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A Mindful Approach to Navigating Challenging Behaviors in ECE Programs

Jun 01, 2023    |   Challenging Behavior

As educators and care providers, we work hard to create peaceful, supportive environments for the children in our care. In busy early learning classrooms, this is not an easy task, and it can be especially difficult when little ones display challenging behaviors that disrupt the classroom and test our patience. Incorporating a mindfulness practice into your early learning program daily routine can be especially effective for navigating, responding to, and maybe even preventing some of these challenging behaviors.

Mindfulness and Challenging Behavior

Mindfulness can be a powerful tool for both educators and young children who find themselves navigating challenging behavior. ZERO TO THREE’s resource, Getting Started with Mindfulness, describes the way mindfulness practices in early learning classrooms have been found to improve emotional regulation and decrease reactivity. This means both educators and children are better able to manage difficult feelings and maintain a sense of calm during moments of distress.

Mindfulness can provide children with tools for self-soothing when experiencing disappointment, frustration or other feelings that can lead to challenging behaviors. For educators, mindfulness tools can help us to keep calm when faced with challenging behaviors and to respond with compassionate understanding.

The Power of a Mindfulness Routine

Mindfulness is a “practice,” which means that it is most impactful when incorporated into our daily routines. Our brains are muscles that need to be exercised regularly and often! While mindfulness practices are helpful during heightened moments of stress, it is also important to practice mindfulness during times of calm, in order to build our mindful muscles as often as we can.

The NY Times Article, Mindfulness for Children, adds, “Don’t make mindfulness seem like something only to be used in times of trouble — present it as a tool to be used in a variety of situations.” You might, for example, incorporate a mindfulness practice during circle time to set a peaceful tone for the day and before nap time to help children relax and get ready for rest.

Activities for Children (and Grown-ups too!)

The mindfulness activities below are appropriate for toddlers and preschoolers, and for their care providers! You’ll find mindful breathing activities that can be done anytime, along with activities to help children calm-down during those moments of stress and big feelings that can sometimes lead to challenging behaviors.

Mindful Breathing Activities for Anytime

1. The following belly breathing exercise from Healthy Steps is easy to incorporate into your daily routine and requires no additional materials!

  • Start by having children sit or lie down with one hand placed over their belly and the other over their chest. Demonstrate how to deeply inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Encourage children to try, and to notice how their bellies rise when they breathe in and fall as they exhale out. Repeat 3-5 times.

  • For extra fun, suggest that children pretend that they’re blowing up a balloon as they inhale and exhale. Or, encourage complete, calming exhales by encouraging the children to imagine blowing out a candle.

  • Try the exercise with “breathing buddies,” by encouraging two children to face each other and notice how their friend’s belly rises and falls as they breathe.

2. ZERO TO THREE’s starfish breathing activity encourages children to trace their hands as they practice slow and calm breathwork.

  • Start by inviting children to choose a hand to be the starfish, and to extend this hand, palm out, with fingers spread.

  • Demonstrate how they can use the pointer finger from their other hand to trace the starfish as they breathe – starting at the thumb and then while breathing in, tracing the thumb to the top. With the exhale, trace down the inside of the thumb.

  • As the children join in, continue breathing up and down each finger, matching movement with breath.

  • Encourage the children to continue breathing and tracing, while noticing the sensations of movement in their body – their chest and belly moving in and out and your finger moving up and down.

“Calm-down” Activities from Sesame Workshop, for Moments of Stress

1. I Can Calm Myself Down. This one-minute video shows Cookie Monster calming himself down when he is feeling overwhelmed, by squeezing his muscles as tight as he can for five seconds before releasing the muscles while he exhales completely. The video encourages children to remind themselves “I can calm myself down!” as a mantra to use in moments of high stress and big feelings.

2. Breathe, Think, Do! When children become overwhelmed, we can help them use this simple “Breathe, Think, Do” strategy to calm down, identify their feelings, and work to solve their problem.

  • Breathe: Encourage the children to take deep breaths to help themselves calm their bodies down. This is especially effective if the children whisper “calm down” or other encouraging phrases to themselves.

  • Think: Encourage little ones to tell you how they are feeling and why– help them find the words by telling them what you notice (“It seems like you feel frustrated because you’re having trouble putting on your sweater.”). Help the child come up with a few different plans for solving the problem.

  • Do: Encourage kids to choose a plan and try it out. Remind them that learning new things takes practice – It’s not that they can’t do it; it’s that they can’t do it yet!

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