Using mindfulness effectively in schools
Go straight to
Over the last few years educationalists have become aware of the importance of addressing not only formal education but also the emotional wellbeing of the pupil.
In fact, neuroscience research shows that basic emotional wellbeing is a necessary prerequisite for higher cognitive learning.
Mindfulness is an approach to enhancing wellbeing that has recently gained momentum in schools. The Mental Health Foundation's 'Be Mindful' report describes it as follows: ‘Mindfulness is a way of paying attention. It means consciously bringing awareness to our experience, in the present moment, without making judgements about it.’
The cultivation of mindfulness originates in ancient Buddhist meditation practices, but is very similar to the Christian concept of the ‘still small voice of inner calm’. Its use as a secular approach to developing wellbeing has become increasingly popular in a range of healthcare and educational settings.
Mindfulness in the classroom
Mindfulness is a way of paying attention. It means consciously bringing awareness to our experience, in the present moment, without making judgements about it.
Some of the things we can focus awareness on are immediately accessible to everybody in any situation. They include body sensations, sounds, the breath, feelings and thoughts. Most of us are often on automatic pilot and caught up in habitual ways of thinking and feeling, especially in times of stress.
By being conscious of these elements, we can develop a more reflective rather than reactive response to situations.
When introducing mindfulness to pupils, it is not about asking them to just sit in silence and ‘be calm’, but rather to encourage them to observe their body sensations, feelings and thoughts with interest and curiosity and to learn to accept these without judgement. As pupils gain more insight into their own feelings and behaviour, they can become more aware and sensitive to the feelings of others. By reflecting rather than reacting to feelings, pupils’ anger and aggression is reduced.
Another benefit, backed up by research, is that mindfulness helps pupils to focus better on subsequent educational tasks. When pupils are preoccupied with thinking about things that have happened or might happen in the future – perhaps related to friendship or family matters – it is difficult for them to focus on what is required in the classroom.
In order to be engaged and enter into the ‘flow’ of the learning process, pupils need to be present to what is happening now and mindfulness exercises can support this process.
Being aware of body sensations is a good way to start with mindfulness and works for pupils of all ages. By focusing directly on sensation we are immediately brought into awareness in the present moment. To experience this for yourself, take a pause in your reading and try the following exercise:
Place your hands in front of your eyes, palms towards you and hold them there for a few moments. Notice any tingling sensations in your fingers and palms.
The way we feel about our body has a direct impact on our self-esteem and all of us, including pupils, are very interested in our own bodies. The exercise you have just experienced with sensation in the hands can be extended to a whole body scan with pupils.
While pupils are asked to close their eyes and sit or lie still for this exercise, it is actually kinaesthetic in nature, as pupils are asked to move their awareness from one part of their body to another. To have something to do in this way really helps pupils to stay focused, whereas to ask a class of 30 pupils to just close their eyes and sit quietly for a few minutes could easily be a non-starter.
Neuroscience research explains how such a simple exercise as being aware of body sensations can affect the state of our mind. MRI scans of the brain show how sensation flows from our body into brain regions associated with present-moment awareness. The neural pathways in these regions also activate a connected set of neural pathways associated with descriptions, narratives and evaluations.
In layman’s terms, this means that body sensations often trigger habitual ways of thinking. Exercises that focus on sensation bring us into the present moment, instead of going over past events in a habitual way.
Further ways into awareness: feelings, thoughts, breath
There are a range of other mindfulness exercises that focus on feelings, sounds, thoughts and the breath to help us bring pupils’ awareness into the present moment. Many of these need to be adapted according to the age and development of the pupils.
Younger pupils up to the age of adolescence are in what Piaget termed the ‘concrete’ stage of cognitive development. For these pupils it is good to use quite direct exercises that focus on body sensation, sound or guided imagery exercises.
For post-adolescent pupils who are starting to be capable of what Piaget termed ‘abstract’ or ‘metacognitive’ thinking, it is appropriate to also use techniques that focus on the breath and reflection on patterns of thinking.
