Turning Off Autopilot: Helping Kids Quiet Their Minds and Change Their Brains

Remember when there was time to stop and smell the roses?

At some point, that stopped. We became a society of jugglers; all suffering from culturally induced ADD. We brush our teeth while shampooing our hair. We make dinner while writing emails, Tweeting, Facebooking, and Googling. To-do lists are long, days are short, schedules are overbooked, and our patience goes overlooked. We give all our time to everything but our full attention to nothing, because we’re always concerned with what’s next. With so many balls in the air, we end up on autopilot.

Kids are different. They’re born knowing how to be in the moment. With a curiosity for the world and how things work, they’re concerned only with what’s in front of them — the Lego blocks, building forts, coloring books, and monkey bars. But somewhere in between playing dress-up and having to grow up, that sense of innocence is lost and is taken over with the worries of modern adulthood.

Specifically, it’s when the influence of others — parents, teachers, caregivers, television characters — begin to play a more prominent role in children’s thinking and being that kids begin to take on the characteristics and concerns of an adult mindset. They, too, start to go through their days on autopilot. It’s a learned behavior, as children begin to mimic the behaviors they see in front of them. Additionally, children in today’s society, with recent mass shootings and gun violence, have a whole new set of concerns: safety. As a result, they are losing the ability to live in the moment. And here’s the thing: Losing that carefree childhood can be more severe than we realize, causing attention problems, loss of concentration, anxiety, and other emotional difficulties.

So the question begs: How do we get our kids to go back to being, well, kids? The autopilot epidemic has caused scientists and researchers to ask the same question, to which they equivalently agree that the key is to slow down and focus on the present. It’s also known as mindfulness, which involves stress-reducing techniques drawn from Buddhist meditation. More specifically, it’s training individuals to pay attention in a particular way: purposefully engaged in what’s happening from moment to moment, without drifting into thoughts about past concerns, future worries, or judgmental thoughts.

And here’s why: The benefits are not modest. Mindfulness training has been shown to reduce anxiety, stress, depression, chronic pain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and even heart disease and strokes, according to a recent study by the American Heart Association. This has made an imprint on mainstream health care, medicine, and society, but what’s more, it’s now showing up in the education system. Mindfulness has revealed a host of potential benefits relevant to children and adolescents: bolstering concentration, attention, and memory. Additionally, because it promotes self-control, it can help aggressive and anxious children by reducing the emotional intensity of a situation.

“If we can help children slow down and think,” says child therapist Nancy Schindler, LCSW, “they are able to regulate their negative emotions instead of acting impulsively. It’s a matter of teaching them that they have the answers within themselves.”

Science has identified that when it comes to child development, a core area underlying most behavior from childhood onwards is executive functioning. Executive function is a set of mental processes we use to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space. Suffice it to say, this plays a main role in children’s academic abilities and emotional intelligence. A child with poor executive function may exhibit difficulties completing schoolwork or tasks, challenges with communication, and a hard time adjusting to new situations. This can manifest itself as inability to concentrate, distractibility, and impulsive acts or emotional outbursts.

The prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate are the primary brain regions responsible for executive functioning, and they continue to develop throughout adolescence; therefore, exploring ways to promote the maturity of these areas early in life offers potential for emotional and intellectual improvement.

According to the Journal of Applied School Psychology, mindfulness awareness practices (MAPs) are exercises that promote attention to moment-by-moment experiences and will improve attention and emotional functioning. These practices increase activity in the prefrontal cortex while decreasing activity in the amygdala, a brain structure associated with fear and anxiety. Furthermore, because the functioning of these brain regions is so closely interconnected, improvements in one capacity, like attention, may confer benefits to the other areas of functioning, such as managing emotions.

This held true in a study of first- through third-graders who participated in a 12-week program of breath-awareness exercises and weekly yoga. After the program, the students revealed an improvement in attention and social skills, as well as decreased test-anxiety compared to a control group. A similar study found that children reported an increased sense of calm and better sleep by the end of the training. What’s more, children who were initially more difficult at the start seemed to show the strongest improvements following the training.

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