What does it take for us to slow down? NPR news has recently featured an interesting episode with a Norwegian TV producer, Thomas Hellum, and talked about why viewers enjoyed “Slow TV.”
In the fast-paced world of today, everything seems convenient. Instead of writing and sending checks by mail, we can easily click a button on the computer and pay bills electronically. With access to the Internet, we can video call our friends or family who live on the other side of the world effortlessly. People don’t go to the library anymore to look up information because they can simply find out answers online within seconds. Conversations take place in a form of short text messages and Emojis. We get to save so much time and energy in this digital world, but we are constantly on our smartphones, laptops, and electronic devices. Is this really a good thing?
According to a study conducted by Microsoft in 2015, digital lifestyles have a negative impact on prolonged focus. They stated that the average human attention span in 2013 was 8 seconds, which is 4 seconds less than the average human attention span in 2000. In other words, it seems that we have shorter attention span than that of a goldfish, which is 9 seconds. We are often multi-tasking and selective-attention alternating, which can be associated with distractions, stress and anxiety. This includes our children, who grow up in this fast-paced world and have lived with smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices. What are some of the ways that we can improve our children’s ability to concentrate and filter distractions?
One of the most acclaimed programs that promotes positive mental training and well-being is mindful awareness. Mindful awareness is defined as an “unbiased present-centered awareness that is accompanied by states of clarity, compassion, and equanimity” (Roeser, 2013). In the past years, there has been increasing interest in the mindful awareness practice research, especially on introducing young people to mindfulness practices in schools. Based on theory and research in cognitive developmental neuroscience, the MindUp curriculum was developed by the Hawn Foundation (2011) and implemented in a study by Maloney, Lawlor, Schonert-Reichl, and Whitehead (2016).
The MindUp curriculum was suggested for children between 9-12 years old. The goals for the curriculum included improving children’s self-regulation skills, attention regulation, inhibitory control, stress physiology, and well-being. There are a total of four units in the curriculum:
1. Getting Focused—
The first unit introduces children to the concept of mindful awareness and attending to the present in a considerate and nonjudgmental way. An example of the mindfulness practice would be to have children focus on the resonant sound of a chime that marks the opening and closing of the practice. Then the children are instructed to focus on their breathing.
Try this: Have your children sit calmly on a chair or on the floor, instruct them to close their eyes and focus on their breathing for about two to three minutes. Tell them it is okay if their minds start to wander, but remind them to bring their thoughts back to the present moment.
2. Sharpening Your Senses—
The children are then introduced to the practice of mindful sensing. These lessons include mindful listening, seeing, smelling, tasting, and movement. An example would be having children look at a food (i.e., a grape) very carefully and take time to smell it, notice the sensation in their mouths, the taste on their tongues, and the sound they make by biting into the food.
Do this: Have your children describe what the food looks like, how the food smells, and how the flavor tastes in their mouths. If possible, it is recommended to have your children close their eyes when experiencing the senses with their tongues and mouths.
3. It’s All about Attitude—
Unit three aims to foster children’s positive mindset for learning and building positive relationships through the application of mindful awareness in order to improve social and emotional skills. Children learn about perspective-taking, optimism, and savoring happy experiences. They explore how focusing on a happy memory makes them feel positive both physically and emotionally.
Be a role model: Instead of showing our frustration the next time we are sitting in traffic, we can be role models for our children by being optimistic and positive. Try saying things such as “We could use this time to plan our weekends.” or “This could be our quality time together to talk about school or friends.”
4. Taking Action Mindfully—
Children have the opportunity to put mindful awareness into action by practicing gratitude, performing random acts of kindness, and cooperatively planning a social action project to benefit their larger community or the world.
Try this: Practice gratitude with your children by taking turns to list out five things that you feel grateful for. (e.g., shelter, clothes, food, leisure time, or a healthy body)
Overall, based on the findings of the study, participation in the MindUP curriculum may offer several benefits to children from 4th to 7th grade. These benefits include: increased mindful awareness, improved social and emotional competencies, increased proficiency in executive functioning, better relationships with teachers and peers, improved academic achievement and engagement, along with improved psychological and physiological well-being.
Mindful awareness practice is not only helpful for children, but for adults as well. Living in this busy, fast-changing world is convenient but not so easy. Since we can access all kinds of information through different devices and networks, it can be difficult to stay focus and concentrate when we need to. Practicing mindfulness and training our mindset to be optimistic is one of the keys to productivity.
Roeser, R. W. (2013). Mindfulness and human development: A commentary on the special issue. Research in Human Development, 10, 273–283
Schonert-Reichl, K., & Roeser, R. W. (2016.). Handbook of mindfulness in education: Integrating theory and research into practice.
The Hawn Foundation. (2011). The MindUP curriculum: Brain-focused strategies for learning and living. New York: Scholastic.
Cindy H. Lee is a graduate student at UCLA, concentrating on Human Development and Psychology. She is currently working on her master’s thesis and looking at English language learners (ELLs) and their oral language anxiety by using LEGO® as an educational tool to aid ELL students orally narrate stories. Cindy also had 3+ years of experience working with children with autism, down syndrome, and intellectual disabilities.