How mindfulness is teaching children to cope in school
Teachers can see the positive effects of new mindfulness programmes in their classrooms
The sound of helicopter parents hovering over their child's every move recently gave way to the lawnmower generation, those ambitious mums and dads who clear all obstacles in their children's path. Yet while today's breed of pushy parents find ever more resourceful ways of mapping out a lifetime of success for their little hothouse flowers, growing numbers of primary schools across Ireland are teaching their pupils the value of aiming high by chilling out.
Already established as an important means of helping adults cope with stress, mindfulness - the practice of focusing your awareness on the present moment while observing your thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way - is now being used by many teachers to build positive mental health and self-esteem in children.
But while its calming effects have taken the adult world by storm, research into its impact on children is at an early stage. Oxford University and University College London recently launched a seven-year study into the effects on 11 to 17-year-olds to find out whether the current mania for mindfulness can be backed by science. No doubt policy-makers here as well as Britain will keep a close eye on the outcome of the £6.4m project funded by the Wellcome Trust.
Meanwhile, a review of 19 mindfulness studies in young people by Katherine Weare, Emeritus Professor at the Universities of Exeter and Southampton, found a host of benefits, including reduced stress and anxiety, improved sleep, better concentration and performance in the classroom, less aggression, a decrease in symptoms of depression and a greater sense of self-esteem.
She concluded that "taken together, these studies suggest that for schools to engage in mindfulness is likely to have beneficial results on the emotional wellbeing, mental health, ability to learn and even the physical health of their students."
Devised by Derval Dunford and Dr Ann Caulfield, the Mindfulness Matters programme first introduced the concept into Irish primary schools in 2011. Killeen National School in Louisburgh, Co Mayo was one of the first to introduce the practice for its 68 pupils. Starting with just a few minutes a day, the principal and teachers were so impressed with the outcome that this year they introduced weekly half-hour lessons as part of the SPHE (Social Personal Health Education) curriculum. Sixth-class pupil Cillian White is a big fan. "I live in the now," says the 11-year-old. "Mindfulness takes my mind off things, like if I'm worried about schoolwork or exams. The class is calm and no one is rowdy. I enjoy it a lot."
Also popular in the school is the Hoberman Sphere, pictured above, a plastic toy that expands and contracts by pulling it apart and pushing it together. Each day one pupil is designated to choose a moment when he or she can use the sphere to lead the class in breathing exercises.
"When it's my turn, I raise my hand to get everyone's attention, and then the rest of the class and the teacher join me as I pull the sphere out and inhale, and push it in and exhale, for ten breaths," says Cillian.
The mindfulness classes are taken by teacher Sarah Billington, who says they made an immediate impact.
"There's no fighting in the playground anymore. Now if the teachers hear crying or shouting, we know somebody's fallen and hurt themselves. There's no drama. The kids look out for one another."
Visual aids, like a jar full of glitter, are used to help the children understand how their feelings can be shaken, but they settle when things calm down.
"Using CDs like Still Space for Kids and The Zone, I guide the children through certain themes like gratitude, mindful eating, or acts of kindness," says Sarah. "I ask them, what do you need to throw away? They pick up whatever hurt or tension they may be feeling and make the action of throwing it over their shoulder and it's gone. And before we finish, I ask, 'What are you happy about?'
"It's been great for the kids. They're more open about their feelings and are not afraid to say if and why they feel sad or upset about something, whether it's because a grandparent has died or whatever.
"When my own father died last year, I told them I missed him very much. It means a lot to them to hear somebody in authority express feelings about something they can relate to.
"When anyone in our family was down or upset, my dad would always comfort us with the words, 'The sun will shine again.' That message is at the heart of mindfulness. It's essential for our young people to know that it's okay not to be okay, but that nothing is permanent.
"The knock-on effect of mindfulness in the classroom is that children perform better and are happier. Rather than throwing yet more numeracy and literacy at kids, we need to let kids check in with themselves. We're teaching them to be emotionally intelligent throughout their lives."
Derval Dunford is one half of the duo that created Mindfulness Matters, which combines online courses, a programme for schools sanctioned by the Department of Education, CDs and other products to help adults and children equip themselves to deal with the stresses of modern living.
"Aristotle said, 'Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all,'" says Derval. "For years the three R's have been the primary focus in Irish schools, while the additional R's of reflection and resilience can help boost confidence, enhance concentration and improve physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
"Social media creates enormous challenges, with online bullying and peer pressure causing a lot of anxiety for today's kids. Ann and I have devised special techniques that help children find the space they need to empower themselves.
More than 5,000 teachers have engaged in Derval and Ann's online training and integrated mindfulness into the SPHE curriculum in primary schools across the country.
The success of the venture has been a personal joy for Derval, as it came about following a dark period in her own life when she was marred by chronic fatigue. In 2003 she developed multiple chemical sensitivity, a debilitating allergy to chemicals found in common household substances.
Simple everyday activities left her so drained, she hadn't the energy to work.
"I'm not talking about simple tiredness, I could barely move," she says.
Recovery was slow and, during that time, she turned to mindfulness to help her cope.
"It changed my life," she says. "It took serious ill health to make me listen to my body and discover the healing powers within us all. I learned how to regain balance and I've made it my mission to pass that on to other people, especially children, as I firmly believe it equips them for life."
One thing she found distracting while playing relaxation CDs to help her meditate was that the accents of voices used were invariably American or English.
"I looked for a familiar accent and there wasn't one, which inspired me to produce my own CD."
The result is Suí, a double CD of guided and non-guided meditation tracks, in which Derval's soothing voice with her soft Mayo lilt eases the listener into a state of deep relaxation. She and Ann have also released four CDs for children, The Zone, Still Space, Spás Síochánta Suaimhneach, and Sleep for Kids, which are being used in schools and homes throughout the country.
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