I learned from an old friend, whose grandmother would give the kids $50 for a gift, and then tell them they had another $50 she would give to a charity of their choice. That is a powerful practice of generosity and a way to plant the seeds at a young age, as well as reminding young people that gifts and holidays are not just about consumption but giving too.

IJ: How do you gauge the progress of this kind of approach among professionals who work with children? What would you say are the biggest factors in keeping it from being used even more?

CW: I think gauging progress is a real challenge. I certainly don’t think we can measure progress by amount of mindfulness practice exactly, and we can’t have expectations of sitting for even twenty minutes a day with kids—those are hard enough for adults. At the same time, we can teach elements of mindfulness, and measure those—for example, if we think of mindfulness as present-moment awareness with compassion, we can see how present children are, how compassionate their actions are, how focused and aware they are.

I think the biggest factors from keeping it being used more are some anxiety on the part of adults— “the B word” —Buddhism, makes us nervous about introducing these practices to anyone, but especially young people. It also seems hard to introduce kids to something like sitting practice, but if we think about introducing mindful eating, mindful walking, or integrating mindful awareness into games and arts, it suddenly starts to make a whole lot more sense.

IJ: You say in your book that you use a definition of meditation that is more scientific than spiritual. Can you expand that a bit?

CW: I use that in my book, and often when I speak because I think it helps to reach the broadest possible audience that way, rather than limiting meditation to one spiritual tradition or another.

IJ: What are some of the concerns that parents typically have about their children learning meditation? Are there misunderstandings about Buddhism, for example, that cause them anxiety?

CW: I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve rarely run into parents being concerned, but I know that for many who work in schools this is a real issue. My take is that these practices are possible to make completely secular, and framed as “attention training” or “awareness training.” In other contexts, like religious or spiritual education, the Buddhist element is embraced. The fact is however, that contemplative practices exist in pretty much every religion and spiritual tradition, in almost every culture in the world.

IJ: Would you say your approach draws on one Buddhist tradition more than others? If so, why is that one more appropriate?

CW: I think my work is primarily influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh, who was really my first exposure to mindfulness. But it has also become clear that a lot of other traditions have so much to offer young people as well—the visualization tradition in Tibetan Buddhism for example, is very rich. Visualization is often a lot easier for those, like young people, with smaller attention spans.

However, I think basic mindful awareness that Thich Nhat Hanh teaches is most accessible and easily explained. We can also break it down into component pieces: awareness practices, present-moment practices, and acceptance/compassion practices, all of which are tremendously important values that we want to help our children and young people with.

IJ: How has Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition specially influenced your approach to teaching meditation to children?

CW: Thay’s practices are so simple, and so loving. I first went on a retreat with him when I was a little lost and confused and young myself—during college. He teaches that living life itself can be a meditation, that we can and should integrate mindfulness into all of our actions each day. He is also very patient, and really teaches people to do what they can—whether that is a formal sitting practice or retreat practice, or whether that’s a few mindful steps of walking every so often. He also really emphasizes the idea of planting seeds and cultivating the conditions under which they will bloom, rather than pushing meditation hard and getting hung up on expectations.

IJ: You indicate that mindfulness training has something specific to offer for the unique challenges that the contemporary world presents to children. Can you say something about those challenges and why mindfulness is especially valuable now?

CW: I think we are facing a crisis of disconnection—disconnection not just from others, but from our own experience. And although technology allows a form of connection, it also makes it too easy to disconnect from whatever is unpleasant in the moment. Mindfulness offers the opposite, its connecting, to ourselves, to the moment, and to others.

The conundrum of technology, for example, is that we can, in a sense, be more connected through technology, but in other senses are more disconnected, as we choose to respond to a Facebook message from a friend across the world, rather than bask in the quiet presence of the person sitting next to us—and kids have grown up in this hyper-connected world. (And I should say I’m often no better!) Kids especially grow up disconnected, and not knowing how to connect—it is just a skill that, like anything, needs practice to learn.

So it is particularly vital that we teach something to ourselves and our children to grow up to become healthy adults, so that is what we want to do: find some ways to develop healthy, happy parents of our children. On the other hand, I do try to find ways to harness technology and the changing culture to interest kids.

IJ: Can professionals teach mindfulness to children if they themselves are somewhat new to the practice? How much personal experience does an education professional need to teach mindfulness, given that you can’t “read the book the day before” and know enough to teach it?

CW: I think some basic awareness practices can be taught, at least I hope so, because we need a lot of teachers. At the same time, I do think that deeper learning will happen with a teacher who has a deeper practice. Or, as I heard someone say, you can teach ancient Greek history without having lived in ancient Greece, but you really can’t teach tennis unless you’ve played a few games yourself.

IJ: Given the broad types of backgrounds of people now using mindfulness training as abstracted from the Buddha’s teachings, are you concerned that something might be “lost in translation,” if you will? If the other facets of the teaching, as included in the eightfold path, for example, are not also included as support, will mindfulness training stay integrated with a person’s life, or just become a passing thing, like that Spring you took some yoga lessons?

CW: I think the teachings are best when in context of the original teachings, and I may be a true believer, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to be. I mean, that Spring you took some yoga, that was probably helpful. And you never know when and where these seeds we plant are going to blossom—I’ve worked with guys coming out of prison who said that one yoga class in prison a dozen years before had changed their life, and on the other side, I’ve worked with kids going into prison, and I think these practices will help them make some better decisions.

Maybe I’m getting a little away from the question here; I do worry about what gets lost in translation, but I also know that I try to teach with integrity and integrate the larger context in my teaching. I also believe that with practice, an innate awareness of the eightfold path and other facets of teaching start to arise. We begin to notice when we feel better, and it is usually when we are in accordance with the eightfold path and other laws of the Dharma, whether we know them as such or not.

IJ: What are the challenges that education professionals face when introducing mindfulness in our politicized, somewhat polarized society? Do you address these issues in your course?

CW: It is something I like to save for the final discussion when I am teaching, because I think everyone has both fear and experience with this. I’m in a somewhat privileged place where I get to teach willing and interested audiences; most of the hard work goes on in schools with captive but not necessarily interested audiences, and with potential hostile environments in terms of the politics and “the B-word.”

IJ: The only text from the Pali canon involving children that comes to mind is the Rahulovada Sutta, in which the Buddha speaks with his son, Rahula. The theme of that teaching in the important of telling the truth. What do you make of that? Do you have other texts that you think of as speaking specifically to how children can relate to the Dhamma?

CW: I think it is no accident that the Buddha’s words were about speaking truth; it’s a core value of Buddhism, and of living a virtuous life.

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