As a psychologist working with youth and a mindfulness instructor and practitioner the question of when to introduce mindfulness to children comes up frequently in conversation. While there is no single answer there is a growing body of research that helps inform the decision.
In particular, there are three stages in child development that seem especially important to consider as they may serve as windows of opportunity for developing essential aspects of mindfulness and related social emotional competencies. These stages are noteworthy because they correspond with accelerated brain development in areas linked to cognitive skills that underlie mindfulness. It may be possible therefore to harness developmental momentum and take students faster and further into the practice of mindfulness during these growth spurts. At the very least, understanding these stages guides developmentally appropriate application of mindfulness practices, helping to select/design training opportunities that are most relevant to the evolving capabilities of children.
Given the amount of information to be covered we will explore this subject over four consecutive posts:
1) Introduction and Overview: This current article provides an introduction and overview of the topic.
2) Early Childhood: Our next article will examine the critical developmental period between the ages of 2 to 5 years, tracking the rise of early attention and impulse control along with burgeoning social emotional intelligence.
3) Middle Childhood: Our third write-up will focus on the time period between 5 and 8 years, which corresponds with rapid frontal lobe growth and dramatic improvements in cognitive skills related to focus, concentration, emotional understanding and control, and growing social awareness.
4) Late Childhood and Early Adolescence: Our fourth and final post will cover the period between 9 and 12+ years, which corresponds with another period of rapid brain growth. This stage brings with it the development of meta-awareness, which is seen as a cornerstone skill of mindfulness. In addition to exploring the rise of meta-awareness and what it means in terms of practice, we will also look at emerging skills related to executive functioning and social emotional capacities that begin to approach adult levels of functioning during the transition from childhood into adolescence.
By the end of this series readers will have specific insight into key skills that underlying mindfulness as well as a detailed understanding of their developmental trajectory across childhood. Additionally, each of the three time frames outlined above will be linked to specific practices that exemplify developmentally appropriate approaches to teaching mindfulness from early childhood through puberty, providing concrete tools for appropriately introducing mindfulness at any age.