Mindful Living for Kids

UWindsor Blog Post by: Carlin J. Miller, Ph.D

Goldie HawnMindfulness is a hot topic in the media. Football players do it. Hollywood types do it. Kids in Vancouver Public Schools are even doing it. Yet, many people really don’t know what mindfulness training entails. Mindfulness training is about learning to meditate, which means paying attention to thoughts and feelings and behaviours as they happen without getting caught up in them. The goal is to not ruminate over the past or plan for the distant future, because both block our ability to experience what is happening right now. Most of the time, mindfulness is an “anchored practice,” which means you learn to focus on a specific aspect of your experience, such as your breath or the sounds you hear around you. There is no intention to block other thoughts or to change thinking. It really is about noticing.

Mindfulness training might sound very mystical but it isn’t really. It came from a Buddhist practice and was transformed into a secular activity in 1970s by a researcher in Massachusetts who wanted to help people with chronic pain to live more full lives. Since then, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction and the many related interventions designed for special populations have been taught to hundreds of thousands of people. There are even forms of it for women during childbirth, people undergoing cancer treatment, and survivors of trauma and other potentially overwhelming experiences. Programs also been developed for children in classrooms, parents, and teachers.

Mindfulness in SchoolsOver the last year, my research team and I have been teaching parents and teachers of children with ADHD to meditate in a program called Mindful Living. We hoped that as these adults, who spend time with somewhat more challenging than typical children, learned to be present in their daily lives they would be less stressed and more effective in their interactions. We also hoped they would experience greater life satisfaction and more joy. Although we have only worked with 20 people thus far (too few to present any real statistics), our participants enjoyed the 8-week intervention and many continued to meditate following their completion of the program. It also appears that they are less stressed, more mindful, and have a better understanding of ADHD. We are now working with one of the local school boards to expand this training to more teachers this spring and next fall.

Because so many of our participants suggested these strategies would be helpful for the children and adolescents with ADHD in their lives, we developed a program called Mindful Living for Kids. Our first round of 6-sessions starts on May 13th and the sessions are 1 hour in length. We will have a group for children in grades 3-5 and another for preteens in grades 6-8. Unlike meditation training with adults, this program will be very hands-on with crafts, activities, and movement-based meditation, rather than emphasizing sitting quietly. If you would be interested in hearing more information or having your child participate, please call Dr. Carlin Miller at the University of Windsor (519-253-3000, x.2226).

About the Author:

Carlin Miller is a faculty member at the University of Windsor in the Department of Psychology. As a clinical psychologist with extended training in developmental neuropsychology and school psychology, she has spent the last 20 years trying to improve the quality of life for people with ADHD and learning disabilities. Prior to her doctoral work, she was a public school teacher. She found her passion for advocacy and research through her experience of growing up in a family with multiple people diagnosed with both disorders. In addition to her long resume with many publications and presentations, Dr. Miller has also been meditating for the last decade and brings to her research on meditation the positive experience of trying to live in the present. In addition to her work with the local chapter of the Learning Disabilities Association, she is also a provincial appointee to the Board of Directors of the Windsor-Essex Health Unit. When not at work, she is a mom, a wife, an avid gardener, and someone trying to be the person her puppy believes her to be. 

The courage to get real

Stylized drawing of young woman and lion, sky in background, reaching for heart representing courage.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”   Anais Nin

In a previous blog article (When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change) I talked about Malcolm Gladwell’s contention that learning disabilities may in fact be what he called “desirable difficulties”. He contends that in spending a lifetime confronting and managing a learning disability, a skill set is forged which turns out to be a significant advantage when harnessed in the right way, potentially resulting in something extraordinary. I believe that one of the character traits forged during this process is the ability to function in the face of fear: courage.

