As a parent and social worker, I have long been concerned about the mental health and well-being of our children as they face increased academic pressures while navigating social media, figuring themselves out, and managing peer relationships. With the increase in school violence, competition for colleges, social media pressures, and other challenges, our children are experiencing increased stress, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, self-harm and depression. As a parent of a high school and a college freshman, I often struggle with helping them to find balance and manage stress. Healthy stress is a natural part of life, including childhood. Children and adults alike need to be challenged in order to grow and develop.
However, in our current education system, healthy stress is often replaced by toxic stress, which occurs when life’s demands consistently outpace our ability to cope with those demands. While on the one hand, we don’t want our children to miss out on the myriad of opportunities and activities available to them, we have somehow lost our way in helping them to pause and really learn about themselves and what is best for them—and not necessarily always what we think is best for them. As parents and caregivers, we must accept that at times we may be responsible for contributing to their heavy loads by not setting limits on the number of activities they are involved in, not modeling positive self-care, or not modeling positive ways to manage our own emotions, stress and anxiety.
At times, I have felt resigned to thinking this is just the way it is. However, over the past year I have consulted with other mental health professionals in the community about preventative actions that can be implemented in schools or elsewhere to support students to be more socially aware and more compassionate, and I have done extensive reading on mindfulness. I have come to believe that mindfulness is a powerful means to teach the social and emotional competencies that students need in order to be successful in school and in life.
There are numerous definitions of mindfulness; however, in short, mindfulness is simply the practice of training our brain to be aware of our feelings, our bodies, and our environment in the present moment. While stopping all negative thoughts all the time is not realistic, knowing that we can acknowledge those thoughts and release them and that they don’t control or define us can be very empowering. Living mindfully, whether it be engaging in breathing exercises, walking, enjoying nature, or eating mindfully takes practice, and even 5 to 10 minutes per day can help us to manage stress and focus positively. Mindfulness helps people develop self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, relationship skills, and decision-making skills— social and emotional skills that are necessary for both personal and professional growth.
The research clearly indicates that mindfulness practice can increase attention, improve interpersonal relationships, and strengthen compassion. Whether we experience anxiety around academic or professional responsibilities, social issues, or old habits we find ourselves falling into, mindfulness practices can offer all of us tools for life.
There is greater understanding that academic skills alone aren’t enough to prepare students for successful futures. Nearly nine out of ten business leaders agree there will be an increasing need for social and emotional learning skills among future employees. Today’s young people must navigate an increasingly complex, competitive and globally connected world. This requires confidence, self-awareness, perseverance and an understanding of our differences—all skills that are cultivated through social and emotional learning beginning when children are young. Mindfulness practice allows us to navigate life’s tough challenges—helping us to manage stress and make wise decisions. By helping our young people cultivate these skills, we can ensure that they grow into kind and compassionate leaders who will change the world.
At DKJA, we recognize the importance of focusing not only on the whole child, but also on supporting our faculty, administrators and staff to be their personal best. In partnership with Kindness Matters and Marianne Altschul, MSW, we are offering ongoing professional development on mindfulness in order for teachers to practice self-care and build up their toolboxes of mindfulness strategies for the classroom. Research finds that mindfulness practices can help decrease stress and anxiety and strengthen resilience and emotional regulation, for both adults and children. Consciously paying attention allows us to respond to one another with compassion, kindness, love and gratitude.