My friend Andrea’s 8-year-old son Mason was working on his reading with his Mom at home one day. He was practicing reading aloud, and was obviously having a hard time. I happened to be visiting with them, so when he started crying, I decided to ask him what was wrong and he said, with tears streaming down his beet-red face, “This book is just too hard for me!”
I knew that Andrea, a teacher herself, wouldn’t push him hard to read a book that was beyond his capability, so it seemed to me he might be getting all balled up emotionally, making it difficult for him to read something that he was actually capable of reading. It reminded me of the difficulties I had with reading as a child and how stressed out I could get about it, which just made it even harder.
Mason was tired, fussy, and upset with himself for not reading well. His pride was hurt, and he felt his inability to read meant that he wasn’t smart. As his emotions got more out of control, each time he tried again to read, he quickly gave up. Andrea needed a break, so I asked to help out.
“A young child who can regulate his emotions is a child who will do better in school.” – Congressman Tim Ryan
Using Mindfulness To Help Children Focus
I sat down with Mason, not knowing what I might say, but just wanting to ease his frustration. It occurred to me that some things I’d been learning about mindfulness and school children might do some good here. I’d learned that children benefit from getting a handle on what’s happening in their brains, as a precursor to doing short practices that can help calm their emotions and increase their attention
After Mason stopped crying I asked him if he knew what had just happened to him. “No,” he said as he intently watched my face waiting for a possible answer.
“Well, there is this little part of your brain right here behind your forehead. I tapped the right side of his forehead with my finger like I was tapping my finger to the beat of some music.
“You feel that?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he answered.
“Right behind that bone is a part of your brain that helps you read.” He paid closer attention. “And further back there is a part of your brain that helps you control your emotions.” His eyes squinted as he looked at me. “I bet you started off reading a little bad, but the more you got upset, the more you couldn’t read. And then you got so upset you couldn’t read at all?”
He sheepishly shook his head yes. Then I started clowning a little and using my hands to demonstrate. One hand played the role of the part of the brain that helps in reading, and the other played the role of the brain governing emotions. I explained that when he got all revved up, the emotional part of the brain interfered with the part that helps him read. I made some weird noises and had one hand take over the other hand. Again and again, I made a silly noise and let the “emotional” hand dominate the “reading” hand. He started to smile, and I smiled back.
Mason had already been following his breath for short periods, almost as a kind of a game. He even has a cushion to sit on to practice. So, I reminded him how when he follows his breath he can calm his body and mind. He took a deep breath, then just sat quietly and followed his breath for a few minutes. He decided to give the reading another try. It was not perfect, but he attacked the words, broke them down, and sounded them out. After just a sentence or two he got so excited he started to shout, “Mommy, mommy. I’m reading.” He finished the story and got better and better as he read. Before I left, I again reminded him how he can calm his brain down whenever he wants.
This is not the end of the story, Andrea told me. The next evening, when the time came for him to do his day’s reading assignment, he said, “Mommy, can I sit on my cushion before we read?”
“Of course,” she said. She did some simple mindfulness practice together with him for about five minutes. He went on to read almost flawlessly, the best he ever had. She told me it choked her up to see her son overcoming his emotional struggle and moving swiftly through the words.
Teaching Children How To Pay Attention
A young child who can regulate his emotions is a child who will do better in school. Why not teach all of our children this simple, tremendously powerful technique to help increase their capacity to learn and regulate their own emotions. We don’t need more gadgets or fly-by-night programs in our school systems. If we teach children to follow their breath—and return to it when they get distracted—we are teaching them how to concentrate. Over time they will increase their ability to mobilize their attention. Isn’t that what teachers and parents have been screaming to kids forever: “Pay attention!”? With mindfulness, we can teach them how to pay attention. For more exercises on how to be mindful, check out my book, A Mindful Nation.
Tim Ryan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002 and is currently serving in his fifth term representing Ohio’s 17th Congressional District. He maintains a strong commitment to the economic and social well-being of his constituents in northeast Ohio.