Having courage is not the same thing as being fearless. In fact, appropriate fear plays a very important role in our survival. It would not be smart to ignore fear when we are faced with legitimate threats; it’s the thing that warns us that it’s time to fight or flee. Fear was indispensable to our ancestors confronted by sabre-toothed tigers and marauding enemy tribes. It wears different, less physically threatening faces in the modern age (often, it may in fact be False Evidence Appearing Real) but it still feels just as threatening and provokes the same instincts as it did in our ancestors. Courage is the thing that allows us to rise above the fear, to respond bravely when every instinct is telling us to run (or hide). Courage trumps fear, empowering us to meet challenges, stretch our limits, and find fulfillment in our lives.

It’s hard for me to use the word “courage” without thinking about one of my favourite movie characters, the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. The interesting thing about the Cowardly Lion is that he was so focussed on his fears that he couldn’t see things as they truly were. In the beginning he is ashamed of being afraid, not understanding that true courage means taking action despite our fear (something he actually does frequently to protect his friends). In the end though, with a little help from the wizard, he is able to “change the way he looks at things” to recognize and accept his authentic, courageous self. He is finally led to the discovery that courage had been within him all along, and learns that you don’t have to be fearless to be brave.

So what does this have to do with learning disabilities? Just this: That school can be a scary proposition for a kid with a learning disability. Will I have to read aloud in front of the class? Will I be able to plan ahead and practice my passage so that I don’t screw it up? Am I going to blank out on the exam again, even though I studied hard and I know the material? Am I going to be bullied again today? Will I be called stupid or lazy or be laughed at in class? Why am I doing so poorly when I work so hard? And yet these kids get up each morning, marching bravely off to school to face whatever dragons may await them there. If we agree that courage is a kind of inner resolve, a resiliency that allows us to face scary circumstances head on, then let’s agree that these kids have it in spades.

It’s been said that courage doesn’t always roar; sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says “I’ll try again tomorrow”. That is what kids with learning disabilities do every day. But there comes a point for them when an even greater courage is required: The courage to acknowledge, accept, and embrace their learning disability in order to create the kind of life they want for themselves. I was reminded of this recently when a young woman arrived at our office to identify herself to us as a student with a learning disability, and to request accommodations. She explained that she’d had an IEP and received support throughout elementary school, but had decided to go without it in high school because she “didn’t want to deal with the label or the stigma”. She did reasonably well in high school with a lot of very hard work , and had hoped that trend could continue through university. It did not, which brought her to a realization that it was time to fully accept, confront, and manage her learning disability, and she is now well on her way to doing that. She readily admits that the prospect of that is scary, but she is ready to take it on…with courage.

I asked her what had ultimately spurred her decision to finally explore this aspect of herself without shame or embarrassment, and her answer was simple: “I was just tired of being afraid.” She went on to say that what she always had feared was being vulnerable in the face of other people’s judgement and rejection. She had always felt pressure to present her best possible self, and there was no place in that perception for anything resembling a flaw or an imperfection. It occurred to me as we spoke that we are all in the same boat, but that not all of us have the courage to deal with our issues the way this young woman was. Most of us do what we can to avoid confrontation with the “shadowy side” of our selves, but in finding the courage to learn about and accept all aspects of herself she felt lighter and truer and more authentic than she ever had.

Successful people with learning disabilities don’t get there by accident, and they don’t get there by denying who they are. And if it happens that who they are is in small part a person with a learning disability, then they go about learning what that means for them, and doing everything they can to understand and manage that aspect of the “self”. They don’t deny it. They don’t hide from it. They don’t run from it. They find the resolve to confront it and deal with it. It requires vulnerability, and self-acceptance, and authenticity, and…courage. And maybe that is one of the qualities that Gladwell is talking about as one of the positive side effects of living with “desirable difficulties”.

Author and lecturer Brene Brown had this to say about courage: “Courage is a heart word.  The root of the word is ‘cor’, the Latin word for heart.  In one of its earliest forms the word ‘courage’ meant to speak one’s mind by telling all of one’s heart.  Over time this definition has changed, and today we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But…this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak openly and honestly about who we are and about our experiences – good and bad”.

