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TEACHING CHILDREN CONCENTRATION
Published in Vancouver’s Common Ground Magazine 1999
Written by Heidi Thompson


“Mindmastery lets me focus on myself for awhile, instead of observing
the things around me like I normally do.” --Bethany, Age 11

The classroom is silent. The lights are dim. Thirty-one grade four students sit erect and motionless on their cushions. Only four minutes left to go and our 45-minute goal will be reached! This is a moment of success for all of us. I open my eyes and look around. The children are beautiful, peaceful, sitting with their eyes closed, concentrating on the breath. They are practicing Advanced Attention Development (AAD) or Mindmastery, an exercise which strengthens the mind, develops concentration, and gives insight through direct experience of how the mind works. AAD is a program designed for students in all school grades, from kindergarten to university. Its goal is to educate each child by strengthening and developing the powers and faculties of the mind and body—the original meaning of the word “educate”.

Children with healthy and focused minds are not only better equipped to survive today’s world, but also possess inner power and knowledge, which enable them to make positive changes in society. All children can benefit by developing their concentration. Children with learning disabilities, including attention deficiency, hyperactivity and behavioral problems, benefit greatly, as do gifted children and high-potential learners. Teachers and parents who practice the AAD technique also experience improvement in both awareness and ability to focus.

A Grade Four teacher comments after her class participated in an AAD course: “It was interesting for me to observe the growth in self-awareness that took place over the weeks. The children became very aware of how their own thinking words and some became aware of their thinking for the first time. This meta-cognition, as it is called, is important to learning. If we notice our thinking, we become better able to control ourselves and our own lives. We are responsible for the way we think about ourselves. Many students experienced an improvement in concentrating and felt that their determination proved stronger. They were all proud of their self-control.”

The mind mastering technique used in AAD originates from Anapana, a precursor for Vipassana Meditation, taught by Buddha over 2,500 years ago. This technique of concentration and mind-purification has been preserved in its pure form over the centuries and is currently taught at ten-day Vipassana courses throughout the world. Today, Anapana is being taught to children worldwide. Most of the courses have been held at Vipassana centers, but are rapidly being accepted as curriculum at regular schools. Last year in India, over 10,000 students participated in programs held in schools and at centers. Since it is purely a technique, is non-sectarian and is not part of any organized religion, Anapana has been well-received in the school system.

I have been practicing Vipassana for over ten years and am involved in children’s programs in Washington. I adopted the Anapana technique for AAD because I found it unusually effective in training the mind to focus. After I started practicing Anapana and Vipassana, I noticed positive changes in my life. Looking around me and seeing so many children unable to concentrate, I felt compelled to share this technique. After consulting with the Vipassana Foundation, I began the pilot project called Advanced Attention Development, teaching Anapana to children in a number of elementary schools in Vernon, B.C.

Last year over 60 students attended Mindmastery sessions. Says John, a 10-year old student of AAD: “Today I felt that I could concentrate on my mind. I could use Mindmastery in my daily life to control my thinking. It’s not easy, but it’s fun.”

Today’s children live in a world where it is hard to find a moment or a place simply to sit and quiet the mind. Information and distractions bombard them and create frustration and agitation, sometimes leading to aggressive behavior. According to Newsweek Magazine (March 18, 1996), children are going through a concentration crisis: “Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) has become America’s No. 1 childhood psychiatric disorder. Experts believe that over two million children have the disorder. The number of kids taking Ritalin has grown two-and-half times since 1990.”

After working for about eight weeks with a group of children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) who were taking Ritalin, I was encouraged by their progress. Although they continued using medication during the course, their concentration time went from one-and-half minutes to fifty-five minutes. All the children wanted to continue with the program. This experience convinced me that mind-strengthening exercises should be seriously considered as a healthy alternative for treating ADD and ADHD.

Why is AAD effective? When students practice attention development they learn from direct experience. That direct experience, which involves feeling how sensation is linked to thought, creates an understanding in the student which results in his or her ability to master the process. The simple technique of feeling the natural breath becomes a way for each child to observe the way the mind works. While trying to focus on the breath, the child’s mind continually wanders from thought to thought. Restlessness upsets concentration, making the child fidgety and uncomfortable. However, as the child continues bringing attention back to the breath, restlessness dissipates, the body calms, and the mind strengthens.

After an AAD session, children feel able to focus at will. They are more aware of the nature of the mind and of what they have to do to master it. They feel liberated and empowered and want to go on with the practice. Says Michelle, a 10-year-old student in the program:“Mindmastery helped me by making me learn how to focus on my thoughts and by telling me that I was the master of my mind. It helped me to set more goals for myself and be more considerate—and it helped me to CALM DOWN.” I believe AAD is particularly effective because of the entirely voluntary nature of participation. Students have to apply to attend the course (and parental permission is necessary), so from the very start, AAD is a course students want to take.

Spoken and written dialogues between instructor and students after each session allow the child to examine and express his or her reaction to AAD without any kind of judgment. This reinforces the experience unique to each child, which underscores its value. The AAD program may be requested at any time mutually convenient to the teacher/school and the instructor. There is a two-hour introductory session for interested teachers. Since AAD is an extra-curricular course, teachers requesting it should be aware that the program consists of seven one-and-a-half hour sessions over a period of two weeks. A group may consist of between seven and thirty students. All AAD talks and programs are free; instructors give their time entirely on a volunteer basis. At present I am the only instructor of AAD in B.C. although a training program for new instructors is being developed.

Children intuitively love Mindmastery, working with enthusiasm to experience and meet the challenge, and delighting in the self-confidence and inner calm which results. I believe that by developing strong and healthy minds, these children will be better equipped to deal with the many challenges they will face as they grow older. Says 12-year-old student of AAD, Mark: “I think this program makes the world look beautiful and come into peace. I would love to continue.”