Wow, I can’t believe how much fear people express about teaching their children a little bit of mindful awareness. It sounds like, who believes in organized religion, feels threatened by people who choose to think for themselves. Personally I think, it would be a blessing for everyone if children get attuned to hearing their inner voice as early as possible in life. Let your children breath!!!
TREE HUGGERS: Jack Barlow and Lucy Srzich ‘breathing’ with a plant to help calm themselves.
Lucy says a ‘‘lot of people were giggling’’ when they first tried mindfulness.
Jack Barlow wonders if “neophyte” is in the classroom dictionary (it isn’t). He queries if Charles next to him knows there are more than 120 meanings for “set” (he doesn’t).
It’s thoughts like these that “race” through young Jack’s busy mind. But the 11-year-old is doing his best to concentrate as one of 20 students staring intently at a man, perched like a grasshopper, brandishing a golden stick and bowl in a classroom at Westmere Primary school in central Auckland. Legs crossed, arms folded – out of habit, not instruction – they wait for him to stir the stick. A ringing echoes; everyone inhales.
It’s not easy. Sitting completely still never is at that age. Morning tea is 20 minutes away. Yet students must concentrate on their arms, legs and “deep belly breathing.”
Westmere Primary School has been part of the Mental Health Foundation’s (MHF) Mindfulness in Schools programme for two years. The trials, lasting eight weeks, included five other schools, four from Auckland and one in rural Southland, and the early results are promising.
Teachers kept journal entries on the progress of the 20-minute lessons and a survey three months later assessed the potential long-term impact, with researchers from Auckland University and the Auckland University of Technology studying the results.
“We found it improved students’ self-control, attentiveness, respect for other classmates and enhanced the school’s mood,” says Rix. It was beneficial for teachers too – many reported reduced stress in their personal lives.
Rix – the man with the golden stick and bowl – works for the MHF and has been practising mindfulness for 15 years. He developed mindfulness in schools after seeing similar trials overseas.
And the benefits were plentiful, according to Teck Wee, a teacher at another participating primary school, Te Papapa, who reported gradual change in students as the programme continued: “They were thinking more about how their own behaviour affected situations, rather than how other kids’ behaviour was affecting them.”
He recalls one troublesome student who would run, swear, fight, attack teachers and was academically two years behind.
“Mindfulness has given him some anger management strategies and cleared up his thought process. Now where he gets angry he’s not just sorry, but he talks about what he did wrong and what he will do next time.”
So why is mindfulness the latest buzzword among the US marines, rapper 50 Cent, a group of British MPs (all of whom practise mindfulness) and yoga mums alike? It’s less a buzzword, explains Rix, and more about getting rid of buzz.
It’s a tricky concept but at its simplest mindfulness is about focusing on the present. What it’s not about is only reducing stress (because then you’re striving for something). Or emptying your mind of all thoughts (they prefer you to observe your current ones). Or religion.
The technique draws on breathing exercises often used in meditation and Buddhism, but there the comparison ends. The aim is to be more aware of thoughts and feelings.
It sounds deceptively vague and hippie-ish but, stresses Rix, this isn’t about chanting and spirituality.
Not everyone is onside. The Ministry of Education received five formal complaints from parents at Riversdale School in the South Island after their principal proposed introducing mindfulness classes.
Katrina Casey, head of sector enablement and support at the MOE, says mindfulness shares some characteristics with Buddhism but isn’t specifically tied to the religion.
“There has been growing interest from schools in the technique. Earlier this year the Secondary Principals’ Association of New Zealand had a guest speaker talk about mindfulness at their annual conference.
“We do not advocate one behaviour management programme over another and we did not commission the Mental Health Foundation’s programme [it was funded by donations]. However, it’s not uncommon for teachers to encourage students to reflect on their behaviour.”
Other schools, she says, are trialling the ‘My Friends’ youth resilience programme as part of a wider, multi-agency initiative aimed at supporting student mental health and wellbeing.
“Schools have a lot of flexibility on all decisions relating to the curriculum and how they encourage good behaviour. Any school is free to introduce such a practice, if backed by its board of trustees in consultation with the school community.”
The modern mindfulness movement, says Rix, is equally informed by neuroscience and psychology.
“It’s nothing new for a secular society to adopt practices from elsewhere and then to study them scientifically, validate and integrate them into secular context.
“It’s a misconception,” he says of the complaints. “But people are entitled to their own views.”
Various district health boards across New Zealand use an eight-week mindfulness course to treat severely depressed or anxious patients. Evidence suggests mindfulness can improve people’s ability to handle stress and alleviate depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and eating disorders.
Overseas, in 2011 Jacob Piet and Esben Hougaard of Aarhus University, Denmark, published a review of the eight-week course in Clinical Psychology Review.
After six clinical trials with 593 people, they concluded mindfulness-based therapy reduced the risk of relapse for patients with at least three previous incidents of depression by 43 per cent compared to people who received regular treatment. However, there were no significant benefits for people with fewer than three major incidents.