A Turkish proverb says that a lion sleeps in all of our hearts.  Real courage is about connecting with who we truly are by entering our own hearts and awakening our inner lion.  It’s about being authentic in the face of fear and vulnerability.  It’s about accepting and loving ourselves (and one another) warts and all, which let’s face it, can be a messy business. But it’s the only way to live an authentic life, and it’s one of the greatest gifts we can give to one another.

Why Participating in Research is Important

UWindsor Blog Post by: Carlin J. Miller, Ph.D

ResearchAs a researcher, I often have trouble understanding why parents of kids with ADHD would not participate in helping us better understand this disorder. I’m passionate about the process because I know the difference what scientists have uncovered in the past 20 years makes. And, I know how much is still unknown or unclear.

As a parent, I get it. You have limited time and you don’t want to spend the little free time you have filling out forms and traveling to the university. You aren’t sure it will benefit your child. Consider this post an opportunity to find out what is happening in ADHD research at the University of Windsor as well as a chance to better understand the process.

First, let’s deal with the time commitment. We, as scientists, understand being busy. Those of us who are parents experience the same time crunch you have and we don’t want to waste anyone’s time. We try to ensure that every question we ask is pertinent. We try to administer measures that help us better understand ADHD but we are also trying to be helpful to you. Just the same, gathering information takes time.

MindfulnessI can use my own recent project as an example. Our group offered an 8-week program in mindfulness-based meditation to parents and teachers of ADHD last spring. Before they started the program, we had participants fill out forms about their current psychological state and what they knew about ADHD. We also kept track every week of how they were doing at incorporating meditation into their daily lives. At the end, we had another round of questions about their emotions and their ADHD knowledge. Because it was a pilot project with a very small group, the statistical data isn’t very useful, but the information provided by participants helped them track their own progress. I was also making sure that each participant was not in enough distress to need encouragement to see their family doctor. At the end, participants said the program was very helpful and they would recommend it to others. They also reported feeling less stressed, less anxious, and more competent around their parenting. If you are interested in hearing more about this project or participating in the next 8-week program for parents and teachers later this fall, call me at the University (519-253-3000, ext. 2226) or send me an email (cjmiller@uwindsor.ca). We are also in the process of developing similar programming for school-age kids and adolescents to be offered in the late fall and early in the winter.

The mindfulness program is not the only research project on ADHD or related issues at the University of Windsor. One of my undergraduate students is surveying local parents and teachers of preschoolers about the relations among preschooler temperament, parenting style, and risky play. We hope to find that a child’s personality predicts risky play and that parenting style may make a difference in play outcomes. Another student is in the process of developing an online intervention to promote on-task behaviour in university students. A student in another faculty member’s research group will begin a project in the winter to examine handwriting performance in 10-12 year olds who have ADHD and are taking stimulant differences. (You can reach that student, Tom Duda, at dudat@uwindsor.ca.)

Without ongoing research, treatment for ADHD will stay where it is today. By volunteering your time and/or your child’s time as a research participant, you are helping us improve life for many, perhaps even you.

Carlin J. Miller, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Clinical Neuropsychology
Department of Psychology
University of Windsor
http://uwindsor.ca/cjmiller

Self-Regulation in the classroom

 

Self-regulation. What is it? Why is it important for student success? What is needed in order to support the development of self-regulatory skills within oneself?

Self-regulation is defined as regulation of the self, by the self. It monitors conditions to maintain optimal arousal for a given task. A lack of the regulatory forces that govern our organization and behaviour can have detrimental effects on a child’s academic and socio-emotional success.

There are a broad range of mental and physical problems that are not caused by difficulties with self-regulation, but are often accompanied by it. Self-regulatory skills are typically not seen in isolation. calm alert learningAccording to Dr. Stuart Shanker, author of Calm, Alert and Learning, there is a high comorbidity for self-regulatory deficits to occur with Autism, ADHD and high anxiety, to name a few.

