Teaching mindfulness in a tough world for children benefits us all
Schools, once places where children went to learn and play, are now minefields of social media anxiety. Increasing numbers of children are suffering from mental health issues. Schools are desperately trying to figure out how to help their young students cope in the modern world.
Even schools that are famous for encouraging a 'no-nonsense' and 'stiff upper-lip' approach to students are softening their outlook. Eton College, the famous English boarding school that has educated 19 prime ministers, is currently advertising for a clinical psychologist to deliver a "resilience programme" for its students.
Headmaster Simon Henderson says that young people need to build confidence and resilience to be able to manage themselves in a "fast-changing and challenging environment".
Mental health issues around children are on the rise, as kids try to cope in the ever-evolving world of social media. Any help that schools can provide is most welcome. After all, we want our children to be happy in body and mind.
Depressingly, Department of Education figures show 544 schools, out of more than 3,200 mainstream and special schools in Ireland, cannot access psychological services.
More than 75pc of schools in Co Louth and 60pc of schools in Co Meath do not have access to a trained psychologist. In Cork, 47 out of almost 360 schools do not have access to a child psychologist.
Education Minister Richard Bruton said these schools do not have access to a trained psychologist due to staffing shortages or psychologists on maternity, long-term sick leave or carer's leave.
This gaping hole in services is in direct contrast to the guidelines developed by the National Educational Psychologists Service in consultation with the Departments of Education, Health, and Children and Youth Affairs.
The guidelines clearly state that schools play a vital role in the promotion of positive mental health in children. Schools can also provide a safe and supportive environment for building life skills.
"Listening to the voice of the child and fostering healthy relationships with peers, teachers and school staff are essential to children's positive experience of school and their cognitive and emotional development," the guidelines state.
Wise words, but it's a bit difficult if there is no psychologist on hand to listen to the child's problems.
Worryingly, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland estimates that by the age of 13, almost one in three young people will have experienced some form of mental disorder. Deliberate self-harm and suicidal thoughts have been experienced by one in 15 of 11- to 13-year-olds at some time in their lives.
Mr Bruton said his department was working to solve the problem with a new national recruitment competition that has been put in place by the Public Appointments Service to fill vacancies in all regions.
Another approach to helping promote positive mental health in schools is via the worldwide phenomenon of mindfulness. In Ireland, mindfulness is now being used in many schools to help boost children's self-esteem and to calm their worried minds.
You only have to look around to see that the anxieties and difficulties facing young people today have increased beyond anyone's prediction. Even young children in primary school are fretting about fitting in, being popular and their appearance. With mobile phones and social media invading their young lives, they are constantly comparing themselves unfavourably to others.
Dismissed by some as a "hippy-dippy" approach to wellbeing, mindfulness has been shown to have many health benefits.
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, concentration and performance in the classroom and a greater sense of self-esteem.
With those kinds of results, every school in this country should be introducing it. And the teachers benefit, too. Research has shown that teachers who teach mindfulness to their students also experience improvements in physical and mental health, including conditions particularly linked to the teaching profession, such as stress and burnout.
Devised by Derval Dunford and Dr Ann Caulfield, the Mindfulness Matters programme first introduced the concept into Irish primary schools in 2011.
"Social media creates enormous challenges, with online bullying and peer pressure causing a lot of anxiety for today's kids," says Ms Dunford. "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 the Mindfulness Matters online training and integrated mindfulness into primary schools.
No one is suggesting that children's mental health and wellbeing is the sole responsibility of schools. Parents and the wider community need to step up, too. If everyone does their bit, we can hopefully raise well-balanced, happy children, in spite of the pressures of the modern world.