Health: Mind Over Matter


    With schoolchildren under greater pressure than ever before, teachers are turning to mindfulness, finds Susannah Warren

    When my five-year-old daughter started tapping her forehead the other day and talking about her “prefrontal cortex”, I feared we might have a child genius on our hands. In fact, she had been learning about that part of the brain during a mindfulness session with her class teacher. And it seems she’s not the only one.

    Mindfulness, once the preserve of hippies and Buddhist monks, has gone mainstream and is helping people of all ages to deal with their emotions and wellbeing. If you’re not familiar with the technique, mindfulness is a simple form of meditation that focuses your awareness on the present moment, allowing you to acknowledge and accept your feelings, thoughts and sensations in a calm and non-judgmental way.

    The technique has been scientifically proven to help treat problems such as stress, anxiety and depression, conditions that the young seem to suffer from more than ever before as they face growing 21st-century pressures. Hardly a week goes by without another worrisome headline about the state of our children’s mental health. Childline reported that kids who received counselling for exam anxiety tripled last year. Even more worryingly, 43% of pupils who had education targeted counselling were under 11.

    Such statistics explain the popularity of mindfulness in schools, as teachers look forever more effective ways to improve the wellbeing and performance of students. Phil Ward, head of Thomas’s Preparatory School in Clapham, introduced mindfulness into his classrooms last year and is a major advocate.

    “I am certain that mindfulness has a key part to play in supporting children to live happy, healthy and purposeful lives,” he says. “The frenetic dash from home to school,often [after] too little sleep, a day of ceaseless activity and then trying to juggle homework with chatter from electric devices proves too much. All of us, but especially our children, need calm in our lives.”

    Ward established the practice at Thomas’s with the help of the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP), a non-profit organisation that trains teachers in mindfulness for schools.

    The benefits are huge, says Sarah Silverton, co-creator of MiSP’s curriculum for kids aged seven to 11. “We have been overwhelmed by how children report that their mindfulness practise supports them in school and beyond.” She cites improvements in concentration, decision-making and self-management skills, as well as a changed attitude to experiences. Crucially, regular practise results in increased self-awareness, which allows students to focus on aspects of life that offer them happiness.

    Getting started young is a bonus: “We believe that children at Key Stage Two are particularly receptive because they are at an age when curious exploration is their ‘default setting’,” says Silverton. “Offering strategies to develop healthy patterns of managing stress reduces the impact in later childhood.”

    This is one of the major reasons Ward has embraced mindfulness with such gusto: “Prep schools have a unique role to play in doing their bit to avert the possibility of students developing mental disorders later on.”

    Lessons for seven- to 11-year-olds delivered by a MiSP-trained teacher last anything from three to 10 minutes and are a mixture of short breath and body-awareness practises, supported by film clips. “It’s very interactive and experience based,” explains Silverton.

    At Thomas’s, Ward has incorporated mindfulness into the school’s Inspiring Living (IL) course, which seeks to develop a culture of wellbeing at school and beyond. Each IL lesson begins with two to three minutes of mindfulness, led by MiSP-trained staff. Assemblies and staff meetings also start with two minutes of stillness, led by Ward himself. “It has encouraged us to bring calm reflection in our busy lives,” he says. “I am a convert!”

    Silverton agrees that the popularity of mindfulness balances the strong-achievement focus in education: “The stillness and silence is a pause in a day that otherwise races from beginning to end, full of activity and learning, without many moments to just be.”