By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support
This is Part II of a two-part series. Part I is available in the March/April 2020 edition of Compassion Action, the eNewsletter from the Center for Educational Improvement.
The small choices we make and actions we take add up to make us who we are. What we spend our time thinking about and doing influence what we make of our lives. Depression occurs when we spend too much time ruminating on the past or at least our perception of the past. Regardless of whether our interpretation of the past is correct, nothing we could ever do will change it, but fixating on it can change who we are right now. Anxiety occurs when we spend too much time worrying about what may or may not happen. All too often, if we worry about something long enough, we can actually manifest our worst fear when it might not have happened had we let go of our fixation.
Happiness exists in the present. When you are living in the moment, enjoying the company and sensations of right now, you are better able to engage with yourself and others. The more often you take steps to stay in the present, the less stress, anxiety, and depression you’ll experience. The routines and habits you adopt can support—or detract from—your ability to live mindfully. In Part One, we shared activities to help you cultivate the first two of our five mindful habits. Below, we provide some ideas to cultivate the last three mindful habits for your family or school.
Compassion is showing kindness to others, acting in a caring way, and having a willingness to help others. Adults can help children become more compassionate by being models of compassion in their interactions with others and by talking about it with children. For example, after giving a snack to a person without a home during a shopping trip, parents can ask their children why they shared their snack. It’s also important to practice compassion with those in your family or community, especially during conflict. Parents and teachers can help children by being their emotion coach whenever a disagreement breaks out.
Get down on the youth’s level and make eye contact. Parents or teachers can also put a hand on a child’s shoulder or give a hug when appropriate.
Validate their emotions, i.e., “I understand why that made you so angry.”
Help them reflect on their actions, i.e., “Was it safe to throw that chair?”
Brainstorm solutions, i.e., “What can we do next time instead? Could we tell an adult we need help?”
Give gentle reminders the next time a similar situation occurs, i.e., “Remember when this happened yesterday? You had some really good ideas for how to solve this problem safely.”
Another great way to talk to youth about compassion and make it a habit for your family or school is to read books about compassion. One that many schools have found successful in creating a school of compassionate kids is Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud. Families can easily adapt some of the creative ways classrooms have made compassion concrete for young children.
When you’re grateful, you are thankful, appreciative of others, and ready to return kindness. Adults can model gratitude for children by practicing it themselves often and out loud. Parents can thank their spouses, children, and other family members for small and big acts of kindness. Educators can thank each other in front of students and thank the students themselves each time they help out. Adults can even express gratitude for people they will never meet who helped them in some ways. For example, when students are enjoying a pizza party, a teacher could express thanks for the delivery person, the person who cooked the pizza, the farmer who raised the cows that provided the cheese, and the land that produced the wheat that made the crust.
Another fun way for families and school communities to practice gratitude is to create a gratitude journal. On a regular basis, have each child express 1-3 things they are grateful for and record it in a journal. You can add mementos or have younger children draw pictures to have a piece of art at the end of a year. If writing down the reasons you’re grateful doesn’t work for your family or classroom, start a gratitude routine where each person shares their reasons to be thankful out loud at a time when the whole community can be together. Perhaps that could be at the dinner table or before bed for families or during morning meeting or as students leave for recess in the classroom.
Reflecting is taking a moment to pause and review a situation or time period without judgement. Humans are naturally inclined to take information and find patterns and make judgements, so this habit is one of the trickiest to master, but like all skills, it becomes easier over time. When reflecting, try to be grateful for successes, recognizing the group effort they required, and seek out a lesson in the challenges. Find small moments in the day to reflect for yourself—perhaps in the shower, on the commute to work, or while walking the dog—and create these moments for children.
One way to ensure young people are reflecting regularly is to ensure that during conflict, they don’t skip the reflection step where they look back at how they handled a situation, how it affected others and themselves, and what they could do to be more successful next time. Make sure to reflect on positive moments as well. Families can find small moments for children to reflect on big events or mundane days during car or bus rides, while waiting in line, or just before bedtime. One activity to help kids reflect is the “Best/Worst Part of the Day” routine. Find a regular time that works for you and the children you care for and ask them to share the best and worst thing from that day. Remind them to express gratitude for whatever helped them experience the best part of the day and help them find a lesson in the worst part of the day.
Start with one mindful habit and find ways to practice it for yourself, your family, and/or your school. After you’ve integrated one aspect of mindfulness into your daily routines, choose another to make a habit. Over time, you will see less stress, more happiness, and a greater sense of connection.
To learn about the first two habits, Be Present and Be Calm, read Part One of this series.