Dr. Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin joined me earlier for a series of podcasts for teachers, parents, and school leaders where we explored both virtual learning and the return to classrooms in schools. When I heard about her recent book, I asked if she would share some elements from it as a guest blogger, and am excited that she agreed. It’s a perfect time! Thanks, Marie-Nathalie.
Can something be done about children’s focusing skills?
What if brain-based mindfulness practices successfully engaged ALL children?
Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin, Ph.D Psychologist, Author, Speaker
Most teachers are planning the return to school of students, feeling both eager and a little nervous about post-pandemic education. How will students of this new era differ and resemble previous generations? For sure, they will have been both enriched and impoverished by the various life lessons of this unusual year.
One post-pandemic concern has been explicitly flagged in education: focusing abilities. This was a hot topic before the pandemic and became even more during online schooling. Focusing is the canvas of all learning.
No focusing = No learning.
Interestingly, our education system spends years teaching how to read, write and count, which all rely on the basic necessity of focusing, but the ability itself is never formally taught in school. Focusing requires disengaging from a task, directing mental resources to a target, sustaining attention on this target, and blocking competing distractions. This is no small task for a young person to figure out alone and without guidance! Most will eventually develop the skill but many will fall through the cracks, getting stuck in the loop of not understanding because they’re not paying attention, and then not paying attention because they’re disengaged.
Luckily, decades of brain research have yielded extraordinary discoveries on what triggers the process of paying attention. Simultaneously, large studies have demonstrated remarkable focusing abilities in people practicing traditional forms of mindfulness. What if we combined brain research findings with some aspects of mindfulness? We end up with a new form of active, specialized, and intrigue-based mindfulness practices (Beaudoin & Maki, 2020)! While traditional practices are still very helpful for those able to invest the time and effort, the new form of intrigue-based mindfulness makes the process and outcome more within reach of minds who are highly distracted and struggle with even beginning to focus their minds! So what are the components of this new form of mindfulness developed specifically for the busy world of distracted minds?
Brain research is very clear: curiosity triggers the release of helpful neurotransmitters, which direct the brain’s resources to focus on a specific task. The brain is always scanning for novelty and when it finds something intriguing, it fires in very specific ways, which trigger alertness. For mindfulness to become intriguing, young people have to be engaged to discover something new, or invited to solve a mystery that is fascinating to them. The new intrigue-based mindfulness exercises are crafted to appeal to our natural curiosity and posit unusual questions that youth have never thought about before. For example: Are you able to slow down your breathing so much, without forcing, that you could almost be completely still?
Curiosity paves the way for youth to willingly try the exercises. They’ll engage in the exercises not because they have to, but because they want to! Young people look forward to experimenting with these exercises. They are different and allow them to learn something meaningful about themselves! For example, our program uses pain management exercises to practice focusing and inform students that they can challenge themselves to take a pain test at the end of the series if they’d like! No student has ever turned down the option to take the test, and remarkably, they all proudly succeed. This creates the possibility of learning focusing skills indirectly by practicing pain management and feeling empowered to control the inner thermostat of their feelings and reactions. The resulting self-confidence and calm greatly increases focusing skills but also reduces emotional and social upsets, which tend to be distracting.
Young people are usually very excited to have discovered a different experience of themselves. On an everyday basis, we feel a certain way about who we are. We are familiar with the state of hunger, excitement, boredom, sleepiness, etc. It is uncommon to step out of these familiar states and discover a new way of being or experiencing our bodies. Intrigue-based mindfulness exercises allow youth to discover embodied states they have never felt before. For some, the experience of complete silence is amazing, for others it is stillness, inner peace, focus, or connectedness in a weird way with their community. Some feel it in embodied ways and report: “it was like my whole body was twinkling!” or “I felt almost sleepy but not really, I’m not sure how to call it…calm but listening carefully”. Young people very clearly experience the biochemical changes associated with a successful mindfulness practice, which can be very short if it’s a few-minute breathing exercise or longer if a full session is chosen.
Children can learn to improve their focusing skills and practice the art of willingly choosing to direct their attention on a specific target. Just like physical exercise, this mental gymnastics can be practiced and improved. New forms of intrigue-based mindfulness exercises make it easier for children to be engaged and successful in the development of this skill.
Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin, Ph.D. is the director of Skills for Kids, Parents, and Schools (SKIPS) which offers a variety of counseling services to children, parents, educators, and therapists of the San Francisco Bay Area. Marie-Nathalie has been a pioneer in combining neurobiology and collaborative therapies and is the author of popular books, including The SKiLL-ionaire in Every Child: Boosting Children’s Socio-Emotional Skills Using the Latest in Brain Research which is written for parents, teachers, and therapists, and translated in French and Spanish, and Mindfulness in a Busy World: Lowering Barriers for Youth and Adults to Cultivate Focus, Emotional Peace and Gratefulness. Her work has been featured in a number of magazines such as Educational Leadership, Teaching Tolerance, The California Educator, and Family Therapy. Marie-Nathalie is an acclaimed international speaker, renowned for her entertaining and thought-provoking presentations. In her free time, Marie-Nathalie likes to hike, kayak, SUP, and rock-climb with her husband and two teenagers.