independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Young children are already mindful

Primary school teachers are introducing mindfulness therapy to pupils to improve their focus and promote calmness.

Senior infants class at St Ultan's in Cherry Orchard during their mindfulness session

The average human being has up to 70,000 thoughts a day. Clinging to slights, peeved at politicians and fearing for the future, it's a wonder we get anything done as the currents of continual thought pull us under, distracting us from focusing on the now. We go into an auto-pilot, as destructive as HAL in '2001: A Space Odyssey' and work ourselves up, up and away from what should be getting our full attention in the present moment.

Habitual beings, we plough this pattern into our brain. But we can change it over time. Mindfulness is about creating a new pathway so that the traits of calm become our natural state.

Studies have shown it decreases stress in those who suffer from anxiety, depression, sleeplessness and agitation. It has also been shown to aid recovery in serious illnesses, while it also yields results for the able-bodied.

But in the sacred words of Helen Lovejoy, 'what about the children?' As adults rebuild already damaged neurons, what's the benefit to those who have yet to destructively soil their consciousness?

"Young children are already mindful," says Derval Dunford, who used mindfulness in her fight to overcome multiple chemical sensitivity.

"When you look at a child, they are totally absorbed in play. It doesn't matter what's going on around them. But, should they fall, they are traumatised. They wail like it's the end of the world. Five minutes later, they are off running outside again. It happened, they cried and they moved on. Mindfulness is not about suppressing thoughts, but acknowledging them and moving forward."

In 2010, Derval and Ann Caulfield, were invited by Mayo Education Centre to design a programme for teachers, to help them develop mindfulness and happiness in primary school children.

It's at school-going age that most children start to follow in our footsteps and develop more regular worries.

The pair has since plugged the gap in the market creating the first CDs that use an Irish voice through their company Mindfulness Matters.

"The familiarity allows them to focus on what they are supposed to be doing instead of on the accent," says Caulfield.

The three CDs are curriculum friendly and integrate with the school's Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) programme.

"If you get them at that age and create that habit of focusing before they do something, it improves every aspect of their life – sport, school work, relationships."

Melissa Morgan is one teacher who has seen progress in action. The head of the Early Focus programme in St James Primary School, she uses mindfulness along with a whole host of other cognitive therapies on pupils who often come from difficult backgrounds.

"For an inner city school we have relatively little behavioural issues," she tells me.

Her school's principal, Noreen Flynn, agrees.

"Many of our pupils are highly disadvantaged. There's the generational challenge left by unemployment and addiction to drugs and alcohol, resulting in low self-esteem in the community. This, in turn, means children in every class have difficulties. The focus of our school is to create an oasis of calm, hope and learning where our children can reach their full potential in a secure, safe and happy environment."

In 2010, they introduced mindfulness to teachers and pupils and immediately saw the calming influence. Compassion for self and others and a rise in self-esteem resulted in a drop in absenteeism and violent outbursts.

"It changes behaviour," says Noreen. "That is the essence of it. Children who practise mindfulness find it much easier to take that split-second before they lose control. It's a habit, but once they get into that habit of taking a breath and focusing on the present, it becomes natural for them."

"Mindfulness is bringing the thought into your frontal cortex as opposed to acting out of the primitive brain," Morgan says.

"They are in a better state of calmness. And when you introduce it to them at such a young age, they greet it with a less cynical head than us adults might."

They say that novelty develops neurons and, while mindfulness in adults and children is basically the same thing, children's senses and imagination need to be stimulated or they become bored very quickly.

Derval and Ann have combated this on their CDs through a series of visualisations and affirmations.

"You start with simple belly breathing, bringing the focus into the abdomen instead of the chest," says Anne. "You imagine a balloon in your tummy and you choose its colour. As you breathe out, the colour goes up."

There's a track called the Rainbow Discovery, where the colours go in through your toes, and swirl around your body 'and you are the treasure at the end of the rainbow. Unique, special, with no one exactly like you.'

Another, Cool, Calm and Confident, helps the children reconnect with things that have gone well in their life, which they are proud of, that brings about calmness as well as confidence. ("What we have found," says Ann, "is that when the children are put in a situation that unnerves them, like a race or competition, they can block out all the external fracas and internal head noise and come back to this space that they feel safe in.")

While the Wishing Well encourages the children to sprinkle positive thoughts on themselves, those they love and those who have annoyed them.

"The child becomes aware that if that child were happier, they would not annoy them so much."

Aoife Slacke teaches senior infants in St Ultan's Primary school in Cherry Orchard, Dublin. "I would use it after the children have been out in the yard. It gives them time to calm down and focus on their breathing."

She uses it every day, but never for more than five minutes and finds that it is an easy method to get the kids to move from one activity to the next.

"If something has happened during PE, it's a great way of getting them to let go of that and focus before the next lesson," she explains.

She has children with ADHD in her classroom who find it hard to focus.

'Yet they are able to do this. You just have to be sure to give them their own space so they don't get distracted by – or distract – the other children. Where I work is quite disadvantaged. We have the hardest nuts that you could meet, but if you remove any messers and get them to observe, they see that everyone else is into it and then they want to be a part of it too."

The self-penned declarations on the wall highlight the children's love of Mindfulness. "They might not know the long-term benefits," Aoife says, "but they love the novelty of lying down, listening to their breathing and watching it react with scarves or feathers."

Naturally, with so much to get through on the curriculum, some teachers wonder if they should be wasting time on such methods. But as Melissa puts it, "If you actually spend the time doing it, the child is in a better place to assimilate the information. It allows that part of the brain to settle and calm and then they can focus more clearly on what the teacher is saying."

Ann and Derval pay attention to the needs of the teachers.

'We have been invited to the Irish Primary Principals' Network conference for the last three years and many Gaelscoils asked us if we could create a CD in Irish as they were forbidden from using the English version, " says Derval.

So, together with Maire Ni Chathain, they created Spás Síochánta Suaimhneach (Still Space).

"There is a big move in English-speaking schools to bring Irish into other activities like PE, Drama, etc so this is one way that they can do that."

They also provide online courses to help teachers practice what they preach, using mindfulness in their own careers. "There is a lot of literacy and numeracy and a lot of paper work in a teacher's life, " says Ann.

"So this is self-care.

"'How am I managing my time? How am I managing myself? What can I do to have less stress in my life?' What we find are a lot of the faculty do the courses together as part of their Croke Park hours as it is sanctioned by the Department of Education.

"When we have to go into our staff meeting, wired after a day's work, breathing exercises totally bring you back to yourself," says Melissa.

"It refreshes the mind, makes you calmer and puts you in a better capacity to listen for two hours.

"Just breathe into what ever it is you are feeling, acknowledge the thought, then you empty your mind."

The greatest thing about mindfulness, Derval concludes, is that it uses simple and practical tools, what is already in the present moment to bring you back to it.

"The body, the breath and the five senses are never anywhere else."

Mindfulness Matters are supported by COGG. For more information on products and stockists visit www.mindfulnessmatters.ie.

Irish Independent

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