What if happiness was a habit that we could teach children? We can. Qualities that lead away from happiness (strong negative emotions) and qualities that lead toward happiness (ethical actions) are all rooted in habits developed in the past. Mindfulness helps children and teens recognize the habits that lead to happiness and break the ones that don't.
Habits are easy to make, hard to break and everybody has them. Some habits are physical (cracking knuckles and twirling hair), some are verbal (using certain words or phrases) and some are psychological (worrying, daydreaming, judging and over-analyzing). By repeating a habit we reinforce the brain circuits associated with it and make the habit stronger. The stronger the habit, the stronger the neural pathways, and the stronger the effort and determination required to break it. If teenagers check their Facebook pages first thing in the morning, every morning, checking Facebook will soon become their default, automatic response to waking up. If they hike or meditate first thing in the morning, every morning, hiking or meditating will soon become their default, automatic response to waking up. The more a habit is repeated the stronger it becomes and the more likely it is to become a person's automatic response to a specific experience.
There is a well-established, evidence-based curriculum that uses mindfulness to develop life-skills that make people happy. It rest on three universal qualities attention, balance and compassion. Countless parents and educators, who have tried this curriculum themselves, are now passionate about teaching mindfulness to youth. They form the basis of an emerging grassroots movement to bring mindfulness to education.
Mindfulness is a refined process of attention that allows children to see the world through a lens of attention, balance and compassion. When children learn to look at the world with attention, balance and compassion they soon learn to be in the world with attention, balance and compassion.
Making compassion a habit.
To make compassion a habit all kids need to do is promise that everything they do will be kind and compassionate and keep that promise. Sound easy? Anyone who has ever taken a vow, and then tried to keep it, knows that saying you'll speak and act in a certain way is easier said than done. The best way to keep a promise is to make it a habit and that's where mindfulness can help. Mindfulness is the mental quality by which children and teens remember to check-in with themselves throughout the day and make sure they are on track. Mindfulness helps kids remember their intention to be kind and compassionate and notice if they're acting and speaking in accordance with it. We don't expect children to be perfect, any more than we expect perfection of ourselves, but using mindfulness to notice when they swerve off track and away from their intention allows them to correct their course.
Making concentration a habit.
Concentrating on one thing and nothing else is a crucial skill in school. Students who have the capacity to direct their attention toward what they're studying, and keep it there, have an obvious advantage over those who are easily distracted. To develop concentration, and make it a habit, students use mindfulness to periodically check-in and make sure they are still paying attention to their chosen object. "Has my mind wandered or become dull?" "Am I paying attention to my homework, or am I thinking about the past or future? " "Am I alert or have I faded into a sleepy state of mind?"
Making balance a habit.
Once children and teens use mindfulness to develop compassion by remembering to check-in to make sure they're actions are aligned with their intentions, and refine their attention by checking-in to make sure they're paying attention to their chosen object, they are ready to use mindfulness to develop emotional balance. The strong and stable faculty of attention that children and teens develop practicing concentration becomes more refined when they use it to see what's happening in, to and around them clearly even when what's happening is emotionally upsetting or charged. Like developing attention and compassion, when developing balance students check-in periodically and notice what they're attending to. Mindfulness in developing emotional balance goes deeper by developing discernment a powerful quality of wisdom through which children and teens notice, among other things, patterns and habits of action and speech.
Hope motivates change.
I've worked with parents around the world and they have one thing in common: Parents want to be happy and they want their children to be happy. They're worried that the current educational system doesn't teach the life skills necessary to solve the myriad problems their children will surely inherit. Many parents feel hopeless. When they learn that mindfulness training is -- an evidenced based curriculum; with a long, reliable track record; universal in its approach; and taught in a secular way -- they feel hopeful again. Hope motivates change and explains the growing, grassroots social-action movement for mindful education.
Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child and former corporate attorney, developed the Inner Kids program for children, teens and their families and teaches worldwide.