The suggestion of offering mindfulness training in schools can divide opinion among staff, from those who welcome this approach to cultivating a calmer environment, to those who regard mindfulness as just the latest fad - or even ‘hippy nonsense’.
In my life as a teacher and mindfulness practitioner, I have no doubt of the value of introducing young minds to these practices. I recently bumped into an old colleague of mine from a former job in a large comprehensive school. He reminded me of a series of assemblies in the 1990's, during which I taught short mindfulness practices for cultivating calm, focus and positive emotion to groups of several hundred students at a time. My friend expressed amazement that they had sat there quietly, actually trying the techniques. Personally, I was not surprised to see this – young people typically understand the need for these qualities just as well as adults do.
School leaders are faced with seemingly ever-deteriorating mental health statistics for both learners and staff, with mental health problems among school-aged children being at record levels (1) and teacher-stress being described as an ‘epidemic’, resulting in thousands of sick-days per year in the UK alone. (2) We know that stress reduces our mental and physical health, as well as effectiveness in the workplace, at its worst leaving us in a semi-permanent state of ‘red-alert’ in which we are unable to properly rest or digest food, process information or make simple decisions.
The need to do something is urgent. Even if we understand that mindfulness is not a magic bullet, there is a growing body of evidence that says that ‘well-conducted mindfulness interventions’ in schools and colleges do indeed have a positive effect. (3)
In this blog I’d like to explore how this might work in practice, as well as some potential pitfalls along the way. What might be helpful first steps for introducing mindfulness in your school? What do the researchers mean when they talk about ‘well conducted mindfulness interventions’? Are there some essential guidelines?
Rolling out mindfulness in schools?
At a ‘Mindfulness in Schools Project’ conference earlier this year, I heard a presentation from Cathie Paine, a mindfulness practitioner who is also the deputy CEO of the largest primary-only academy trust in the UK. Cathie had initially been invited to give a talk about introducing mindfulness within the 60 academies supported by her organisation, however the key point of her presentation, perhaps surprisingly, was an expression of caution about taking such a ‘top-down’ approach. Cathie cited levels of demand that school staff are already coping with and expressed reservations about adding another requirement to the already long list. She also suggested that mindfulness in schools works best when led by individuals who already have their own practice of mindfulness. I understand her caution. I can almost hear the heavy sighs of teachers, many already feeling over-burdened and some having little personal interest in mindfulness, being asked to take on the latest “initiative”. Staff being required to ‘deliver mindfulness’ could all too easily have the effect of putting off adults and children alike from the whole idea.
Bringing mindfulness into your school
So how can mindfulness be helpfully introduced in a school environment? I’d like to offer a few suggestions, based on experiences from my teaching career and also my work as a freelance mindfulness trainer in schools. These suggestions as a whole form an ‘ideal-world wish list’ that could be implemented over a period of years, as the resources and other concerns of the school allow – bearing in mind that schools function within real-world limitations, not ideal conditions.
An image comes to mind which may help us to take an overview: that of approaching the cultivation of mindfulness in your school as you might go about growing a tree in the school grounds. If we ensure that the sapling, having been planted by someone with appropriate skills, has the necessary soil, water and light, we must simply allow it to steadily grow in its own time. After a few years, that spindly sapling will be a flourishing young tree. Later still it may be an impressive presence, providing shelter and beauty in the school environment.
I recommend offering an introduction to mindfulness training for all staff, conducted by a properly qualified person. This lays the foundations, so that all have a basic understanding of what mindfulness is and - just as importantly - what it is not. Where possible the trainer would actively engage with the reservations of staff members that are skeptical, as well as the enthusiasm of those who are already interested.
It is unhelpful to require staff with no personal interest or wish to do so to ‘deliver’ mindfulness to learners. Rather, offer support to those staff that already have an interest in mindfulness that they are keen to share with learners. Encouraging such individuals to take initiative avoids the problems of a ‘top-down’ approach and leads to better quality interventions with pupils.
If possible, provide some mindfulness sessions for learners with a fully trained mindfulness teacher, giving staff an opportunity to see how it can work in practice with their class. This could be anything from a single session to a course, such as the Mindfulness in Schools Project (4) primary and secondary courses ‘Paws Be’ and ‘Dot Be’.
The support mentioned above for staff with a real interest would ideally include offering more in-depth training for them, as individuals, such as an 8-week mindfulness course (5) offered on an ‘opt-in’ rather than mandatory basis. This approach follows what is known as the ‘oxygen mask principle’ central to mindfulness in schools, whereby, as in a flight emergency, adults are requested to attend to their own needs before attempting to help a child. In the same way that counselling training requires the trainee to engage in their personal counselling process before offering help to others, staff members wishing to use mindfulness with children and young people need to have some experience of how the practice has worked in their own lives.
If you want to integrate mindfulness into the life of your school, consider sending one or more staff members on a reputable teacher-training course, such as those mentioned above. It can be demanding for a single staff member to introduce mindfulness into the life of the school, which can often feel like ‘swimming against the tide’. If at all possible, send at least two staff on the training course so they can support each other and better effect changes in the culture of the school.
A range of supports
Some staff may be wary that the provision of mindfulness training in their school is an attempt to focus on their personal capacity to cope with stress and divert attention away from practical issues such as workload and genuine support for the many issues they encounter in their working lives. I can understand this concern. It is helpful to be clear that mindfulness is in no way a substitute for other essential supports for staff in their professional lives.
I believe that, given the levels of stress being reported by children, young people and adults alike, the need for mindfulness - or something very like it - has never been greater. I hope I live long enough to see our imagined small-but-flourishing sapling, representative of current mindfulness initiatives in our schools, grow into a magnificent, nurturing tree.
NOTES / REFERENCES
(1) Mental Health: Pupil Statistics
The Mental Health Foundation website currently states that 10% of children and young people aged 5-16 years have a clinically diagnosable mental problem, yet 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age; that 50% of mental health problems are established by the age of 14 and that 20% of adolescents may experience a mental health problem in any given year. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/
(2) Mental Health: Teacher Statistics
· An article in the Independent published in January 2018 quotes the UK’s main education support charity stating that the number of teachers applying for help had soared by 40% in the previous year, with over 50% of a survey of 775 teachers reporting poor mental health and saying that their illness had been identified by a GP. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/uk-teachers-mental-health-diagnose-issues-targets-education-school-pupils-exams-a8174101.html
· The headline of a Guardian article the same month was ‘Epidemic of stress’ blamed for 3,750 teachers on long-term sick leave – a statistic that indicates both the high levels of stress among teachers and also the expense to schools caused by this. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jan/11/epidemic-of-stress-blamed-for-3750-teachers-on-longterm-sick-leave
(3) Evidence-Base for mindfulness in educational settings
(4) Mindfulness in Schools Project
See website for details of staff and learner mindfulness courses and registered trainers https://mindfulnessinschools.org/
(5) Some recommended mindfulness courses for adults
‘Dot Be Foundations’ (Mindfulness in Schools Project staff course) / Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction / Breathworks / Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy