My advice to parents? Listen, listen, listen to your children!

Sloyu interviews Eline Snel, a life devoted to the teaching of mindfulness and the soul of “Mindfulness Matters”, an innovative method to train children in the practice of mindfulness.

Quiet and Still as a Frog”, the book she has published to encourage the practice of mindfulness in the family setting, has been published in 27 countries so far.

Fotográfia Eline Snel

Interview with Eline Snel

When was your first approach to mindfulness?

Between 1972 and 1979 I worked as a nurse and a teacher in a hospital. I was aware that patients who suffered and had fears had a need to be treated differently: to be offered more heartfelt care. I then developed a training (there was none in Europe) for adults who suffered from stress, anxiety and loss (“dealing with life energy”). When I heard of the MBSR training of Jon Kabat Zinn (mindfulness based stress reduction) around 2000 I saw that many elements of my training and the MBSR training were similar to my training, due to the Buddhistic roots of the core of the trainings. I was trained as a certified MBST trainer in 2005. From then on I trained many adults. In 2009 I started developing a mindfulness training for children.

Was it easy to integrate mindfulness in your daily life. How did you manage to do it?

Sometimes it was difficult to meditate every day. When you are busy, with children at home, the only way to integrate mindfulness was the informal practice: being present with what you do in the moments you are doing it. For instance: standing in a row for the cashier in the supermarket, eating while I eat, feeling the small hand of my daughter in my hand, listening in an open, unjudgmental way to somebody and noticing the distraction of your thoughts. Now the children “flew out” and although I still have a very busy life, I meditate every morning for half an hour, apart from the workshops, retreats and training sessions I attend.

When did you decide to make it a part of your living? Why did you choose education and health environments to develop your work?

Training adults started in 1979 when I was 25. I noticed that mindfulness in the education of my children “made a difference” even when they were young. Five years ago a group of female directors of elementary schools who followed my MBSR training asked me: why don’t you develop a mindfulness training for children at school and health environments? “If I had followed such training as a child, my life would have been different!”.

They offered me their schools and pupils as an opportunity to exercise. So Mindfulness Matters as a method to train children was developed from the grassroots instead of from books or behind a desk. I started to train teachers, health care professionals to enable them to be a child trainer in their school or practice. Then I wrote “Sitting still as a frog” for parents of children from 5-12 years old. Now it is published in 27 countries all over the world. It leads to many requests to train professionals in many foreign countries, a development I had never foreseen!

It is not always easy for an adult to understand what mindfulness is about… how do you explain mindfulness to kids?

By using the metaphor of the frog. A small part of the manual teachers use in their class: “To learn to concentrate on your breathing, you can take a good look at a frog on the edge of a pond. It sits dead still. It’s tummy and sides swell up and drop with every breath. You can easily see it. So a frog is very good at sitting still and concentrating. Only when there is danger does it jump away. But until that happens, it doesn’t do anything. Nothing else at all but sit and watch what is happening. It is this sitting still and watching that you can learn from a frog. And who knows, it may turn into a prince one day.”

It is easier to explain mindfulness to children than to adults. The exercises are in line with their playful ability to relax and pay attention to their breath.

In what does a mindfulness session for children consist? I cannot imagine many of the kids I know sitting or laying for too long a time.

Each session consists of a few short stories of 3-10 minutes, in which the essence of the lesson is packed. Then one or more meditations (called attention or awareness exercises) and some mindful movement exercises. The exercises for younger children are shorter (3-5 minutes) than for the older children (5-15 minutes).

Every week (8-10 weeks in a row) a lesson is given. On the first day the lesson takes about 30 minutes (4-8 years) – 40 minutes (8-10 years) or 40-50 minutes (10-12/13 years). On each of the following four days a 10 minutes-exercises are done (during 10 minutes). In short: the exercises are shorter than exercises for adults and there is much more variation in one lesson. A lesson is spread over 5 days.

My experience is that even children with an ADHD diagnosis, for whom sitting still is a problem, succeed after a few lessons to calm down and to concentrate on what they are doing in the exercises.

How do children react to mindfulness training? What are the general feelings or experiences they share with trainers?

Most of the children love it. After 8 weeks of training they want to go on. Around 4000 children are trained in Holland, in France approximately 600. Children usually say that they quarrel less, have more confidence in themselves and others, get less distracted, concentrate better… mothers say that their children are calmer, more self-confident and rumiate less; also conflicts at home are less. In my blog you can find a lot of examples that my students and their parents have liked to share ( blog).

There are so many “moving” reactions in the exercises. For instance children tell their fondest wish (the wishing tree exercise is about wishes that are difficult to come true). Some children imagine, for instance: “I wish my parents (divorced) will be together again”. Or:”I wish my grandmother who died a few weeks ago is alive again.” This shows that the children are feeling safe to share their feelings.

One of the things I stress again and in the training of teachers is: “Do not judge experiences of a child, every experience is OK”. Which is difficult for most of the teachers, because they are so used to judge what children feel and think (and do).

As a teacher what benefits can mindfulness bring to my class group?

Before being trained to become a child trainer, teachers have to finish the 8 week MBSR training. Some of the effects are: they become calmer, more mindful in their reactions to others. In their work in school and in their class they behave more calmly, more relaxed, with less stress. That in itself affects the calmness of the class group, the concentration of the children: a quiet learning environment.
These effects are strengthened when children are trained:

– They can concentrate better;
– They are calmer, more relaxed
– They have more self-confidence
– They are friendlier towards themselves and others (less quarrelling, less bullying)
– They can better regulate their emotions.

Some teachers say they notice that children have better test results (memory, concentration, and goal directed behaviour, planning skills, creative thinking skills (finding and trying out of different solutions to a problem. All these skills contribute to improved (cognitive) learning.

As a therapist, in what way can mindfulness help the progress of a therapy?

When children finished the training they can better deal with unrest, anxiety, depressive thoughts. Children with autism spectrum disorders react very positively: less anxiety and an improved feeling of physical and emotional wellbeing.

Can you bring us a tip to bring mindfulness to the family?

First of all: buy the book “Sitting still like a frog” (laghs). It contains many practical exercises you can do at home, while having lunch or dinner, while watching TV, etc.

One of the more important tips for parents is: listen, listen, and listen to your children. What do they really tell you? What are their needs? Try to be as open as you can, receive even the subtlest of their feelings and thoughts, hopes and expectations. And if you start thinking and if feelings arise while you are listening, become aware of them and try to turn back to pure listening. As a child said: “they say they are listening, but they always tell their story when I am talking!”

You say you are “a mother and grandmother in heart and soul”. How has the practice of mindfulness influenced your family relationships?

By having an open and compassionate attention to members of the family. Not judging one or another, but love the way each family member is.

Which is the most precious gift mindfulness brought to your life?

Simplicity. Becoming aware again and again that there is always the possibility to pay attention to the breath and to find in this hectic daily life a place where it’s always calm. And: the deep supporting effect of compassion. By being “at home” myself, I can offer a warm place for others.

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