Mindfulness at School

 

Janet Etty-Leal author of Meditation Capsules: A mindfulness program for children at Yarraman Oaks Primary School, Australia

Janet Etty-Leal author of Meditation Capsules: A mindfulness program for children, teaching at Yarraman Oaks Primary School, Australia. Image via The Age

 

As part of my work at RMIT I am conducting research into teaching mindfulness in schools.  My research considers teachers perceptions of the experience of teaching mindfulness meditation for the first time.  I have been impressed by the rich descriptions and impressions of the teachers I have interviewed.  Their reflections of the benefits they, and the children, have experienced are illuminating.

But many ask why mindfulness is being bought into the school system in the first place.

Do kids really need mindfulness at school? 

It seems that stress (and associated health issues linked to stress) maybe the catalyst resulting in the incorporation of wellness based activities and programs into schools, including mindfulness and other forms of meditation.  Depression, anxiety, other mental health concerns, aggression and bullying, are universal problems faced by many school children, some of which can lead to high risk behavior among youth and adolescence.

The consequence of the success of mindfulness based therapies for adults – in both a therapeutic sense (mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR)) and for personal benefit through mindful meditation practices – is the now wide application of mindfulness in medicine, psychology and the corporate world.  Moreover, the benefits experienced by adolescence and children with behavioral or mental health issues in a therapeutic setting, has led to the wider application in schools throughout the world, including Hong Kong.

What is mindfulness?

I now hear the word mindful in everyday conversation all the time, but what is it to be mindful?

Mindfulness can be described as a way of paying attention, of purposefully bringing attention to what is being experienced.  The Mindful Schools program says “Mindfulness creates space, changing impulsive reactions to thoughtful responses”.

Mindfulness contrasts with mindlessness, the state of being many find themselves in, “often accompanied by a sense of stress as one’s experiences constantly fall short of one’s expectations.”  Dr. Daniel Seigel, psychology professor and author of The Mindful Brain (one of the books on my bedside table presently), says that “mindfulness is about waking up from a life on automatic.”

Mindfulness is more than meditation, quiet time or relaxation!  School based mindfulness programs also incorporate mindful listening, mindful eating, mindful walking and mindful movement to complement the guided meditations and discussions about mindful awareness, and the workings of the mind and brain.

Practitioner’s and researchers suggest that introducing simple forms of mindfulness practice and compassion in children can help establish healthy habits of mind.   For instance the Wake Up Schools program offered by the Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village Foundation (also in Hong Kong) aims to bring mindfulness to teachers and students to 

nourish education communities to excel in social and emotional learning, moral and ethical education, experiential learning, stress reduction and inner resilience.

I highlight this because I think it is an expression of what many of the school based mindfulness programs aim to achieve.

Mindful walking with Thich Nhat Hahn

Mindful walking with Thich Nhat Hahn

Benefits of Mindfulness – the research

In the USA, school based mindfulness programs have existed for the past 10 years or so.  Somewhat behind, the UK, Europe and Australia have begun introducing them, as has Hong Kong.  Despite the popularity there had been little research conducted with children in the school setting.  However this is about to change.

In the past year or so results are being published from research investigating the effectiveness of these programs.  Four studies published in 2013 all noted positive outcomes for the children in the participating classes.  Common themes include: improved attention and self-control; decreased stress and anxiety; increased wellbeing.

In this study researchers concluded from questionnaires received from both students and teachers that it is a “socially valid, feasible, and acceptable intervention for use in public schools”.  Furthermore school based mindfulness programs tend to be low cost relative to the immediate and sustained benefits likely to be experienced.

On the academic front, high academic performance and cognitive function are at the forefront of what educationalists, parents and most students want.  Mindfulness has been shown, both through the research and anecdotally in the classroom, to have a “positive effect on intellectual skills, improving sustained attention, visual-spatial memory, working memory and concentration.”

One theme I’ve found over and over again, and one that most meditators will agree with, is that regular practice rewards with greater wellbeing.  This was also found with students who were taught mindfulness at school and continued to practice for 10 minutes or more at home.  This study, although a bit older, found that wellbeing and mindfulness improved significantly for those doing home practice compared to those who did not practice at home.

What about the teachers?

Mindfulness in schools is not limited to students.  There are a number of programs that have also been developed specifically for teachers.  In addition to being trained in many of the school based programs, teachers are encouraged to take a course themselves. This pilot study found that a modified MBSR program given to teachers was effective in reducing stress, symptoms of burnout and improved self-compassion.

What’s involved

As a parent interested in bringing mindfulness to your child (or your child to mindfulness), you should be aware that there is a plethora of programs to choose from depending on where you live.  But then again, the choice may not be yours to make if the school has selected a program.  Despite differences in methodologies or lesson plans general outcome objectives tend to be consistent across programs.

For the younger children there is more focus on fun, lighthearted activities and games, whilst beginning to introduce the brain and how it connects to our body and our emotions.  Practices are generally shorter than for adolescence and adults.  For adolescence, practice will begin to incorporate meta-cognition (stepping back from our thoughts).

 

If you are interested in finding out more about what school programs are available in your area, whether its Hong Kong, Australia, UK or the US, drop us a line or comment below.  My colleagues and I are able to offer you some references to start with.

To close I am sharing this short talk by a Megan Cowan of the Mindful Schools program – a passionate teacher of mindfulness.

If your child(ren) already participate in mindfulness practice at school and you think others would benefit from your experiences. Please share your journey and theirs here. 

 

References:
Albrecht, N. J., Albrecht, P. M., & Cohen, M. (2012). Mindfully Teaching in the Classroom: a Literature Review. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 37(12).
Felver, J., Frank, J., & McEachern, A. (2013). Effectiveness, Acceptability, and Feasibility of the Soles of the Feet Mindfulness-Based Intervention with Elementary School Students. Mindfulness, 1-9. doi: 10.1007/s12671-013-0238-2
Siegel, D.J. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York: W.W. Norton & Company 
Weare, K. (2013). Developing mindfulness with children and young people: a review of the evidence and policy context. [Literature Reveiw]. Journal of Children’s Services, 8(2), 141-153. doi: 10.1108/JCS-12-2012-0014
Campbell, E (2013). Research Round-Up: Mindfulness in Schools. Greater Good, the Science of a Meaningful Life. 
 

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