It sounds a simple panacea – safe, relatively cheap, no heavy objects or pills. At times it comes close to channelling New Age waffle, but Westmere Primary’s principal, Carolyn Marino, is a firm believer in the benefits.
“There’s far more anxiety among children than when I first started teaching,” she reflects on her 20-year career. “More children have social and emotional disorders as a result of our society.
“Life isn’t as predictable as it used to be and parents are putting pressure on their children – not necessarily on purpose – but questioning if they’re working hard enough to get that job.”
Marino’s received no complaints – parents who had doubts were swayed after an information evening and now some indulge in mindfulness with their children after nightmares.
“Children live in this digital age where they are constantly being got at and don’t have enough down time to get away from that stimulus. Mindfulness gives them a strategy that helps them be a little more present.”
With so much on our minds at any given time we function regularly on autopilot. We don’t think about the physical and mental process that goes into, say, climbing a set of stairs and rightly so – we’d take forever to get anywhere.
Such mindlessness is why we often walk into a room forgetting our initial purpose or fail to remember what happened on a three hour journey. Mindfulness teaches us to be present rather than distracted by the past or projecting into the future.
So a mindfulness exercise could be having a shower. Instead of thinking about how your day was or what you need to do, simply notice what’s going on – the floor is wet, the air is steamy, the water hot and so on. Don’t judge if it’s a good or bad shower. Just notice it.
The principles and practice of “mindful leadership” are taught at Harvard; and Oxford University has its own Mindfulness Centre carrying out research into clinical and general health benefits.
Recently the World Health Organisation warned that by 2030 mental health issues will have become society’s biggest healthcare burden.
“This is going to come to a state where [mindfulness in schools] isn’t a luxury – it will have to be a necessity,” says Marino. “I worry about the mental health of our children and the society we’re moving into. The sense of risking failure is very prevalent; the need to be perfect is becoming increasingly obvious in young children.”
Eleven year old Lucy Srzich has taken such a liking for the programme that the time the CD malfunctioned, she led the class.
She was hesitant at first, and some of her friends thought the programme sounded silly. That first session, “a lot of people were giggling,” she says. But she was won over, as were her friends and parents who “researched it and then they were into it”.
Srzich continues to use mindful breathing when she is flustered or angry and needs a moment to calm down.
At the end of 20 minutes’ deep-belly breathing, Rix invites the class to share feedback. “It was just normal, yeah . . .” shrugs one student. Another is more receptive: “I feel like the square around me came out of the ground and floated in the air” he explains, to a flurry of giggles.
A common theme was the light, calm, fresh and relaxed feeling most students notice. If anything, mindfulness is doing wonders for their vocabulary. One explains: “I feel relaxed and calm every time I do this. I notice if I’m feeling worried and I never notice that when I’m playing, then it just builds up until I can’t calm down.”
Another chimes in: “It feels like the world stops spinning; I feel more of the little things.”
Marino took a mindfulness course herself when she was finding her early years as a principal stressful.
“It would be great if every child could be exposed to it as a strategy they could implement into their daily lives,” she argues. “What a great time to start. We try to get kids eating healthier and exercising, setting up those behaviours early on. Young people always seem to be looking into the future or something that isn’t necessarily their reality.
“We often work with our children on anger management strategies around breathing and taking anger out on things that are non-animate – telephone books, for example. This is a nice strategy for kids who might have issues with needing to get back to a place where they can make a sensible decision before they punch somebody.”
Rix agrees. The biggest feedback from both students and teachers is that it has become easier to identify emotions.
“They’re beginning to recognise how that manifests in their body as a physical sensation and understand what they’re feeling is going to pass. They’ve got this skill where they can drop anchor by paying attention to their breathing and just allow that anger to diffuse in a healthy way rather than lashing out.”
Next year he plans to extend the programme to intermediate schools. The final results of the study will be published early in the new year and Rix hopes they will persuade the Ministry of Education to invest.
It’s not quantitative stuff that can be measured in tests, says Marino, but it’s a building block.
“If you give kids enough exposure and skills they start to build a toolkit and that’s where I see mindfulness sitting. You’re not going to change kids overnight but you can create a shift in how they see themselves or deal with things that come into their lives.”
At the end of the course, children are encouraged to bring in something that will encourage them to practise mindfulness.
Soft toys are popular; one girl brings in a pink fluffy cushion, saying that whenever she cuddles it she practises mindful breathing.
“Others bring in mind jars they have made,” says Rix. “Sometimes a little pebble. Pieces of fruit are popular as well.”
Rix quotes a colleague who worked with a student from a difficult background who had trouble controlling his emotions.
“He was so taken with breathing with the green plants that he came and sat next to the plants I had in the chapel at the end of class, closed his eyes and observed his breathing for several more minutes.
“He asked me if he could take one to keep in his room.”