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5 ways to help kids pay attention in the classroom and at home

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“Mom!” said 7 year-old Mason when his mother cursed at the driver who had just cut her off, “you’re in your amygdala. You’d better get back into your prefrontal cortex.”

Such utterances have been made by school children in Steamboat Springs ever since Kristen Race, PhD, began training that district’s teachers in her Mindful Life Schools program (other school districts in Colorado and around the country have received training, as well). In addition to trainings for educators, Dr. Race also offers workshops for parents  in how to create peaceful classrooms and homes through the simple act of cultivating mindfulness.

The children learn early on the brain science behind the program. When we are stressed, our response are more likely to come from one part of the brain, the part that reacts. When we know ways to be present and mindful, we engage higher centers of our brain where executive function is housed. Reactions instead become responses and we are able to employ higher order skills such as memory, planning and forethought.

The classroom teacher who imparts the Mindful Life curriculum is sneaky. Each of the 24 lessons (about 30 minutes each) looks much more like a game than a lesson. If you were to peek in to a class, you would see kids throwing colorful scarves, giggling as they contort their bodies in fun ways, and paying more attention than you’ve seen them able to do before — even those children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.

“Kids are told to pay attention all the time,” says Dr Race, “yet we rarely teach them how to pay attention. Mindfulness in a few focused areas teaches children how to pay attention, and in doing so they strengthen the neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex.”

The Mindful Life program provides tools for teachers and parents to help children flex and strengthen their attention “muscles.” The adults learn how to direct a variety of activities. Some examples:

  • Children learn to listen mindfully by identifying farm animal sounds with their eyes closed or by focusing their sense of hearing in a certain spot in their environment.
  • They learn to see more mindfully by noticing each others’ eye color (a way to promote empathy and reduce bullying).
  • They learn to breathe mindfully through “snake breath” (good for managing anger) or “bunny breath” (good for cleansing and stimulating).
  • They learn to move mindfully through various games that strengthen the Reticular Activating System, the part of the brain that helps focus on the task at hand while filtering out distracting sensory input. Yoga poses based on the unit of study (Africa, Space, Habitats, for example) are often incorporated.
  • They even learn to eat more mindfully, simply by paying attention. I took the teacher training, and I can tell you I’ve never tasted a raisin so succulent and plump.

And these are just a sliver of activity offerings — there are dozens more that are included in faculty and parent training. The curriculum is directly linked to the Colorado Department of Education achievement standards, so the activities reinforce the units being studied.

The Mindful Life program is “derived from evidenced-based brain science and is designed to increase children’s capacity for attention, empathy, impulse control, emotional regulation and resiliency.” Aren’t many of the trials and travails of parenting are rooted in these issues? How helpful to help kids learn these life skills at the time when their brains are most receptive to learning them!

Dr Race earned her PhD with a focus on neuroscience and resiliency. She began volunteering in classrooms in Steamboat Springs school district, bringing to the classroom what she’d gleaned from her research. When children started responding in amazing ways — one 4 year-old girl who vomited at any sign of stress, confounding her parents, had suddenly stopped vomiting after learning mindfulness techniques — the district asked Dr Race to train its teachers. That was about 18 months ago, and in the meantime about 300 teachers nationwide have been trained in these methods. The curriculum is being employed for children who have been through severe trauma and abuse, as well, with impressive results.

I have played a few of the games with my children. Some of them take as little as 5 seconds, and I am pleased with how they bring not only my children but me into the present moment. The workbook is one I will refer to often as my family incorporates new ways of mindfully interacting with each other.

Discount! For more information on Mindful Life Schools and how you can bring it into your home or school, please see Mindful Life Today. As a benefit for Mile High Mamas readers, Kristen Race and Mindful Life Schools offers a $50 discount for the upcoming one-day intensive in Denver on November 15th, geared for parents and educators. Use this link, and at checkout enter coupon code MHMAMAS.

Note: I attended a teacher training at no charge for purposes of writing this article.

Image courtesy of dream designs /

Lori pursues mindfulness on her yoga mat at her gym and in her Denver-area home with her husband and tweens Tessa and Reed. She writes regularly at and her first book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption, published by Rowman & Littlefield, will be available in the spring of 2013.

Lori Holden
Author: Lori Holden

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