We recently had the opportunity to chat with Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D., the Education Director at VIA Institute on Character (viacharacter.org/www/). Niemiec is a psychologist, coach and author who teaches mindfulness meditation as a pathway for helping individuals flourish and live their best life. Niemiec recently spoke at the Raising Positive Children – Global Author Series, hosted by BeechAcres Parenting, the Mayerson Academy, and Children, Inc.
CF: Please explain what mindfulness is?
RN: Mindfulness begin gaining popularity in the early 2000’s. Everyone was defining it as something different, so approximately 20 scientists got together and built an operational (clear, concise detailed) definition for mindfulness. They defined mindfulness in 2 parts. The first part, the “what” part is defined as self-regulation of attention. It focuses on taking control of what you give your attention to. The second part, the “how” part, is your attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance. Be curious of the experience, drop the judging and be open to experience, accept the moment. The definition also hits 2 of the core VIA character strengths of self-regulation and curiosity.
CF: Are there signs parents can look for that show their children have stronger/weaker mindfulness skills?
RN: Parents should focus more on their mindfulness, stay focused, and model their mindfulness skills for their children. Kids are tuned into their senses, which is a level of mindfulness.
CF: Is there a resource you recommend for parents and/or teachers?
RN: Start with identifying character traits for yourself and increasing your self-care. Then you can identify strengths of your child, if your child is old enough to take the survey. There are also several videos and free resources on the VIA website.
CF: Is there an assessment that adults/children can do to identify their character strengths?
RN: There is a FREE Character Strengths Survey on the VIA website at: https://www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths-Survey There is a survey for adults and a survey designed for youth ages 10-17 years old. There is also a document that is available to help people assist people with disabilities to take the survey.
CF: Is there any survey available for youth under 10?
RN: Strength spotting starts in the womb or when you 1st lay eyes on the child. Parents can share a story about a time their child was really happy and then view the story with the 24 strengths in mind to help uncover the strength spots.
CF: How can parents effectively model mindfulness meditation?
RN: Parents can remember two main elements in mindful discipline: self-control/self-regulation and to act in the present moment. Modeling these two things can help kids to connect to the present moment. Parents should also pay attention to the non-verbal signals their children are using – attending to them in the present moment and setting the boundaries. Parents can also model managing reactivity.
CF: What drew you towards teaching about mindfulness?
RN: In the early 2000’s I was a practicing psychologist using a deficit based approach. I wanted to take on new approaches that would be more useful. I was practicing mindfulness and research, work, and practice merged together. I ended up leading hundreds of mindfulness groups for parents, people experiencing stressful conditions, depression, anxiety, and more.
CF: I know there are many success stories you can share. Can you share just one with me?
RN: Several years ago, a colleague and I brought the character strengths to local Boys and Girls Clubs. We discussed vicious circles or virtuous circles. We used a three-part approach. First, all the staff took the VIA survey. Once staff identified their strengths, we discussed strength spotting. Second, we did a strength bonding activity, which turned into a positive snowball as staff were sharing what they believed the character strengths were of others. Finally, staff had to pick an “invisible child”… one that may be very rebellious, have attention issues, mouth off, isolate them self, does poor in school, or possibly aggressive. After a child was picked, the staff was directed to begin to have conversations about the strengths of the chosen child. They discussed things that were good, what they liked about the child, the conversation that began negative, turned into a very positive conversation about all the great traits about the person which lead to more positive interactions between the staff and the child.