I’ve spent most of my adulthood as both a parent and an elementary school teacher. While I’ve learned through the years that no two days are the same when you work with children; I can just about guarantee that one thing will always be constant — repercussions.
Children are always growing and learning and testing the boundaries of what they can do and get away with. Punishments for these acts have evolved over time. Where you’d once hear about spanking and more physical forms of correcting behavior, many classrooms and homes have turned to time outs and other forms of psychological penalties.
But is that evolution really that much of an upgrade?
Essentially, a time-out intends to have a child go to a quiet place to contemplate his or her behavior. Parents and educators expect the child to return after the time-out with a renewed sense of what’s right and wrong and a plan on how to stay on the right side of the rules.
That rarely happens.
Instead, children use the time-out to dwell on the anger caused by the punishment. While the child may act differently after they emerge from their sentence, it’s only because he or she wants to avoid extending the quiet time any further — and not because they’ve seen the light.
Besides giving parents and teachers a chance to catch their breath and calm down, have you ever thought about what the optimum result is of such punishment? Can we really expect a child to pivot in their behaviors simply because we cast them away to be alone for a period of time?
Several years ago, an inner-city Baltimore school turned a room once used as a detention hall into a Mindful Moment Room. Today, students who would have otherwise received detention use the room to practice pre-taught meditation and breathing techniques before returning to class. The effects are astounding.
Photo by the Mindful Moment Program
Research shows that simple, short-term mediation periods improve attention and self-regulation in children far greater than any other form of punishment. Children diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) use yoga and meditation to achieve benefits at home — think better sleep patterns and less anxiety — and at school — such as improved concentration and less interpersonal conflict.
For all students, meditation before tests has proven to greatly decrease the effects of test-taking anxiety in all grade levels.
This is, in part, because meditation and yoga provide scientifically proven social, emotional and behavioral benefits that include increased attention and focus, improved physical and mental health and a greater ability to self-regulate actions and emotions.
And what’s more, meditation can be incredibly easy to teach to children. That’s because they lack the mental barriers, biases, and pre-determined beliefs that keep most adults from achieving a pure state of mindfulness.
I've used mediation and yoga for years in my classroom before tests or on days that might otherwise cause a heightened state of activity (like when the class had a guest speaker or field trip).
Over the years, I taught numerous students who were diagnosed with ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or other ailments. Nearly 100% of these students experienced benefits from regular meditation practice — including improved self-control, better focus, and a greater state of self-awareness.
Meditation sessions for children don’t have to be long. Depending on the age of the child, or the schedule of the class, most beginners start with a goal of meditating for between three and five minutes. Over time, sessions can extend to up to 20 minutes as positive effects increase.
Plus, you need no special equipment to meditate. A quiet space with no distractions is the only “must” for a successful practice. You can also use a timer to keep track of your practice if need be.
Photo by the Mindful Moment Program
In my classroom, students were allowed to leave their desks and find any space in the room that felt comfortable to them. That could be in a corner, under a table or even under their desk. The only rule was that students had to be at least two arm lengths away from their peers — to avoid talking or other distractions during practice.
When just starting out, don’t expect a child to sit upright, eyes closed and in a lotus position the entire time. Just focus on breathing and keeping the eyes closed for deeper relaxation. Sitting upright is optimal, since laying down can lead to too much relaxation and an unplanned nap.
And peeking is okay! Most children struggle to remain close-eyed for an extended period of time and often become fidgety. Just encourage your child to try his or her best to sit still with closed eyes until the timer goes off. This will improve over time and with more practice
The key is to focus on the breath. Have your child notice as his or her chest rises and falls. Then, start to encourage long, deep, slow breaths where the belly rises up on the inhale and contracts on the exhale. Pretend you’re quietly blowing up a balloon or blowing out a candle.
The point isn’t to suddenly become enlightened. Instead, let your child focus on the silence in the room and relax his or her muscles. Practice daily if possible, though many have experienced benefits from practicing only twice each week.
Through using these techniques, your child or classroom will learn to maintain a calmer state of being and do away with the need for outdated punishments such as time-outs. And even better, you can practice these techniques with your child to experience the benefits in your own life.
Ray FitzGerald holds Bachelor’s degrees in both journalism and education from the University of Florida and St. Leo University. He is a long-time teacher of the gifted in an elementary setting and works with parents, educators and children at RaiseALegend.com to help them raise a generation of legendary children. In his spare time, he travels the country to attend basketball games and classic film festivals with his wife, April. Ray lives in Gainesville, Fl.