Why Afterschool Staff are Embracing Mindfulness

Posted by Wendy Saunders

An elementary school in Baltimore made national headlines when it replaced detention with meditation. The positive results were nearly immediate. School officials said children’s behavior changed for the better-resulting in fewer fights and higher attendance.

Male Y staffer watching two girls and a boy mix paints at an art table.

Across the country, youth development leaders who have integrated mindfulness practices like meditation into the school day seem to agree there are clear benefits for both youth and the staff who care for them.

So, what is mindfulness, exactly?

Mindfulness is the practice of quieting the mind by focusing only on the present moment without judgement. An intent focus on one’s breathing is one common way this is achieved. Mindfulness is proven to reduce stress, improve physical and psychological health, and result in better behavior in both children and adults. The practice has been around for centuries but is gaining popularity in both the business world and education field, including afterschool programs.

Kate McCracken of the YMCA of Greater Los Angeles embraces mindfulness as a coping skill for herself and her young son. She believes applying mindfulness to the adult-child relationship has the potential to improve outcomes for children and adults alike. Watch her talk more on this topic.

As McCracken found in her study of caregiving and mindfulness, “healthy child development begins with caregivers who are attentive, present and sensitive to children’s physical and emotional needs—states that stressed caregivers may find more challenging to achieve.”

At many Ys, afterschool staff are learning to harness inner calm and build resilience in the face of demanding roles and schedules.

Getting started requires no formal training.

  1. Just breathe

    One of the most powerful mindfulness practices involves your breath and can be done with eyes open or closed:

    • Take a few deep breaths
    • As you exhale, release any tension in your muscles
    • Let go of any worries and rest your attention on the natural rhythm of your breathing
    • Notice any new sensations in your body? You may be noticing the coolness of the air as it enters your nose or the rise and fall of your chest
    • You may also notice a feeling of calmness after observing these sensations for just a few minutes
  2. Press the pause button

    The moment you begin to feel frustrated, angry, worried or impatient, press pause. Notice what is happening inside of your body. Maybe your heart rate is increasing or your muscles are tensing. Your mind might begin to race, seeking ways to resolve the problem, defend yourself or get out of the situation altogether (“fight-or-flight”).

    Instead of immediately reacting to problems, observe the way your body and mind operate when these challenges arise. Notice what emotions emerge. Pressing the pause button can provide the time and space to choose a more thoughtful and compassionate response to the situation and help build resiliency over time.

  3. Look for "mindful moments"

    See how many mindful moments you can make happen each day. Participate in mindful eating, where instead of rushing through a meal, you focus on how the food looks, tastes and smells. Commit to using short breaks for being present and aware of your surroundings, rather than impulsively or mindlessly checking your email or social media accounts.

Looking for more info?

Download Kate McCracken’s white paper “More Present, More Effective: Applying the Benefits of Mindfulness to the Adult-Child Relationship.”

About the author

Wendy Saunders is Senior Manager of Leadership Development for YMCA of the USA, and she is also a Certified Teacher in CBCT® (Cognitively-Based Compassion Training), a program of Emory University which deliberately and systematically works to cultivate compassion through progressive mindfulness exercises.

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The YMCA is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all.