It is critical to accommodate students with complex profiles because these children are at greater risk. Teachers can help improve self-regulation in students by modelling and scaffolding good self-awareness and self-regulatory skills, by making their environment more conducive to self-regulating behaviours and by providing a stable and predictable routine.

Like motivation, self-regulation is not always automatic or internalized by individuals, particularly young children or those with Executive functioning disorders. For a student who lacks internal motivation we may provide stickers or a token economy to externally motivate, with hopes that these are only part of the scaffolding that will eventually lead them to become internally motivated. It is the modelling and scaffolding that is the structure of this support.

For students lacking self-regulation skills, we can use externally organized environments, routines and strategies to assist them in finding their own self-awareness…, self-monitoring… and ultimately… self-regulation.

Mindfulness or self-monitoring of arousal level is paramount in determining if there needs to be up- or down-regulation in order to match the task with the appropriate state of arousal. Students need to be aware of their arousal level before they are able to regulate it. Adults can facilitate the process externally until the awareness and regulation is internalized. Child-friendly strategies like use of meditation and purposeful, calming movement are a few ways for a child to attain mindfulness.

A person’s environment is a very important aspect of their education. Everyone benefits from purposeful changes in the physical setup of a classroom. Children who are easily overwhelmed by auditory or visual stimuli, benefit from a environmental makeover in the classroom to provide external help with self-regulation.org.crayons

The third teacher, the environment, should be utilized to assist students in regulating themselves.
Addressing the arousal level of the students through use of a calming environment, such as that expressed by the teachings of Reggio Emilia, is essential in order to provide students with different strategies to up or down regulate themselves. This approach involves a calm atmosphere, interaction with the environment, communication with others, and self-constructed learning.

The Reggio Emilia teachings provide an ideal environment to foster self-awareness and monitoring.
Research in this area finds that children concentrate better with a reduced number of visual distractors. Use of fidget toys, neutral colours around the room and secluded areas for breaks are some examples that one may consider to support the development of self-regulation skills.

organizedAuditory stimuli are by far the most powerful of all distractors. Strategies that can be employed to help decrease anxiety and provide predictability include… chimes instead of bells, use of visual timers, and the use of songs, drum beats or other soothing sounds to signal transitions within the classroom.

Visual supports such as schedules provide students with predictability within their classroom environment. Once students have an established schedule that they are comfortable in following, they are aware of what is next in their routine. This predictability in routine allows children to up- or down-regulate in preparation for upcoming activity. This strategy fosters a sense of self-awareness.

When the external organization system is strong, the strategies will be transferred and generalized to sock drawerhigh school, post-secondary education and beyond to the work place. For students to be properly regulated for learning, our goal as educators is to reduce the demands on the sensory system. This includes satisfying the needs for certain types of sensory stimulation while helping to avoid others. Optimal self-regulation is achieved when one is calm and focused.

thinking cap

Given the current realities of the significant increase in student needs in our schools, it is imperative that parents, staff and community partners learn, model and teach self-regulatory behaviours in order to improve the success of all children. Dr. Stuart Shanker states, “the better we understand self-regulation, the better we can implement educational strategies that enhance
students’ capacity to learn and develop the skills necessary to deal with life’s challenges.”

 

Be Mindful

In my last blog I touched on the concept of mindfulness, and forcing ourselves to live in the present. Trying to train our minds to only think about what is happening right now, not what has happened in the past, or what may happen in the future. Unfortunately we live most of our lives with our minds taking us where we want to go. Our thoughts tend to control us, instead of us controlling our thoughts.mindful2

One example of this is test anxiety. In most situations it is good to have some anxiety before a test; it encourages us to study so we can do well on the test. If however our thought turn to the past (I almost failed the last test and this one will be harder, I did not get very many of the homework questions right, I am going to worse on this test)…, or the future (If I fail this test my parents will be disappointed in me, I am going to have to go to summer school, that will ruin my summer, I am so stupid and a total failure…); that is when our thought control us negatively. We need to be able to concentrate on the present, try and learn the material for the test, seek help if we need it. Do whatever it takes to keep us on track and doing what needs to get done to deal with the present situation. The thing is, you will still have to study and write the test (deal with whatever is happening in the present moment, and deal with the emotions being brought up by your thoughts of the past and/or the future.

