Google ‘mindfulness in schools’ and you get 602,000 results. Query Amazon UK with ‘mindfulness and education’ and you get 1,050 books. It’s the current buzzword, but is it the answer to all our ills?
What really is mindfulness?
Well, it is not a relaxation technique, positive thinking, therapy or a religion. You don’t have to sit cross-legged, allocate hours a day, empty your mind or stop feeling. It doesn’t stop you from striving towards career goals or make you into a zombie. And it’s definitely not a miracle cure.
Hands up if you’ve driven to work and wondered how you got to school; absentmindedly eaten that bag of crisps, Mars bar and 5 biscuits at 3.30 and then felt guilty; beaten yourself up over and over again about that incident in class when you lost it; wondered if you’ve lost your teaching mojo…
You’re not the only one suffering.
You may be angry, upset, worried about the state of the world but how many of us realise that our children and young people may also be distressed and worried about Syria, Brexit or Donald Trump? Or even need treatment for technology addiction?. YoungMinds proposes that three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health disorder.
NSPCC’s Childline counselled 35% more young people for anxiety in 2015/16 than in the previous year, during which time there was also an 11% increase in counselling sessions about exam worries and a 12% increase about problems at school.
So, what’s this got to do with mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn says mindfulness is “… about knowing what is on your mind.” That means you learn to understand that thoughts and feelings are not the reality, that they are just that, thoughts and feelings, and that you have a choice whether to act on them or not. You learn to be compassionate with yourself, to begin the process of putting yourself in control of your life.
You do this by focussing on your breath, by noticing thoughts as they come and go, by pausing before you react, by having awareness of feelings and emotions and their physical manifestations. You learn to be present, moment by moment, when you are running, eating, walking, listening to music, making a cuppa.
Putting mindfulness into practice can look like this
- Next time you drive to work, practice ‘commentary’ driving, saying out loud what you see. For example, “ahead there are hazard warning lines and feed in arrows – what action am I going to take?”
- Stop before you pick up a biscuit, take a few deeps breaths, and if you choose to eat it, do so slowly, enjoying the smell, texture, and taste
- What would you say to your best friend if they bullied themselves over what happened in class? And now imagine what would a really good friend who accepts and likes you just as you are, and is always kind and gentle to you, say to you? Would they give you a hug?
Maybe you are still unconvinced: where is the evidence?
The research base for the usefulness of mindfulness in adults is growing. The data suggests that it reduces high blood pressure, stress and anxiety; helps us manage difficult feelings, helps builds calm, resilience, compassion and empathy; that it alters the structure and function of the brain to improve the quality of thought and feeling. So for teachers, mindfulness could help reduce stress and burnout.
Although there are fewer studies that focus exclusively on children and young people, a six-year research project into the role of mindfulness in promoting mental health and resilience in 11-14 year olds lead by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre should show us what works. Further evidence could emerge from a DfE pilot study, dissemination of best practice, and funding for teacher training in Mindfulness initiative proposed by The Mindful Nation UK report.
However, despite the limited soft and hard data available, it still appears that well-conducted interventions can reduce anxiety, self-esteem, reactivity and bad behaviour, improve attention, focus, and enhance problem solving and reasoning skills.
Which brings us neatly to reality: Ofsted
If mindfulness interventions can impact positively on the personal, social, behavioural and general well-being of children and young people, if positive social and emotional competencies are linked with better health, well-being and achievement, if they’re easy to carry out, are enjoyed by pupils and teachers, are easily embedded in the culture, ethos and environment of the school, why not?!
Rob Walker, in The Guardian provides a compelling argument for the value of mindfulness in primary and secondary schools. He quotes one Head Teacher who says that “spending £1600 for a 16 week course is money well spent.”
What are the next steps?
There’s lots of suggestions on the internet and strategies that are rooted in mindfulness but in order to have maximum positive impact, a mindfulness teacher has to be authentic, embody and model the characteristics of mindfulness, be able to ‘sell’ it from personal experience, and do no harm: have completed 8-week secular mindfulness course and have a regular practice of at least 20 minutes 5 days a week for at least 6 weeks. Curious?
- The Mindfulness Initiative
- BeMindful.co.uk (includes online courses)
In the meantime, here are 5 things you can do to help yourself…
1. Next time you feel the need to calm down, STOP
Anchor yourself, by focusing your attention on your feet, how they feel against the ground, then to your lower legs, then upper legs. Do they feel heavy or light? Warm or cold? Notice your breathing. Is it fast or slow? Shallow or deep? You can do this when sitting, walking, standing, eyes or open or closed. No one need be aware of what you are doing. Then go back to what you were doing…
2. Deep breaths can calm you down
Try counting up to 6 as you breathe in, and 10 as you breath out, or say ‘in’ when you breath in, and ‘out’ as you breathe out. Find a technique that works for you. The aim is to slow it down and lengthen the out-breath, which releases more carbon dioxide and slows down your heart rate.
3. Find 5 minutes to have a healthy snack
Savour it – notice the colours, the texture, the smell, the taste. When was the last time you really enjoyed an apple?
4. Put a coloured sticker on the mirror in the bathroom, on the cupboard above the kettle, on your steering wheel, on your planner
Each time you brush your teeth, make a cuppa, get in and out of the car, or start a lesson, STOP. Take a few deep breaths and be in the moment: notice the taste of the toothpaste, the noise of the kettle, the feel of the steering wheel, the smile of a student.
5. Practice self-care
Eat well, live in the present, get outside, take a break from your phone/computer/iPad, treat yourself to what you deserve (a massage, a run, a duvet day), do what you love (what do you keep putting off…), forgive yourself!
…And 5 things you can do in the classroom
1. Encourage random acts of kindness
Model this yourself in class and in your life.
2. Start and end your lesson (or the day) with a few guided breaths.
Identify something specific to which they can focus their attention: feeling the air as it enters their nostrils, or the air filling their lungs. Hold it for one second, then very slowly exhale. Do it again, count to eight on inhale and exhale. Next time, count to 8 for an inhale, 11 for an exhale. Next time try a higher number. This brings awareness to their breathing. Talk about it.
3. Give your students chocolate
Mindfulness and the Art of Chocolate Eating. Talk about it.
Ring a bell (you can use an app) and ask them to listen to the vibration or the ringing and to put up their hands when they can no-longer hear it. Then tell them to stay silent for one minute and listen to the other sounds they can hear. Talk about it. You can combine the breathing activity with this one: focus on breath followed by focus on sounds followed by breath.
5. Model calm yourself.
Do an on-line course. Use an App: Headspace, Insight Timer, The Mindfulness App; Smiling Face (for children)