Nathan Wallis delves into the brain benefits for kids learning about mindfulness, nutrition and sustainability

New research focusing on New Zealand families has revealed that parents want more education in schools in the areas of mental health and sustainability: caring for the earth, the connection between food, nutrition and cooking, and mental health support through mindfulness practices.

The annual nib State of the Nation Parenting Survey 2021, which canvasses a range of families from around Aotearoa, highlights the most significant areas that parents are struggling with and the areas where they are thriving, as well as their top concerns as parents in the 21st century.

We’ve pulled in some expert advice from neuroscience educator and parenting expert, Nathan Wallis, to give insight into some of these findings and why they are actually crucial for brain development for our young people. 

64 per cent of parents believe that schools should teach wellbeing and mindfulness for kids. What is all this about and why is this important for young kids?

The big picture is that when you are well and calm and happy you are using all of your brain, particularly the number four brain or frontal cortex.

This is the higher intelligence part of our brain, which allows us to be inventive and creative, it’s where our brilliance is. 

When we are panicked our heart rate goes up and the lower brain is active which is focused on survival and then we can’t access the higher brain (our thinking and learning part of the brain).

Mindfulness is powerful as it allows us to access our full brain even under pressure. We can use mindfulness techniques to be fully present, focus on breathing methods and use imagery to relax the mind and body.

I use the saying that ‘Survival is compulsory, and intelligence is optional’. If you stay in survival your whole life, the lower brain is at the forefront.

If you want to add value, meditation helps to keep the number four brain operating at full capacity. 

Parents traditionally have thought mindfulness is hippyish and a bit ‘out there.’ 

But research proves it actually gives you more access to your entire brain and allows you to be a fully functioning human.

There are huge benefits to mindfulness though. Sadly in New Zealand, we have high rates of domestic violence and other stress factors. 

Because of this, many kids come to school with anxiety dominating, so parts of their brain aren’t functioning optimally making learning really hard. 

Practising simple mindfulness techniques calm the amygdala which allows the frontal cortex to come back online. 

It’s more like a dim switch than an on-off switch. When our lives are calm and less stressful we have less need to do mindfulness. 

If kids are able to stay home until 5 years old and spend their days cruising with a parent, without a strict schedule and a chilled out vibe pottering at home with Mum or Dad, you don’t need mindfulness techniques, this type of lifestyle is a form of mindfulness.

Rushing to get ready for kindy or daycare, spending hours with a lot of kids, and noise, rushing around in traffic, getting to after school activities etc is hectic.

But kids are incredibly resilient. They won’t be impacted by just one thing. It’s all about balance.

What about our teens?  Will mindfulness really help them during the puberty years?

During the teenage years, the frontal cortex shuts for renovations. 

The amygdala literally hijacks the ship for around 3 years in adolescence, generally around 14-15-16 years. 

Teenage hormones are crazy and behaviour can match that.

If there are extra risk factors that are added during the renovation period when the amygdala shuts down, there is potential for developing anxiety and depression.

It could be that a teenager has been under stress with their school performance and grades, a family breakdown, or issues with friends or bullying. 

However, if your teen has practised mindfulness for a few years before puberty hits, it really helps to keep the amygdala calmer and they are better equipped for these volatile years of change and growth.

The same goes for us, mindfulness helps make us better parents. It keeps you calm and intentional. 

We all know that sometimes our responses are ok, and other times, less than ideal; we can think about the ratio of our responses improving with mindfulness practices.

I might respond 60 per cent of the time how I want to as a parent, but with a few minutes of mindfulness that might go up to 70-80 per cent.

So what about food? The nib State of the Nation Parenting Survey 2021 showed that 62 per cent of parents believe schools should be teaching cooking and home economics while 60 per cent believe they should teach more about nutrition. 

What are the benefits for kids when learning about nutrition, growing food and how to cook with it?

Learning about nutrition and how it affects the brain helps us to take responsibility for what we eat. 

Our generation tends to eat a lot of junk food and fast food, things like KFC and McDonalds, fizzy drinks, sugar, processed foods. 

But kids should learn that food is fuel, the quality of fuel you put into your body affects how it functions.

Kids don’t need detailed info about nutrition, but being aware of the overall picture is beneficial.

Growing food connects you with nature- throughout mental health literature one of the fundamental benefits for mental health is to be in nature.

Even just being outside.  We are nature. 

Being in nature also ties in with mindfulness, when we observe and follow the complicated process of nature it’s very centring.

It might be observing the seasons change, or planting the seed and seeing it grow.

Following this, the practical side of cooking with the food we’ve grown can empower young people and it develops independence and self-confidence.

Sustainability has become a big area of concern for all of us, and kids seem to be becoming well educated in this area at school; 53 per cent of parents agree this education is important. Is this a good thing or not?  

Every generation has its thing to worry about. 

When I was young it was Y2K, there was real concern the world was going to collapse.

In previous years it’s been major stuff like the cold war, nukes, WW2, Spanish Flu, The Great Depression.

Climate change is a real concern, but as parents, we can link kids in with proactive action.

Remind them that humans have fixed things in the past, we can fix this too.  

As mentioned, during the teenage years the amygdala gets hijacked, so teens are overly prone to over-reacting. 

If we can do mindfulness during childhood and we can help them be empowered to contribute to the problems they are worried about, it helps them to manage these concerns.

It’s important for teenagers to know that if we fix climate change it will likely be a teenager who innovates for this change as these years of creativity have often made huge contributions to humanity and discovery.

Leaving them with an action to take helps them feel like they can do something instead of dwelling on the disaster. 

Let’s think about the example of Covid and lockdowns.

Validate their feelings by saying “Yes, it is a bit weird and scary, you’re right it is unpredictable”. And then give a proactive statement, “You can wear your mask, keep your hands clean by hand sanitising and we can get vaccinated to help us keep safe”.

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