Sometimes a bad experience doing something (especially for the first time) will cause you to avoid doing things, or trying new things. “I am not going to the dance because last time nobody talked to me; they ignored me, and teased me because I did not dance with anyone.” Or, “I don’t want to do that, I am not as good as everyone else and people will tease me or laugh at me if I fail or mess up.”

Again, it is easy for our minds to wander and react in the above way, but we need to be able to control our thoughts to look at the present and not let fear of rejection or failure stop us from doing or participating in things. The reality of it is, living in the past or the future, a majority of the time, will trigger painful emotions instead of positive thoughts.

EMOTIONS1

The first step in becoming mindful is to think about your current patterns or habits so that you can think about what changes can be made. Try to notice when and where your thoughts tend to wander. Do you dwell on the past, or are you constantly worried about the future?

Do your thoughts tend to wander when you are doing certain things, or when you are in certain situations, places, etc.?

When your thoughts do wander, what emotions are triggered?

Try answering these three questions, maybe even keep track of them over the next little while, so that you realize the things that bother you and the areas you need to work on, to try and ease your anxieties.


Mindfulness

In my last few blogs I have talked about tips to help parents help their child (children) with anxiety problems. What I have learned is that if a system, or way of doing things (as the parent) has been established it is difficult to implement all of the things that have been suggested unless you are cognitively aware of the things your child is doing, and consistent in establishing routines and setting consequences in advance.

The other side of things is; what can a child with anxiety do to help himself or herself? Of everything I have heard from different speakers, or read on line or in books, the paramount way to help yourself is developing ‘mindfulness and learning self-awareness.’ In simplified language – helping you control your thoughts and finding ways to cope with internal distractions.

What is mindfulness?mindfulness

In her book, ‘Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life For Teens’ Sheri Van Dijk says it is about paying close attention to what you’re doing in the present moment, noticing when your attention wanders, and bringing it back to what you’re doing. It is also about accepting, or not judging, whatever you happen to notice in the present moment, whether it’s thoughts you’re having, emotions that are coming up, things that are distracting you, or whatever.

Life is full of distractions, and what mindfulness does is try to help you deal with the distractions. It cannot help in all situations because sometimes the distractions are not things we can control. What it tries to do is allow an individual to control distractions when they are internal. I am sure everyone can remember a time they had to re-read something they have just read because, simply put, our mind was elsewhere. I know I love the fact that I can pause and or rewind live TV because I just missed something. Maybe it is because somebody was talking to me, or you were doing something else while watching TV, but maybe it is because my mind was wandering.

Why is mindfulness important for the person with anxiety?  It is important because often times when their mind is wandering, it is about things that make them anxious (an upcoming test, homework, something at home, a friend who is upset with you….). Mindfulness, if done correctly, can help this person to be able to concentrate more or solely on what they are currently doing and in turn, allow them to remove the stressors (anxiety) they are feeling.

In other words, if you are not thinking about the present, you must be thinking about the past or the future, and probably not about happy things – more often than not, (especially for anxious person) you are thinking about what did or might go wrong, or things that generate painful emotions – sadness, anger, shame…, this triggers the anxiety and causes more internal distractions.

Mindfulness is about living in the present so you are not living in the future or the past. It is realizing that things are okay just the way they are, right now in the moment even if the moment is not great or full of happy emotions. The thing is, even if you have to deal with what is actually going on in the present, it is better to do that, than dealing with the emotions being brought up by thoughts of the future or the past as well as the present.

There is so much more I can say, as mindfulness is a huge thing, I will touch on how to become mindful in my next blog.mindful