By Krissa Lebacqz, Senior Associate School Counselor & Erika Soleís, School Counselor
One of the many things that draw families to Bay is our emphasis on mindfulness. The Bay School was one of the pioneers in bringing mindfulness into the educational setting over 10 years ago. Since then it has been a critical component of school and community life at The Bay School. Students start most school days with time dedicated to mindfulness at Morning Meeting and are encouraged to reflect on how mindfulness can be a supportive practice for them in their lives beyond Bay.
So what exactly are your teens learning at Bay? How can you reinforce it and also personally benefit from this practice at home? The Bay School approaches mindfulness through the classic definition given by Jon Kabat-Zinn of “awareness without judgment.” In practice, this is being aware of our bodies, minds, and hearts without judging what we find. Awareness without that non-judgmental and kind stance may manifest as harshness and criticism, so it is important to practice mindfulness with kindness to one’s self. Does being mindful mean that your children will employ awareness of self to get their homework done, clean up their stuff, and be polite? Unfortunately, no. First, mindfulness is cultivated over many years of practice. Second, mindfulness is a mental orientation, not a specific set of actions.
So what exactly is mindfulness, then? Mindfulness allows us to create a pause between our experience and our reaction so that we can respond rather than react. Imagine that you are at the grocery store and someone rushes to cut in front of you to get their cart in line first and that you are also in a hurry. Mindfulness is noticing that this happened and how you are feeling in response. So you might notice “I feel angry towards this person” or “I’m freaking out because now I’m going to be late.” You might notice that your heart is racing and that you feel tension in your muscles. It is then that the no judgment piece comes into play. You try your best not to judge that feeling. So if you feel angry, you just feel angry. You don’t push anger away by saying to yourself, “It’s not a big deal, I shouldn’t be upset.” You also don’t go into a long story in your head about the other person and how awful they are. You just feel angry and then decide how to respond. That is the pause, and one of the gifts of mindfulness. Rather than reacting from anger you take a moment, notice the anger, and then respond. The response can be whatever you decide is best in that moment. It can include talking to the person or not. Responding in this way isn’t necessarily passive. It might occur to you to say something like, “Hello, I was getting in this line and I only have a couple things and need to pick up my child, can I check out before you?”
At Bay, students practice mindfulness formally in Morning Meeting and at the start of many classes. At Morning Meeting students are given a guided meditation for approximately 5 minutes in which they are directed to focus on their breath and notice when their mind wanders off. This cultivates concentration and allows students to practice “awareness without judgment.” They notice when their mind wanders to something, they can note what it is, and then without judgment, they direct their minds back to their breath. In doing this they also start to become more aware of their internal world. They can notice things like “I’m really worried about this test” and then, without judging that feeling, return to their breath. They can notice that they keep replaying a conversation they had earlier and then return to their breath. They can notice that they are thinking a negative thought and then return to their breath. In this way over time students increase their ability to concentrate, find peace in a moment, and improve their awareness of their experience.
Additionally, in classes, through interactions with teachers, on the field and amongst friends and family students are supported to practice mindfulness informally by being reminded to pause and take a breath before reacting. With greater awareness of the mind’s habits, one can become wiser in choosing responses in challenging moments. For instance, noticing a tendency to become combative when feeling worried or overwhelmed can help develop a more flexible response: by taking a moment to notice thoughts and feelings before engaging with another person we may avoid reacting in a potentially unhelpful way.
What can parents do at home to support this practice? Most importantly you can model mindfulness by pausing and then responding. You can try to take a breath when something happens that upsets you and see if in doing so you can create a little space before you react. You can notice that you feel angry before acting out of anger. You can notice that you feel worried about your teen before acting out of anxiety. You can also apologize when you don’t do that. As parents ourselves we know that this is hard work. Mindfulness is a tool that can support us in our growth as parents. We don’t have to do it perfectly. When we lose our patience with our child we can be aware that we lost our patience. We don’t need to judge ourselves for being a bad parent or think that we “should” be more patient. We can bring awareness to what happened and then figure out how to respond. This could include taking a break from the conversation or apologizing for reacting out of anger or anxiety. Creating a household where everyone has to be perfect is stressful for children. We can teach them it is okay to make mistakes by modeling how we respond to our own imperfections and errors by treating ourselves with self-compassion. This is powerful modeling in how to be reflective and resilient when presented with challenges.
In their book “Mindful Discipline,” authors Shauna Shapiro and Chris White note that “when we practice mindfulness, it supports us in remembering who we truly are: that we are more than our reactivity and our ingrained habits of relating. We begin to wake up to our authentic center of knowing and to focus on what is most important. We intentionally choose to be awake to this moment and to see clearly, with curiosity and compassion. This way of being begins to shift our brain circuits towards empathy, understanding and a felt sense of our wisdom. It supports our wise and loving parenting choices, and fosters wisdom and resilience in our children (Shapiro and White).”
As counselors at Bay we use mindfulness to support students in their growing self-understanding and as a positive approach to coping with difficult emotions such as sadness and anger, or as an aid in mitigating anxiety. We encourage awareness of the body and mind as an effective way to identify and label sensations and emotions and then move towards understanding habitual reactions or responses. From there we can evaluate whether these responses are positive ways of coping with challenge or not. When unhelpful or unhealthy patterns are noticed, we then have space to contemplate other ways of being. Mindfulness can help in decreasing rumination, stress, and emotional reactivity as well as in improving focus and cognitive flexibility, as noted by Davis and Hayes in their review of research on the mental health benefits of mindfulness, referenced below.
We hope that this introduction to or reminder about mindful parenting is useful for your family. Mindfulness as a sustained practice is of benefit to both physical and emotional well-being, but even if we do not have a formal practice, choosing to notice what is happening and slowing down in our challenging interactions with the young people in our lives will strengthen our relationship. Mindful parenting, teaching, coaching, and counseling is part of the wonderful work of supporting our students to become self-aware and resilient adults.
Mindful Discipline: A loving Approach to Setting Limits and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by Shauna Shapiro, PhD and Chris White, MD.
Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/pst-48-2-198.pdf