Improving Preschoolers’ Executive Functioning using Mindfulness-Based Interventions
By Laura Wood, M.Ed.
School Psychology Doctoral Candidate, Georgia State University
The preschool years (i.e., 3-5 years old) are an important stage of social and cognitive development for children. One important area that experiences dramatic growth during this time is executive function (EF) skills. EF skills are defined as “adaptive, goal-directed behaviors that enable individuals to override more automatic or established thoughts and responses” (Garon, Bryson, & Smith, 2008, p. 31). These skills are foundational in many important daily expectations, including paying attention, initiating and completing tasks, controlling impulses, remembering instructions, transitioning between activities, and avoiding distractions. EF skills develop most rapidly during the preschool years (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University [CDCHU], 2011) and provide an essential foundation for school readiness (Fitzpatrick et al., 2014).
The importance of EF development in preschoolers has led many practitioners and researchers to explore how to best support the development of these foundational skills. One potential approach to enhancing EF skills and related processes is mindfulness-based interventions (Diamond, 2012; Flook, Goldberg, Pinger, & Davidson, 2015; Wood, Roach, Kearney, & Zabek, 2018). Mindfulness is defined as intentionally paying attention to the present moment with curiosity and acceptance (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Mindfulness-based interventions are thought to improve EF skills by providing an opportunity to practice regulation of attention towards specific internal and external experiences.
Mindfulness-Based Interventions with Preschoolers
Mini-Mind Program Description – Although the majority of research on mindfulness-based interventions has focused on older children and adults, several researchers have attempted to design, implement, and evaluate mindfulness-based interventions for preschoolers (Flook et al., 2010; Razza, Bergen-Cico, & Raymond, 2015; Wood et al., 2018).
One such intervention is Mini-Mind, a mindfulness-based curriculum designed for preschool-aged children that focuses on developing curiosity towards and awareness of internal and external experiences (Wood et al., 2018). Mini-Mind consists of twelve 20-minute sessions across 6 weeks. Every session includes gentle yoga, mindful breathing, and compassion components. In addition, each session uses games and interactive activities focused on one of the following topics: taste, smell, sight, hearing, touch, movement, emotions, and loving-kindness. Families are also provided with suggestions for activities they can do at home with their children based on the topics covered each week.
Randomized Pilot of the Mini-Mind Curriculum – During a random- ized, controlled pilot study of the Mini-Mind curriculum (Wood et al., 2018), 27 preschoolers were randomly assigned to either receive the inter- vention in the fall or spring semester. The students participated in activities of similar duration (e.g., art project, game) during the semester that they were not receiving the intervention. Data was collected from facilitators, teachers, parents, and children to measure effectiveness, feasibility, and acceptability. The Mini-Mind curriculum was rated as highly feasible and acceptable by the children and stakeholders. In terms of effectiveness, the results were mostly nonsignificant but consistently revealed small to me- dium effects in favor of the intervention group in areas of EF development. Overall, the study supported the continued implementation and evaluation of mindfulness-based interventions with preschoolers.
The Challenge of Implementing Mindfulness-Based Interventions with Preschoolers – One of the most challenging aspects of implementing mindfulness-based interventions with preschoolers is finding a way to ensure that the children are understanding and experiencing the complicated concepts associated with mindfulness. The following examples from the Mini-Mind curriculum provide suggestions of how some of the more complex mindfulness concepts can be explained to young children as well as activities to help practice and reinforce these ideas. While it is not possible to include the entire curriculum in this article, interested readers are encouraged to contact the primary author for more information.
Introducing mindfulness: “Mindfulness means to pay attention to right now, to be present. When we are mindful, or when we pay attention to right now, our bodies are quiet, we are not talking, and we are looking and listening. This is called mindful bodies. We can be mindful of, or pay attention to, lots of things. We can be mindful of what we touch, see, hear, taste, and smell. We can be mindful of how we feel on the inside and the outside. We may feel hungry or full. We may feel hot or cold. We also can feel emotions like when we feel happy or sad. What do you notice right now? What do you see? Hear? Smell? Feel? Are you hungry? Happy? Sad? We are being mindful when we pay attention to right now. Now we are going to read a book about mindfulness called ‘What does it mean to be present’ by Rana DiOrio.”
Breathing buddies: “One thing that we can be mindful of is our breathing. We breathe all day, every day. Sometimes if we are upset or need to calm down, it can help to pay attention to our breathing. It also helps us learn how to be mindful of things that are there all of the time. Find a place on the floor where you can stretch out like a starfish. Place your breathing buddy on your tummy and take a big breath in and let your breath out again. Watch as your buddy rises up and up with your breath in and how your buddy goes back all the way down as you breathe out. Keep breathing regular breaths and watch as your buddy rides the waves of your breath. Up as you inhale in. Down as you exhale out. A few more breaths. Remember that your breath is always there with you, rising in and falling out.”
Compassion jar: “Compassion means being kind and nice to someone, especially if they are sad or having a bad day. This jar is called the Compassion Jar. Every day you come in here, we are each going to add a stone and tell about how we have been nice to someone else that was sad or having a bad day. We can also add a stone if we have shown compassion to ourselves. If I am having a bad day, I can draw a picture for myself! I can tell myself something that I like about me. We can also add a stone if someone has been nice to us when we were upset.”
Loving Kindness gift boxes: “Loving kindness means caring about someone and wanting them to be happy. We can be mindful and pay attention to how it feels to love and care about someone. We can feel loving kindness for family, friends, pets, neighbors, ourselves, or the whole world. We are going to see if we can bundle up these feelings so that we can share them with someone we care about! Here are some gift boxes. We are going to close our eyes and think of someone we love and care about. When we feel the feeling of love and kindness, we will grab them in our hands like this [demonstrate clasping your two hands together like there is a delicate object hidden inside] and then put these feelings in our gift boxes. Close your eyes. Think of someone you love and care about. What does it feel like? When you feel the love and caring, grab it gently in your hands and hold on tight. Keeps your hands closed and open your eyes. Put your love and kindness into your box and close the lid. Now we can decorate the boxes and you can bring them home to give them to your loved one.”
If you are interested in learning more about the Mini-Mind Mindfulness-Based Program, please contact the primary developer, Ms. Laura Rosenbaum Wood, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also request a list of references relating to citations in her article.