I’ve asked hundreds of children the question, “What do you worry about?” And I have hundreds of slips of paper with their honest and anonymous responses:
- “juggling school and out-of-school activities”
- “getting bad grades”
- “my parents are too busy to help me”
- “friends drifting apart”
- “my dad moving out”
- “making my parents proud”
- “my grandmother’s dying”
- “finding out there’s something wrong with me.”
The activity is called The Worry Tree. Kids write down their worries, and place them at the base of the Worry Tree so that the tree can hold onto them for a while. I often use it when talking to children about managing stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety tend to exist in isolation so I wanted children to see that they are not alone.
None of their responses are shocking. Themes of lack of time, perfectionism, social angst and comparisons, and high expectations (both internal and external) run through their writing, too.
My original intention expanded when I asked groups of parents and teachers the same question. I have slips of paper with their honest and anonymous responses, too:
- “not having enough time to do everything I want/need to do”
- “children’s social problems and not knowing best ways to help them”
- “doing things well”
- “job security”
- “fear of not covering enough of the curriculum”
- “fear of being examined by parents, principals, and peers.”
None of their responses are shocking, either. Themes of lack of time, perfectionism, social angst and comparisons, and high expectations (both internal and external) run through their writing.
And yet some of us are puzzled that childhood stress and anxiety is on the rise? Now my intention has broadened and I ask myself and other teachers this question: How can we expect a shift in the experience of our children until we shift the experience of the adults around them? Children are along for the ride but we’re in the driver’s seat. We can choose to change course, slow things down, and be more present for the people around us.
Embracing mindfulness is one way to shift the experience of our personal and professional worlds and in the process support the emotional well-being of our students. For the first few years of my career, my passion for working with children was a separate endeavor from exploring the gifts of Yoga and mindfulness. The latter began as a lifeline to help cope with my own physical and physiological symptoms of anxiety. As my personal practice developed, I became intrigued by the ripple effects I was seeing in the rest of my life, including my classroom. These initial ripples were not created because I was actively sharing practices with my students, but rather because I was simply sharing a more grounded and balanced version of myself.
More than a Fad
Mindfulness is garnering a great deal of attention these days. As experienced educators we’ve all lived through many new fads and swings of the pendulum. I hesitate to place mindfulness in this transient category. Maybe it’s the optimist in me or maybe it’s knowing that these teachings have ancient roots. Even thousands of years ago there was a need to calm minds and open hearts and so these teachings evolved as a way to bring people out of suffering.
Mindfulness is not about emptying our mind or creating a perfect, happy life. It’s about being present with whatever is happening; to become more aware of, and less swayed by, our thoughts and experiences. Deborah Schoeberlein, author of Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness, defines mindfulness as, “a conscious, purposeful way of tuning in to what’s happening in and around us…[It is about] being present with our inner experience, the environment we find ourselves in, and the people we find ourselves surrounded by.”
While systemic change – where these principles are an integrated part of our institutions – will take time, we all have within ourselves, and within our classroom walls, our own little universes to explore. And when we open up to self-exploration, anyone who comes into our orbit benefits. Imagine a generation of children raised and educated by adults who understand that life is uncertain and often difficult but that we can also learn to be present, supportive, and compassionate for our own experience and the experiences of others.
S.T.O.P. and BreatheTry this yourself for a couple of weeks and then introduce it to your students:
When we are feeling off balance, we intentionally Stop, Take a breath, Observe what’s happening in our body, and then we Proceed. (Stahl & Goldstein, 2010) This simple process helps us cultivate a space between stimulus and response. This is a powerful space; it opens the door for more measured, thoughtful responses to a challenging situations.
Opportunity for a Day of Mindfulness
If you are an educator or parent who would like to have an embodied experience of mindfulness—and a day away to rest, reflect, and regroup, visit the Bee Birch Yoga Therapy website for information on Dana’s Day of Mindfulness programs.