Buddhists have practised mindfulness for more than 2,000 years, but the technique of focusing on the present moment has long been dismissed by scientists as new age mumbo jumbo. Now, though, the West is finally waking up to the benefits of Eastern meditation and schools are discovering a daily dose of silent reflection can not only calm a classroom but may improve academic performance.
In recent years, medical science has discovered the extent to which mindfulness can help treat a range of mental conditions, from stress to depression. While most studies have focused on adults, new research shows mindfulness can improve the mental, emotional, social and physical health and wellbeing of young people. Incredibly, neuroscientists have found that long-term practice alters the structure and function of the brain to improve the quality of both thought and feeling.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that teachers are becoming increasingly interested in the potential benefits of mindfulness for students.
Caroline Woods teaches year one and two at The Dharma primary school in Brighton and starts her class every day with a few minutes of silent mindfulness practice. She says getting the children to sit still and in silence isn’t the struggle you might imagine. Students actually look forward to a time when all they have to do is stop, be calm and listen.
Although teaching at the school is based on Buddhist values, Woods insists the practice is not about religion or philosophy, it’s about gaining control of your negative thoughts and emotions. These skills not only help young people cope with academic stress, but also enable them to deal better with the pains of growing up and day-to-day pressures of life outside the school gates.
“The whole process of mindfulness has the knock-on effect of making people more receptive and open,” Woods explains. “What we are trying to do is help them become more aware of themselves in a non-judgemental way. By the time the students leave in year six, they have an emotional intelligence and a set of skills that really equip them to cope with everyday life.”
While the most common form of mindfulness practice involves sitting and following the breath, it can be adapted to focus on eating, listening to music or walking. The key is to find a technique which appeals most to the students.
According to Katherine Weare, emeritus professor at the universities of Exeterand Southampton‘s mood disorder centre, one of the most useful ways of practising mindfulness is to take a very short pause in the middle of whatever you’re doing. This can be done at school by inviting students to stop what they are doing, close their eyes and recognise what is happening in their mind and body right now. Then focus on the breath and really feel a sense of contact with the floor. It can take just two minutes, but once done, students are often ready to carry on in a much calmer way.
Weare, who is working with staff from the University of Exeter and elsewhere in the UK to develop mindfulness in schools, describes the practice as “the WD40 of education”, helping students find the focus needed to achieve their academic goals. The evidence, she says, is that kids’ tests improve as a result and children who can sit and breathe for a few minutes before they start an exam will do better compared with those who don’t.
Any mindfulness programme in school must, however, start with the teachers. Former teacher Claire Kelly is operations director for the Mindfulness in Schools project which offers training and resources for teachers. She says it is vital the teacher embodies the practice if the students are to follow suit.
“If you are not living the mindfulness principles yourself, the kids will know, they will be very cynical and you will probably put them off,” she says. “Likewise, if you teach them a lovely mindfulness lesson and then go out and kick the photocopier in the corridor, they will notice.”
Making sure the school leadership is on board is also essential. If they are supporting you, you’re halfway there.
Kelly warns, however, not to expect immediate results. In her experience the impact of mindfulness varies from student to student and it is difficult to know whether the practice is really sinking in. Some of the students will immediately get it, though, and she advises starting a lunchtime club for those who are really keen. And while others in the class often appear to be daydreaming and some may even fall asleep, that doesn’t mean that they will never use the techniques.
“There was a year group I was teaching and only a third of them at the time looked like they were really engaging with the practice,” she remembers. “But then about three years later, I had a phone call from an external invigilator who asked me to come down to the exam hall immediately. When I went down there I was surprised to see the same students doing a meditation practice in preparation for the paper they were about to sit.
“You are giving them a toolkit. Whether they use those skills is up to them, but the chances are they will draw on them at some stage.”
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