Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

Mindfulness 101 for Kids Who Learn and Think Differently

Written by:
Alana Yee, B.Sc., M.Ed., Registered Provisional Psychologist
June 10, 2020

What can help kids put the brakes on negative/drifting thoughts and concentrate on what’s in front of them? One answer may be mindfulness.

What Mindfulness Means

Mindfulness IS

  • Paying attention to what is happening in the moment, without judgment
  • Not letting thoughts, emotions, or trouble with self-control get in the way
  • Viewing thoughts in a more neutral way and keeping emotions in check, without immediately reacting to them
  • Learning to acknowledge negative thoughts and label them when they happen
  • Responding to challenges and stressful situations in a more thoughtful way
  • An experience of awareness
  • Learning how to quiet your mind
  • Mental exercise
  • Accessible, versatile, and flexible – approach it in a way that works for you
  • Also called “mindful meditation” or “mindful awareness”

Mindfulness IS NOT

  • Just meditation
  • Always being still/motionless
  • Necessarily religious or spiritual
  • Expensive
  • Sleeping
  • Yoga

Mindfulness for ADHD and Learning Disabilities

Why might it work?

For kids who struggle in school and find themselves in negative thinking patterns, mindfulness may help them recognize those negative thoughts and block them out. It can also bring a sense of calm and positivity. Individuals with ADHD and/or Learning Disabilities are at a higher risk of developing emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Learning mindfulness techniques could provide beneficial skills to these populations. Additionally, individuals with ADHD are often easily distracted by internal and external stimuli, such as thoughts and environmental sounds. They often struggle to regulate/redirect their attention to what they are doing. With mindfulness training, these individuals are taught to focus their attention on an ‘attentional anchor’, such as the body or their breath, and become aware of where and how their mind wanders. Mindful awareness isn’t necessarily about staying with the breath; it’s about returning to the breath, even when they’re distracted. The emphasis on re-shifting their attention is what enhances the ability to focus. This may enhance a child’s ability to sustain attention over longer periods of time. Children may also learn to create an awareness of their automatic responses, which may give them more control over their impulsive and hyperactive actions.

What does the research say?

The benefits of mindfulness for kids with attention and/or learning challenges have been gaining more attention in recent years. Within the available research investigating the effectiveness of mindfulness for children and adolescents with ADHD and/or Learning Disabilities, promising results have been found. Pilot studies have shown that mindfulness may help kids improve behaviour and executive functioning skills, such as attention, self-monitoring, and emotional regulation. It can also decrease anxiety, fatigue, and depressive symptoms.

Keep in mind, especially for kids who learn and think differently, mindfulness is a practice and not a cure-all. It may or may not work for every individual. The effectiveness of mindfulness training for children/adolescents with ADHD and Learning Disabilities has been demonstrated by a number of studies; however, research in this field is limited at this time, and further assessment is needed. Mindfulness requires an open mind and patience to develop. Additionally, it may not only help kids in the short-term. It may also help them build long-term strengths, such as self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-esteem.

Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness may not come naturally to most kids, but it can be learned. Practicing mindfulness often involves breathing exercises. The goal is to concentrate on each breath, in and out, and bring their thoughts back to the sensations of their breath when their mind wanders. This can help them build focus. Every time they catch themselves before reacting to a thought, it can build self-control. While it sounds simple enough, it can be especially difficult for kids who struggle with attention and emotion regulation. There are many ways to practice mindfulness besides just breathing exercises. Meditations and body scans are options. Or mindful moment practices like taking time to pause and breathe when the phone rings instead of rushing to answer it.

Mindfulness can also be practiced while moving, so kids don’t have to sit still to benefit.  Ideas include doing yoga or going for mindful walks. It is a form of mental exercise. While they are trying to focus on one thing at a time, they will likely get lost/distracted and have to start over. Every time they start over, that is like a bicep curl for their brain. Many people think they’re messing up when they’re meditating because of how busy their mind is. But getting lost in thought, noticing it, and returning your attention to the moment – your breath, body sensation, or anything else – is how it’s done. Mindfulness can be integrated into your daily life by becoming aware of where your attention is focused while you are engaged in routine activities.

There are many different ways to practice mindfulness, individually or as a family. Some examples include:

  • Mindful drawing/colouring

Focus on how it feels as the pencil moves on the paper. Try doodling outside of the lines, drawing smoothing, repeating shapes. Drawing can be done sitting, standing, or any way you find comfortable.

  • Walk a maze

Go outside with some chalk and draw curvy snaking lines, a spider web, or just a big swirl and try to walk along it, tightrope-style. For a rainy-day activity, use masking tape on the carpet for the same purpose. It should be a slow, focused, and controlled heel-to-toe walk. You don’t want to fall into the imaginary lava, after all!

  • Play “I notice…”

This is basically “I Spy,” but with a range of answers which develops awareness. Chances are, once they look, they’ll find things they never noticed before. Try to find an object in each colour of the rainbow, notice different textures (e.g., soft, hard, prickly, squishy) or shapes (e.g., square, circle, triangle), etc. 

  • Make a glitter jar

The glitter jar brings awareness to how busy our minds can be and illustrates how mindfulness can affect us. The various items included in the jar (e.g., glitter, plastic beads, LEGO) and their colours each represent something different in your mind (e.g., thoughts, feelings, behaviours). The action of shaking the jar, watching the items swirl around, and eventually settling at the bottom, demonstrates how the mind can calm and clear. A glitter jar can also serve as a visual timer for breathing practices. Further instructions can be found here:  https://www.mindful.org/how-to-create-a-glitter-jar-for-kids/

The following resources provide many other mindfulness-based options:

Breathing/Visualization Exercises

Games and Activities

Mindful Meditation Apps

Key Takeaways

  • Implementing mindfulness techniques may be especially beneficial for the LD/ADHD population
  • Mindfulness may help kids recognize their negative thoughts and block them out
  • Mindfulness teaches kids to focus on the present and re-shift when their attention wanders
  • Kids may learn to create an awareness of their automatic responses, which may give them more control over their impulsive and hyperactive actions
  • Being mindful may help kids build self-awareness, self-esteem, and emotional regulation
  • There are lots of ways to practice mindfulness, beyond breathing exercises, such as mindful movement (e.g., yoga, walking a maze) and awareness games/activities (e.g., “I notice…”, glitter jar)

Other Resources