Mindfulness is recognized by researchers as an effective tool for managing stress-related illness and enhancing well-being. But, what does mindfulness mean? Is it sitting cross-legged on a cushion, spending hours a day in meditation, or going to a silent retreat? Is it a magical way to always be calm, happy, and relaxed? Mindfulness is none of those things.
Instead, mindfulness is “paying attention to the here and now with curiosity and kindness,” says Marcia Bartok, Superintendent of Dakota Memorial Schools. You can practice mindfulness wherever you are just by noticing what is going on in your body, in your mind, and in the world around you.
Dr. Wayne Martinsen, Psychiatrist and Medical Director, Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, believes that learning to notice the present moment with curiosity and kindness is especially beneficial for children at the Ranch.
“Our kids are unable to pay attention to the positive things in the world around them,” Martinsen says. “Instead they are mindful to the awful things—the tone of voice when someone is angry and is going to hurt them, the leer from someone before they sexually abuse them.”
The more they practice noticing and paying attention to the positive things they are experiencing in the moment, the more positive experiences they’ll have to reflect upon in the future.
Because mindfulness is proven to be so effective in helping children regulate their emotions, both school and treatment professionals at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch are looking at how mindfulness can help children at the Ranch—children who are often stuck in fight-or-flight mode due to prolonged trauma and abuse.
Mindfulness in Treatment
Even though it hasn’t always been called that, mindfulness has been used in residential treatment at the Ranch for years, with groups or therapies that help kids notice what is going on in the moment. In addition to the traditional methods of teaching kids to notice things, Ranch staff add experiences to the equation.
“We can talk to our kids about being mindful, but they tend to be impatient,” Martinsen said. “We have to create experiences where we exaggerate the mindfulness.”
The Ranch’s horse program is one way we exaggerate the mindfulness. “It’s a pretty powerful experience when you put a child with a 1,500-pound horse,” Martinsen said.
Mini-bikes and gardening also capture their attention.
National Youth Project Using Mini-bikes (NYPUM) instructors appear to just be teaching kids how to ride. In reality, they are also teaching them to notice the world around them by saying things like, “What’s really cool about these bikes is the sound of the engine. And, the feel of the air across your face and hands, and how that feeling changes when you slow down or speed up. Notice the vibration of the machine and how you feel it in your body as you ride across the field.”
Martinsen says the greenhouse/gardening program is also very effective in teaching mindfulness. Not all kids are interested in gardening, but those who are get their hands dirty, smell the dirt and the plants, and learn what plants need to live. Gardening can be a very relaxing and calming activity, and is something Ranch kids can use as a mindfulness practice for the rest of their lives.
Mindfulness at School
Dakota Memorial School, the on-campus school of Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, is in the early stages of incorporating mindfulness into its curriculum.
Bartok is in the midst of a year-long course titled, “Mindful Educator Essentials,” an intensive learning experience put on by Mindful Schools. Mindful Schools is one of the key players in the movement to integrate mindfulness into the everyday learning environment of K-12 classrooms.
When she has completed the course in 2018, Bartok will work with treatment professionals at the Ranch to modify the mindfulness strategies so they work for children who have experienced trauma.
“Something seemingly very simple could be a trigger for our kids. We want to make sure we are integrating mindfulness into Dakota Memorial School in ways that help our kids learn, without compromising their treatment successes,” Bartok said.
Bartok cites powerful research that mindfulness provides significant benefits for both students and teachers.
She is very excited about the ability of mindfulness to enhance attention and emotional regulation; and promote flexibility for students. “Due the plasticity of the brain, and the brain’s ability to create new neurons and neural connections at any age, mindfulness can change the brain structure in ways that promote brain health,” Bartok said.
“Even short moments of mindfulness practice repeated many times, becomes a part of class culture. This culture nurtures individual student needs, and over time, can provide tools and strategies for students to take with them on their life journeys.”
Emotional regulation is difficult for our students—and out-of-control emotions don’t leave room for learning. Mindfulness gives students an important sense of power over their own lives,” Bartok said, “which improves self-esteem in the class setting and makes way for continued academic success.”
The increased well-being of teachers, who participate with the kids, leads to more supportive relationships with students, increased job retention, and a decrease in job burnout.
The ease of mindfulness
Social Psychologist Ellen Langer has been studying mindfulness for over 35 years, and some have dubbed her “the mother of mindfulness.” Her take on mindfulness has never involved contemplation or yoga, but is the simple act of actively noticing things.
Try it. Notice how your body feels against the chair, or your feet against the ground.
Stop to listen. Do you hear things you hadn’t noticed before, like the buzz of voices or the sound of your furnace?
What do you smell? Anything? Are they pleasant smells? Unpleasant smells?
Pay attention to your breath and notice how it feels going in and out of your body.
Notice your thoughts. What are you thinking right now? How about now? Try not to judge your thoughts—just notice them and watch them gently move on.
The simple act of noticing is easy—the difficult part is remembering to notice in the midst of your busy day. That’s what we teach our kids—how to notice what is going on in their bodies, in their minds, and in the world around them. Once they start noticing, they can choose how they are going to respond, rather than reacting out of fear, anger, shame, or any number of emotions that can affect how they relate to the world.