Mindfulness

“In today’s rush, we all think too much – seek too much – want too much – and forget about the joy of just being.”  Eckhart Tolle

I know from my own pre-school and primary aged children that the lives of even small children – even without any family complications – are incredibly busy.  With a full to bursting curriculum, the school day is crammed with content and children can be sensitive to the pressure to perform academically. After school, they have an additional timetable of clubs and activities from swimming to football to art to music to dance to … just listing it is exhausting and that is without playdates, family time and sibling relationships. Childhood is also a time of challenge: Developing relationships, navigating school and exercising independence — the very stuff of growing up — naturally creates stressful situations for every child (New York Times Guide)  It is into this frenetic and hectic world that the concept of mindfulness comes.

Over the past few years there has been an awful lot of noise about mindfulness. Ironic given that the approach seeks to cut through noise, busyness and distraction by training the mind to focus on the present.  The founding father of secular mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, describes this as the skill of “being alive and knowing it” (Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP)) . 

This blog will look at what mindfulness is; the claims behind the approach; highlight some current projects in school and finish with resources and our book collection that can assist you in taking mindfulness into your classroom.  As well as your class mindfulness is an approach that might help you, as a busy professional, cope with workload, stress and anxiety. 

Mindfulness is mainstream. The approach warrants its own page on the NHS website with explanation, tips, advice and links to resources. The Evening Standard used World Health Day in 2017 to promote establishing mindfulness practises with children at home.  Whilst last year, to coincide with Mental Health awareness week, it was announced that mindfulness, breathing and relaxation techniques were going to be introduced to 370 schools in England. The trial – led by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families with University College London – will run until 2021 and hopes to provide the government with insights into what mental health practises can be of benefit in schools (The Independent, February 2019).  

What mindfulness is…and isn’t.  The Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP) has a short animation that defines it in a way that words alone cannot.  It brings to life the concept in a way that children and adults alike can access. 

MiSP helpfully also uses words to articulate what it is

  • A Practice of Stopping and Noticing
  • A Training in Attention and Awareness
  • Evidence-based
  • Endorsed by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE)

And what it is NOT

  • Breathing exercises or yoga
  • Emptying your mind 
  • Religious or Spiritual
  • Chilling out

The former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, Professor Mark Williams, says that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment (NHS website). It is something – that through exercises and techniques -we can train ourselves to do. It is intentional and will be personal to us. It is an approach that encourages kindness, curiosity and acceptance as we engage with our present state (both internal and external) rather than self-judgement and condemnation (Exploring Emotions, Paul Christelis).  

The New York Times Guide on Mindfulness for Children summarises why mindfulness in children can be so helpful

“For children, mindfulness can offer relief from whatever difficulties they might be encountering in life,” said Annaka Harris, an author who teaches mindfulness to children. “It also gives them the beauty of being in the present moment.”

Part of the reason why mindfulness is so effective for children can be explained by the way the brain develops. While our brains are constantly developing throughout our lives, connections in the prefrontal circuits are created at their fastest rate during childhood. Mindfulness, which promotes skills that are controlled in the prefrontal cortex, like focus and cognitive control, can therefore have a particular impact on the development of skills including self-regulation, judgment and patience during childhood.

As you would expect most of the published studies on mindfulness are based on adults.  These form the basis of NICE guidelines supporting the efficacy of mindfulness in mental health contexts. The MiSP early research suggests that children might benefit in similar ways:

‘We know that mindfulness can have a significant effect on anxiety and stress and children’s ability to manage them,’ confirms Claire Kelly, director of training and content at the MiSP. ‘Initial research suggests that it also has a positive impact on academic skills and performance, as well as general wellbeing. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how the two might not be linked.’

There are various ways that mindfulness is being introduced into schools.  For example, MiSP has developed a programme to be used with Key Stage 2 children called Paws b. Through its curriculum, children learn:

  • The neuroscience of mindfulness and how it affects the brain
  • How to ground themselves when their mind or body is overly busy or out of balance
  • How to respond rather than react to difficult situations
  • How their thinking processes impact on them emotionally and physically
  • How mindfulness can support them in daily activities and relationships.

(theschoolrun.com).

MiSP trains teachers who then deliver the twelve hours of content that includes presentations, worksheets, discussion and mindfulness practise. Their website has helpful case studies detailing how a school or MAT has implemented Paws b and some of the outcomes.  

.b Playing attention by MiSP

Another resource that you can tap into is Schools in Mind. The Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families describes it as:

A free network for school staff and allied professionals which shares practical, academic and clinical expertise regarding the wellbeing and mental health issues that affect schools. The network provides a trusted source of up-to-date and accessible information and resources that school leaders, teachers and support staff can use to support the mental health and wellbeing of the children and young people in their care.

There are also animations, tools and techniques featured in the articles hyperlinked – from led meditations and breathing exercises on youtube to mindfulness apps to more simply identifying and naming thoughts and feelings then letting them go.  A great article to get you started is 25 Fun Mindfulness Activities for Children and Teens by Courtney E. Ackerman, MSc.

Here at Just Imagine we have curated a “Mindfulness” collection of books within our PHSE resources, to help take the practice of mindfulness into the classroom.  

Here is a taste:

Happy by Nicola Edwards and Katie Hickey is soothing, poetic and beautifully illustrated.  It creates a space in which readers can explore their emotions and the world around them. From taste, to smell to relaxing to loving to listening to feeling to discovering this book helps to interrupt our auto-pilot to help us appreciate the world around us.

Your Mind Matters: Beating Stress and Anxiety by Honor Head is published in April 2020.  Aimed at Key Stage 2 and 3 it aims to help the reader recognise signs of stress and anxiety with actions you can take to help improve your mental health.  A consultant working in young people’s mental health has approved the text. 

If I had a sleepy sloth by Gabby Dawnay is aimed at younger children. The publisher says that through rollicking rhymes and bold, graphic illustrations, If I had a sleepy sloth imagines the positives and negatives of having a sloth for a pet and provides a welcome alternative to the fast pace of modern life by creating the time for readers to simply b-r-e-a-t-h-e. Whilst the award-winning If I had a dinosaur, by the same author, follows a little girl lost in her imaginings of having a pet dinosaur. Will her daydream come true?

Exploring Emotions by Paul Christelis is a really practical book that helps children to explore the range of emotions that might be felt at a Sports Day.  This internal emotional state is likened to external weather which changes as the day progresses. The scenarios are explored, emotions are named and there is a pause button to encourage the reader to mindfully explore how they might feel.  There is a Mindfulness toolkit for a teacher or carer to introduce to help children accept their emotion and manage it. It is part of a Mindful Me series that the publishers say shows how mindfulness is used in everyday life to improve children’s concentration and creativity, manage emotions, relieve stress and anxiety and build self-esteem

Mindfulness isn’t something that can be outsourced…the best way to teach a child to be mindful is to embody the practice oneself. “Learning mindfulness isn’t like piano lessons, where you can have someone else teach it to your children,” said Susan Kaiser Greenland, a mindfulness instructor who works with children. “You have to learn it yourself… Wisdom doesn’t come from being perfect, wisdom comes from being present.” (New York Times Guide on Mindfulness for Children).

We breathe deep and expand like the galaxy,

We breathe out many thousands of stars,

And if we ever start to feel panicky,

This reminds us of just who we are.

(Happy by Nicola Edwards & Katie Hickey)