Dr Richard Chambers is a clinical psychologist and mindfulness consultant who helped develop the Smiling Mind Mindfulness Meditation program used by individuals and schools across the country. He tells us how mindfulness can help tackle childhood stress. 

You were a key architect of Smiling Mind; what was your vision for the child demographic specifically?

Smiling Mind makes mindfulness accessible to people by providing intuitive, easy-to-use resources that support Mindfulness Meditation practice and the application of mindfulness in everyday life. Smiling Mind also widely promotes mindfulness as an effective tool for enhancing wellbeing and performance. This is particularly important for children as they are facing unprecedented pressures academically and socially, and are exhibiting alarming rates of mental illness.

Our mission was to create an easy way for children to improve their mental health and resilience. The team that developed the program went out of their way to ensure that mindfulness was presented in an accessible and age-appropriate fashion for kids aged seven and up. (We do, however, regularly receive reports of children as young as three enjoying Smiling Mind.) The large number of users, as well as anecdotal reports, suggest that we are well on our way to achieving this goal.

How can Mindfulness Meditation help with the everyday stressors kids face?

Stress has a lot to do with how we relate to the various pressures in our lives. Some kids seem to do perfectly well - and even thrive - in stressful academic or social situations, while others do not. Mindfulness helps us to recognise how our relationship with the stressors in our lives can lead to problems or thriving. For instance, getting caught up in worrying or dwelling can lead to anxiety and depression. Helping children to recognise this and refocus their attention on what is actually in front of them at any moment - focusing on what is rather than ‘what if’ - has been shown to reduce stress, improve mental health, and even boost academic performance.

Meditating for as little as five minutes a day retrains the mind (and, literally, rewires the brain), making it easier to refocus the attention when we are stressed. This attention training during meditation causes growth, especially in the prefrontal cortex, which houses the executive function that underpins learning and social functioning. The friendly outlook that we practise with mindfulness also leads to a more compassionate attitude toward ourselves and others. This is protective against children developing mental illness and also further helps their social functioning.

How can it assist children who may have a clinical stress disorder?

There is still limited research on mindfulness in children, but the studies that have been done suggest that it can help treat active mental illness as well as improving resilience and preventing relapse. There is also a large amount of research in adolescents and adults that shows this to be the case. At its crux, mindfulness helps children to relax physically and to focus their attention on the present moment rather than getting caught up in worries and concerns that, if left unaddressed, could produce significant mental health problems.

Research in teens and adults shows that redirecting attention away from thought patterns that lead to, for instance, anxiety or depression, and on to what is happening in the present moment  (especially pleasant experiences) can circumvent these processes and improve mental health. There is every reason to expect that this same process would work in children and, certainly, the reports that we get from parents, teachers and even kids themselves supports this.

How many primary schools are running a Smiling Mind program with students?

There are over 5000 users of the Smiling Mind Education Program, which includes a range of schools, educators, mental health practitioners, youth organisations and more.

Channel 9 News recently featured a story highlighting Mindfulness Meditation and the use of Smiling Mind in Australian Schools. You can watch the story with Jo Hall here

Have schools seen positive results where student stress (or perhaps staff stress) is concerned?

We have had many reports on how children, teachers and whole classrooms have benefited from using Smiling Mind. A growing number of schools are now using the Smiling Mind App and Education Program resources, and we regularly hear that this is widely successful, well-received, and that they are rolling the program out further. There are a number of testimonials and school case studies that can be found on our website.

How can parents use mindfulness in the home to help their kids manage stress?

The Smiling Mind App can be used by children as young as seven years old with parental supervision.

Ultimately though, the advice that I most often give to parents interested in helping their kids become more mindful is to become more mindful themselves. When parents start to meditate, or even just make more of an effort to be present with their kids (that is, really listening to them when they talk rather than half-listening and planning the shopping at the same time) kids naturally start becoming more mindful. Children are like sponges and learn mostly by observing the people around them. They will naturally follow adult behaviour, by watching parents who become distracted and overwhelmed by stress or who practise presence of mind and kindness to themselves and others. As an experienced mindfulness teacher, I can attest to the fact that most of the learning comes from modelling mindfulness, in addition to teaching people how to meditate and apply mindfulness in their lives.

Have you seen any positive outcomes in families using a Smiling Mind product/program? 

Absolutely. We have heard from a lot of parents who have started meditating with their kids and end up experiencing benefits for themselves. Sometimes, kids even come home from school talking about how much they like this “Smiling Mind App” their teacher got them to do, and this becomes the parents’ first introduction to mindfulness. The whole family gains when parents start meditating with their children. Each member becomes less reactive, more present and more compassionate and empathetic. Families are a system, and when one person becomes more mindful, this has an effect on everyone. And when families make a commitment to being more mindful, significant benefits tend to follow.

We also regularly hear from parents of children with issues like Asperger’s who tell us that their kids start using the App regularly by themselves with positive outcomes. This takes the pressure off other family members and improves the whole environment. It is really heartening to hear this, as parents of children with Autism-Spectrum Disorders are often despairing and experience significant stress.

How can health professionals best use the Smiling Mind resources with kids, primary schools and families?

The Smiling Mind App is designed in such a way that it can be used in facilitated sessions or in a self-guided practice. Regular practice (eg five-to-ten minutes of meditation daily) is what really seems to produce the good outcomes, so finding a way to encourage and support this should be the primary focus.

Helping kids to understand what mindfulness is and how it can be beneficial is critical. We encourage health professionals to talk about mindfulness with young people, schools and families in simple ways. These points, in particular, are really important:

  • Mind wandering is normal and not inherently problematic, but it sometimes causes issues (eg not listening in class or getting caught up worrying). It can be helpful to refer to this as ‘default mode’ functioning, so that it can be differentiated from mindfulness.

  • It can demystify mindfulness when we help young people understand that they are already practising mindfulness when they are spontaneously present and engaged in what they are doing (talking with friends, engaging in hobbies etc).

  • It is easier for most of us to be mindful when we are doing things we enjoy rather than when things are not going well or we are bored. Being gentle with ourselves as we learn to practise mindfulness in a range of circumstances is crucial.

It is also very important to dispel two common myths about meditating:

  • It is a religious or spiritual activity - There is nothing remotely esoteric about it. Meditation is attention-training for the present moment and is entirely practical.

  • It will get rid of thoughts - There is simply no way to stop thinking. Meditation helps us notice when our mind has wandered so we can return our attention to the present.

Mindfulness is not just about sitting in meditation – you can link it into daily life, such as when doing things to reduce stress, experiencing moments more fully, working with difficult thoughts and emotions, and listening more effectively.

And, lastly, clinicians and teachers can best help others to be mindful when they are mindful themselves. Making an effort to really be present will nonverbally communicate the qualities of mindfulness, and others will naturally start embodying them. Regular personal meditation makes this process even more powerful and effective. So, anyone interested in using mindfulness with others (especially with kids) would get their own practice going first (or at least at the same time).

Learn more about what Smiling Mind has to offer.