Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Thought for the Day: should mindfulness be taught in schools?

The long summer holidays are almost over and school is back just next week. How many children listen to Thought for the Day on the Radio 4 Today programme at 7.50am as they pull on school uniforms and pack sports kits and musical instruments at the start of a new school day? I’m guessing probably not that many… But they miss out on some good stuff about them!

Last Thursday I was in my kitchen piling fresh sandwiches into my lunch box as Vishvapani Blomfield read his latest Thought for the Day. I was stopped midway between slicing camembert and beefsteak tomatoes by some very thought-provoking words. Vishvapani is a Buddhist writer and mindfulness teacher based in Cardiff. According to his Wise Attention website his work explores how “time-honoured Buddhist practices such as mindfulness and meditation can be accessible forces for social change in the modern world”.

My rhubarb yoghurt hit the lunch box. And Vishvapani was on to the recently published The Good Childhood Report – research carried out over the past decade by The Children’s Society. This indicates that when it comes to reported wellbeing British children languish in a table of 15 countries at number 14, below Algeria and Ethiopia.

Vishvapani continued: “It's sad news; and we know from elsewhere that mental health difficulties are rising sharply among young people. Bullying is a particular problem and English girls are especially prone to feeling bad about their appearance and confidence. But why is this happening?”

“Various causes are proposed — our exam-focused education system, the influence of advertising and social media and so on. A common thread is that they encourage us to compare ourselves to other people or an idealised view of how things should be — how we should look, what we should achieve or the perfect existence we ought to be having. Psychologists call this 'the discrepancy monitor'.”

When looking at children aged 14 – 15, the researchers carried out an interesting exercise by analysing “the most commonly occurring words in children’s responses, which included ‘friends’, ‘family’, ‘bullying’, ‘parents’, ‘school’, ‘drugs’, ‘home’, ‘fun’, ‘education’ and ‘money’". Bullying is number three in the list.

Clare Foster wrote about the “discrepancy monitor” on the Everyday Mindfulness website, in her piece Social Media, Mental Health & Mindfulness. Elsewhere extensive research has been done over the past decade looking into why “people suffering from depression often believe themselves to be falling short of their own or other’s goals or expectations.”

Vishvapani’s Thought continued. He went on to suggest that rather than constantly comparing themselves with others, young people could focus on the present moment, using a technique used in many mindfulness approaches. “Pausing and accessing a sense of calm can create the space for a young person to start letting go of the anxious belief that they're fat or ugly, or don't fit in.”

Many of the researchers reach the same conclusions, that “people who engage in prolonged periods of meditation practice report that it profoundly alters their concepts and experiences of self”. So what is happening in schools? Are children able to engage in mindfulness? 

The Mindfulness in Schools Project is a non-profit organisation whose aim is to encourage, support and research the teaching of secular mindfulness in schools. Teachers who practise mindfulness themselves can sign up to a 3 day course to teach “Paws b” – a mindfulness course for 7 – 11 year olds.

The Mindfulness Foundation promotes the Mindfulness in Schools Campaign and wants to make mindfulness available to all UK school children. It’s strapline is: "Mindfulness in Schools - as important as sport and as politically relevant as health."

And last month a large-scale trial was launched by the Wellcome Trust to assess the effectiveness of teaching mindfulness in UK schools. It will involve 76 schools and up to 6,000 students aged 11 – 14 “to establish whether and how mindfulness improves the mental resilience of teenagers, and an evaluation of the most effective way to train teachers to deliver mindfulness classes to students”.

It sounds like a good start. What do you think? Should all children receive teaching in mindfulness, and would that help address the so-called “discrepancy monitor”? Let us know your thoughts in the comments box below.

And, by the way, there is mindfulness training for adults coming up here in Powys very soon. Mid Powys Mind is offering a new Autumn 2015 mindfulness course, with teacher Jo Mussen, at Crossgates near Llandrindod Wells. Tuesdays 10.30am – 1pm, orientation session 15 September, course 29 September – 24 November.

Finally, the Centre for Mindfulness Research & Practice – holds its All Wales Mindfulness Practitioners’ Network Day on 3rd September 2015 at Bangor University. It is the second event to bring mindfulness practitioners, teachers and trainers working across Wales together. So, as the new school term in Powys starts, Sarah Silverton, of the Mindfulness in Schools Project, will talking about Mindfulness Education.

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