Teachers who are interested in delivering mindfulness should have their own personal experience of an adult course before teaching pupils
Training in mindfulness for educational professionals
The general principle for teachers who are interested in delivering mindfulness is that they should have their own personal experience of an adult course before teaching pupils.
In addition, teachers should have tried any specific exercises that they will deliver to pupils so that they are aware of the impact.
There is a growing range of mindfulness in schools programmes available in the UK.
Conclusion: an inclusive approach
Mindfulness is based on an ancient well-established practice that is now being validated by 21st-century research into neuroscience. It is an inclusive, secular practice that can be used by all pupils irrespective of their ability or cultural background.
Research, which is developing apace, shows that mindfulness in schools not only supports pupils’ wellbeing but also their ability to focus on learning.
Senior managers at Bruce Grove primary school in Tottenham attended a training course delivered as part of a DfE-funded programme to support emotional wellbeing in schools. A range of exercises and strategies, including a 10-minute mindfulness exercise, were delivered on the training day. Attendees were encouraged to share what they had found most useful during the training with their colleagues back in school.
Janice George, deputy headteacher at Bruce Grove, explained what happened when they chose the mindfulness exercise to share with staff:
‘The staff all enjoyed the mindfulness activity. It gave them that calm time to relax and let go of what had happened in the day. As that went really well the staff were really receptive for the children to do the mindfulness too. It was good for us because we do have a number of children who could benefit from a calming time. This helps them access tasks after that more easily.’
As the staff had found the exercise beneficial, they decided to roll it out to the whole school after the dinner break.
Headteacher Geraldine Waterman explained that they found the daily mindfulness routine gives children that calm space in their heads and… has a knock-on positive effect for us that they are ready to start learning in the afternoon.’
Mindfulness is used at the beginning of Therapeutic Storywriting Groups, an intervention used to support pupils with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties at Key Stages 2 and 3.
For these pupils, the initial focus of the mindfulness exercise is sound, in order to bring them in to the present moment. Pupils are asked to close their eyes and listen to the sound of a bell, noticing when the sound has completely died away. This is followed by a body awareness exercise which moves through the different parts of the body helping pupils become physically relaxed.
Finally, pupils are asked to reflect on the emotions they have experienced throughout the day and to write down two ‘feeling’ words that best describe how they felt. Pupils then take it in turns to share their feelings with the group if they wish.
While many of the pupils in these groups have attentional difficulties, pupils interviewed for an evaluation of the Therapeutic Storywriting Groups, commissioned by the South-east Region SEN partnership, were very positive about the mindfulness exercise at the start of the session. Here are a couple of typical comments from the pupils interviewed:
‘Sometimes it’s annoying when I can’t put my friendship problems out of my head and I can’t concentrate. At the beginning of the group as we go through the relaxation it helps. It helps me more to get them out of my head.’ (Nina, Y6)
‘The bit I like is when the bell rings and we have to close our eyes and relax. We close our eyes to feel calm. It feels relaxing because other people are doing it, there’s no noise, and it feels like you’re inside your body – it just feels different.’ (John, Y4)
Deputy headteacher David Mackie, who delivers a Therapeutic Storywriting Group, considers the mindfulness exercise to be a key aspect of the group:
‘It starts off the session and sets the tone for the session. It helps get the children in the right place, ready and calm, thinking about the feelings they’ve had that day and also thinking about the work they’re going to do.’
- The Mindfulness in Schools project, developed initially in two independent boys’ schools in England, is now gaining momentum and early research evaluations are very promising. Their ‘.b’ programme – stop, breathe and ‘be’- is suitable for pupils aged 13 and above.
- The Mind Up programme, developed by Goldie Hawn, includes mindfulness exercises alongside a range of other strategies to support emotional wellbeing. Research shows an improvement in the behaviour, attention and focus of nine- to 13-year-olds who took part in the programme.
- The Centre for Therapeutic Storywriting runs a course on mindful writing that is suitable for pupils of all ages and focuses on using mindfulness exercises as a way into writing for pupils on the SEN register, as well as whole-class groups.