My mother is a fluent French-speaker, having lived in Paris after the war. Lacking her aptitude, I was not confident about conversing in French myself, being wary of the response as people corrected my many mistakes. This fear made me less inclined to open my mouth and have a go. Suffice to say, I believed I was not much good at French. It was surprising to me, therefore, on a trip to West Africa many years later, where the generally spoken common language was French, to find myself holding adequate conversations on a range of subjects. What was different? The liberating factor was that nobody cared if I mispronounced a word. French was everybody’s second language in Senegal. The absence of fear of ‘getting it wrong’ led to a state of relaxation in which I could access vocabulary I was amazed to find I could remember. As a teacher, this was a point at which I clearly grasped the extent to which fear inhibits learning: pressure to get the right answer can shut down learning and communication.
School-based mindfulness courses
On a school-based mindfulness course there genuinely are no right or wrong ‘answers’ or experiences. This is fundamentally different to many classroom activities and can initially be a surprise for learners.
While calmness and relaxation certainly can be an outcome of mindfulness practice, this response is by no means always the case. As trainers we sometimes notice that pupils report such feelings because they assume that is the desired response. As they get used to the sessions, they relax into an understanding that it is just as acceptable to report that, at the end of a mindfulness practice, they notice that they are feeling annoyed or fidgety. The role of the trainer is vital in this respect: pupils’ experiences are acknowledged with interest but without judgement, giving the implicit message that whatever they experience is worthy of attention. Young people, like adults, appreciate being listened to in this open-minded spirit and before long will eagerly put their hands up after a period of practice to report what they noticed, whether stating their mood, the sensations of their breath, or a range of other experiences. In my experience children and young people thrive on noticing their direct experiences, articulating and having them validated in this simple way.
The role of 'inquiry'
Schools sessions do not generally include the in-depth ‘inquiry’ that one might find on an adult mindfulness course. Here, the trainer uses a series of well-chosen questions to help those participants who wish to do so to explore their experiences in greater depth. Many of the most exciting and important learning moments on an adult mindfulness course arise through this inquiry process, which typically includes exploration not just of the initial experience, but also the person’s reactions to it.
In the classroom, mindfulness trainers generally use what we call ‘horizontal inquiry’, whereby members of the class are free to simply state their direct experience in the presence of their classmates and staff. Repeatedly reporting back on experience in this way makes the point that feelings and sensations are constantly changing. ‘Horizontal inquiry’ has its own power. One impact in the class is that a wide range of sensations, emotions and thoughts come to be accepted and ‘normalised’. For example, a pupil can recognise that they are not the only one who experiences repetitive worried thoughts. It is a strange feature of human beings of all ages that we often assume that we are ‘the only one’ who ever feels upset, angry or stressed, in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary. This process of ‘normalisation’ can be a great relief, especially where children and young people have felt that they should not be having these not-so-positive experiences. In this way pupils come to understand more deeply that discomfort is a part of the human condition that everyone has to deal with. This reflects a very similar learning process to that which happens on adult courses. People of all ages can, through awareness, learn not to make unwanted experiences worse by ‘adding on’ reactions of impatience, annoyance or a sense of failure.
Supporting staff relationships with their class members
As well as being helpful for the individual child or young person to articulate their experience and be met with genuine interest, hearing pupils simply stating how they are in that moment can be a revelation for staff. Classrooms are busy places with near-constant pressure to produce outcomes. Most of the time classroom staff do not have the time or opportunity to simply listen with full attention to the young people in their care. As mindfulness trainers going into classrooms, we can often observe greater connections being forged among all class members, staff included.
How can this approach support the curriculum?
Mindfulness training ultimately has no other agenda than bringing awareness to whatever our experience is in any given moment. Emotions, including those that are difficult, can be processed and allowed to move on in their own organic way.
Mindfulness practice may well result in calm, relaxation and better emotional self-regulation. Paradoxically, these qualities are most likely to arise when they are not insisted upon. Rather, they may be encouraged to arise naturally through bringing awareness to one's experience, whatever that may be.
Mathematics, spelling and, of course, French are areas of learning that require correct answers. The approach towards personal acceptance implicit in mindfulness training can develop confidence in the child that may help to reduce the educational blocks that come with ‘fear of flunking’.