Close your eyes. Take three deep breaths. Center yourself. Now read on.
The following blog post is by Kate Berger, a child and adolescent psychologist and director of The Expat Kids Club in Amsterdam. She’s a good friend to ArborBridge, and she has great advice for students of all ages.
Related to meditation, the practice of mindfulness is like a break for the brain. Mindfulness can help usher in calmness and confidence for students taking high-stakes tests like the SAT and ACT. A few moments of deliberate calm can be more valuable than hours of studying, especially when studying leads to stress and fatigue.
So, no matter what score you’re aiming for or how much you’ve studied, don’t forget to try a little mindfulness too.
Expat Kids, Stress, and Mindfulness
By Kate Berger, Child and Adolescent Psychologist
Expatriate children often deal with a laundry-list of stress factors that are associated with the dynamic lifestyle that they live. The initial move brings a lot of disruption—the packing and unpacking, the saying goodbye to loved ones, the travel itself which often includes different time zones, etc. Parents often breathe a sigh of relief once the physical move has been made, yet the difficult process of adjustment usually lasts several weeks—or months. During this period, as they adapt to a new school and new culture, expat kids might feel as if they are out of their comfort zone, with no firm ground to stand on.
However, despite the many challenges associated with the expatriate lifestyle, expat kids can—and do—thrive. In fact, they are uniquely qualified for leadership positions in society due to their vast experiences from living in different environments, their exposure to diverse thinking styles and their capacity for resilience. That said, the road to success is not always easy, especially when that difficult thing we call “stress” creeps in.
Stress gets in the way of learning.
Professionals working with children see that the stressful adjustment process expat kids face can have an immensely negative impact on learning. One of the reasons that stress impedes learning is that the automatic, physiological reactions that take over in response to stress inhibit executive functioning skills in the brain—things like concentration, memory, creativity, and logical thinking. When these skills are negatively impacted, the capacity for learning can be diminished.
Stress harms the body.
In addition to stress impacting the learning process, it also can negatively affect the body. In fact, many researchers are now suggesting that the physiological reaction that occurs in response to stress plays a huge part in the development of illnesses, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Therefore, one could argue that stress is the biggest health concern western societies are currently facing.
Society is missing out if we do not make efforts to counteract the negative impacts of stress on our youth, especially within the expat population. If we are not able to help manage stress, we risk the possibility that expat kids will become crippled by it and therefore unable to fulfill their leadership capabilities. If this happens, we all lose.
There is good news!
It is 2014 and—voila!—research is showing that we are able to enhance the ability for children to cope with stress effectively, and in the process of doing so help them to build skills that allow them to have greater compassion for themselves and for those around them. How? Drum roll… Mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to the present moment using mind-body awareness techniques such as breathing, movement, and meditation.
The Mindfulness in Schools Project, a UK based organization that teaches mindfulness to school age children and teens, describes mindfulness in the following way:
“Mindfulness involves learning to direct our attention to our experience as it unfolds, moment by moment, with an open-minded curiosity and acceptance. Rather than worrying about what has happened or might happen, it trains us to respond skillfully to whatever is happening right now, be that good or bad.”
Mindfulness teaches individuals to focus on the present moment by shifting their attention inward, with kindness. Many kids today are quite externally focused – think about all of the electronic distractions our children are exposed to, such as mobile devices, internet games, social media, etc. Research shows however, that we can teach kids to look the other way around—although it does require practice—and there are tremendous benefits for doing so.
In the process of turning inward, kids who practice mindfulness build increased capacities for empathy and openness. And it gets even better! Bodies of research looking at the impact of teaching mindfulness to kids are showing positive impacts on emotional well-being, learning, and physical health. Neuroscientists are literally able to see how practicing mindfulness changes the physiological reactions to stress. Kids who have participated in mindfulness programs have shown significant decreases in depression, anxiety, ADHD, aggression, oppositional behaviors, and sleep difficulties. They have also shown improvements in concentration abilities, memory, self-awareness, optimism and positive emotions.
And you don’t have to take my word for it.
It seems that everyone is getting on board the mindfulness movement these days. In the UK, the Mindfulness in Schools Project is at the forefront of educating teachers so that mindfulness can become part of mainstream day-to-day curriculum in schools. Globally, there are numerous publications sharing information about the positive impact of mindfulness—The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and Time Magazine (who called it “The Mindful Revolution”) to name a few.
And guess what? Mindfulness is not just for individuals wanting to learn how to manage stress. Government agencies, military personnel, corporations and famous athletes have started using mindfulness practices in the work-place as a way to enhance fulfillment and performance, and as well as a means for decreasing stress.
This is B-I-G.
Is it the golden ticket for expat kids?
Although mindfulness research is suggesting positive results for both children and adults, and indeed this is an exciting time within the mindfulness movement, mindfulness is by no means a panacea for all the ills of the world. We cannot promise that mindfulness will eliminate stress, because that is neither realistic nor the point. Stress is an inevitable part of being human and expatriate life certainly can be stressful. Yet mindfulness can give expat kids an effective tool to cope with the inevitable stressors and thereby enjoy a fuller, more satisfying life.
If something could possibly help kids become better equipped to effectively contribute their unique insights and experiences to society at large, then we cannot really afford to not join the “revolution,” can we?
About Kate Berger
Kate Berger is a Child and Adolescent Psychologist and certified Mindfulness instructor, specializing in working with expatriate children and their families. Kate is actively involved in networking within the expatriate community as a way to spread awareness about the benefits of mindfulness for kids and teens. She strongly believes that practicing mindfulness is a way to create stronger connections with those around us, and the greater community. Kate’s website is www.expatkidsclub.com.