Mindfulness, Children’s Social and Emotional Health, and School Initiative

Recently, a number of schools has stressed the importance of the need to focus on the social and emotional health of young students, especially in the current environment of epidemics, school closings, racial conflicts, social unrest, layoffs, and poverty. Several of these developments such as epidemics, school closings, and racial conflicts affect them and their schools directly, and several others such as social unrest, layoffs, and poverty, are experienced by their parents but the impacts also affect them.

One approach adopted by some schools to help young students to handle social and emotional health problems that may arise from this environment is the focus on mindfulness. In this article, we explain what mindfulness is, and in what ways Taiji can contribute to mindfulness.

The word mindfulness means that the mind is focused on the present task at hand, being aware of the environment but at least for that moment not overly anxious or worry by what is going on around us. Mindfulness can help a person concentrate on the current work, and not get distracted or overwhelmed by other events and the greater environment in which we live. Children attending school need to learn what the teacher is teaching them or the homework problem they are trying to solve, and at least for that moment do not worry about other things, such as that they may have sick siblings at home, or they may be bullied during recess, or their parents have been laid off.

The ability to concentrate is especially important when there is an observed increase among children experiencing ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder), stress, depression, and even suicides [1]. While our society and government need to remove certain underlying contributors to these problems, such as poverty, abuse, domestic violence, racial intolerance, and more recently a global pandemic, many school districts are also taking actions that are within their jurisdiction of responsibility and within their budgets to reduce the problems. One recent emerging method is the focus on teaching simple mindfulness techniques that can be integrated in the classrooms as well as perhaps when doing homework at home. [2]

Mindfulness is a general term and can mean many things. In this article, mindfulness refers to the ability to focus on the current task (or activity) and do not get distracted with many other tasks that may be waiting for us. Mindfulness is to train our mind to focus on the immediate task at hand, and at that moment lay aside other tasks that may be happening in our life. While we are working on the task at hand, we may get distracted, mindfulness will help us to get back quickly to the current task, i.e., quickly returning to the present moment. It can increase concentration and decrease stress.

A common technique of mindfulness is to focus on our breathing, e.g., teach the students to sit down comfortably, relax the body and mind, and focus on breathing in and out softly and slowly, paying special attention to the expansion and contraction of the tummy during the breathing in and out process. An enhancement of that technique is to use lower abdominal breathing (or deep belly breathing) in which the expansion and contraction become even more obvious. The mind is very conscious of our immediate environment, although extraneous thoughts are driven from the mind and forgotten at that moment.

Mindfulness also teaches students to think of positive thoughts, about themselves and others. They should think of pride and respect for themselves, show tolerance toward others, and display caring and respect for others.

When students are taught and practice mindfulness while in school, they can also utilize the technique when they are home. For example, before they do their homework, they can do the mindfulness exercise of relaxing with deep and soft breathing, with the mind focusing on the breathing and getting rid of extraneous thoughts. Not only that after such exercise, the mind can be more focused on the homework at hand, but they also feel less stressful.

Mindfulness is really an integral component of Taiji, where the body and mind are relaxed, where slow and relax deep breathing is practiced, and sensitivity and responsiveness of our bodily environment is enhanced. Most Taiji movements are soft and slow, especially in the Yang style Taiji. Slow and deep breathing is practiced (and once one advances beyond the elementary level, lower abdominal breathing is practiced). Furthermore, utilizing the ability to relax, the practitioner’s sensitivity via touch is increased to become more aware of the opponent’s movement as well as the opponent’s motive or intended movement, while at the same time the practitioner’s body is so relaxed, his opponent cannot sense the practitioner’s movement and motive or intended movement. This is why Taiji, besides being considered to be an exercise that is good for health, is also considered to be a good martial art.

Mindfulness is really a technique of meditation to relax our body and mind, to increase our concentration and reduce stress. Meditation is also an integral part of Taiji, not only while performing various Taiji form sets, but it is also part of various warm-up exercises to Taiji. That is why Taiji is also known as “meditation in motion.”

Taiji is such a wonderful exercise. It is a wonderful exercise for all ages. It is not only a good exercise for senior citizens, but also a good exercise for young people and children. Unfortunately, it has been overlooked, and more appropriately speaking, underappreciated for its value to children. With the emphasis on mindfulness for children, perhaps Taiji’s value to helping children to focus and relax can bring this age-old exercise to our young people. [3]

[1] According to a 2019 article in Psychology Today, suicides among children under the age of eleven more than doubled in the last ten years (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wicked-deeds/201901/suicide-rates-even-among-children-are-rising-dramatically) .

[2] An example is the Saddle Brook School District in north NJ that started Mindfulness training in their schools starting shortly after online schooling went into effect in mid-March 2020:

[3] After this article was posted, a friend alerted me that recently an article “Subtle Motor Signs as a Biomarker for Mindful Movement Intervention in Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder,” Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: June/July 2020 – Volume 41 – Issue 5 – p 349-358. This medical research article reported that Taiji-based mindfulness training reduced core ADHD symptoms in children based on measurement of objective biomarkers of treatment. This research is also described in the article “Study finds Tai-Chi-based mindfulness training reduced core ADHD symptoms in children” by Kennedy Krieger Institute, in Medical Xpress, April 21, 2020.

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2 Responses to “Mindfulness, Children’s Social and Emotional Health, and School Initiative”

  1. Tim Zebo says:

    Hi Don,
    Thanks for your your post! It inspired me to document a relaxation exercise I’ve long used whenever I’m having trouble falling asleep. I don’t remember if I created it, or if I learned it as part of becoming a yoga teacher at Kripalu Center in Lenox, Mass.

    I now think of it as a kind of mindfulness meditation in which the practitioner imagines breathing INTO a body part, followed by breathing OUT and simultaneously RELAXING that same body part.

    An example with 32 parts is here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1lZplYuzrNKUfC5dHYAQ5NMwE27sirIO41isRjRCmi_k/edit?usp=sharing.

    Depending on how fast a person breathes, this set can take as short as 5 minutes. However, it’s usually much much longer, and that’s where the mindfulness happens for two reasons:
    1. Just as in a simple seated meditation on the breath, it’s virtually impossible to maintain a single focus of awareness on the sequence of body parts without being periodically distracted by the mind “thinking thoughts.” When that happens, e.g., say at Part 6 (quads) in the example, once the meditator realizes it, they’d return from thinking and begin again with Part 7 (hamstrings). This can happen many many times with different parts as the sequence proceeds from feet to head.
    2. The 32 part sequence can be easily expanded into even more body parts, e.g.,on the left and right side. Then “quads” becomes “inhale into left quad, exhale and relax left quad”, “inhale into right quad, exhale and relax right quad”. This is especially useful if one side has an injury, e.g., left ankle sprain, because that part can then receive much more attention and awareness.

    Of course let me know if you have any questions.

    Thanks again,


  2. Sharon Dolled says:

    I am now retired after working as a special education teacher for many years. I wish I knew enough of Taiji and its effects on mindfulness while I was teaching. A small break sometimes helps the students.

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