Dr Jane Calcutt, Lecturer in Primary Education, Edge Hill University
Mindfulness may be a ‛marmite’ sort of topic; you might love it or quickly dismiss it. It certainly appears to have had an exponential growth in many sectors of society ranging from neuroscience studies to self-help books and apps. It has also swept into education, especially in light of the current, much publicised, mental health crisis. According to the World Health Organisation, by 2030 mental illness will be the most prevalent cause of early death. This is a grim prediction but in classroom’s today, children’s needs are apparent. School staff who responded to a survey from the children’s mental health charity, Place2Be, and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) described seeing an increase in emotional and mental health issues among pupils since the pandemic, the most common including anxiety, low self esteem and even depression. Could mindfulness be part of the solution?
But what is mindfulness?
This is the basic human ability to pay particular attention to the present moment with non-judgement. Awareness is grounded through noticing breathing, and other physical sensations, allowing individuals to respond, rather than react, to thoughts, emotions and experiences. Modern programmes have moved away from Buddhism, emphasising scientific therapeutic qualities. This has led to critiques of a seemingly quick-fix tool that upholds and even promotes individualism, now disconnected from the social and moral origins of its spiritual roots. Even this narrowed definition of mindfulness application is under dispute with recent research from the Wellcome Trust and Oxford University collaboration. A large scale study, spanning eight years, integrated 10 structured lessons into a secondary school curriculum. This was taught by class teachers following manuals with results illustrating negligible improvements compared to normal social and emotional learning (SEL) school provision.
What do small-scale studies show?
A different picture emerges from some small-scale qualitative studies. The investigation I conducted, as a primary school teacher, offered contrasting perspectives in both detail and results. Rather than working with adolescents completing questionnaires, I had conversations with 7-8 year old children and their teaching assistants. Different materials were also used. The Mindfulness in Schools (MiSP) Paws b programme requires ongoing personal practice with several days of training. This organisation has faced criticism for training children to self-pacify. I, however, saw opportunities for empowerment through ongoing discussions that encouraged and valued children’s ideas. I taught a Year 3 class with three observing teaching assistants who were interviewed before and after sessions. My resources consisted of detailed lesson plans, child-friendly presentations and practical activities. Personal experiences were recorded and group discussion illuminated pupil perceptions after each lesson.
What can mindfulness offer schools?
Data illustrated that the programme was both enjoyable and accessible. There also appeared to be a deeper understanding of thoughts, feelings and informed choice within real-world situations. Most importantly, children’s responses showed increasing empathy and compassion. Understanding how the brain works, alongside opportunities to be still and self-regulate, may enhance social and emotional learning and application. Awareness of self and others develops kindness and respect, promoting positive relationships to support everyone’s mental health.
‛Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.’Helen Keller, 1921
Find out more about Jane’s research via research.edgehill.ac.uk.
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