There has never been a more receptive time for schools to look at the best, evidenced-based ways to support the wellbeing of pupils and staff. As heads, senior leadership teams (SLTs) and school staff look for ways to support their school communities in these challenging times, is there a case for implementing mindfulness?
The latest evidence suggests that mindfulness training in schools has “promise and potential”. Our research team at the University of Oxford are asking some probing questions. Can learning mindfulness at school help young people to be more resilient and navigate challenges more skilfully?
Does mindfulness work?
The World Happiness Report 2017 stated that when looking at the academic performance and the happiness of pupils, it “strongly confirms the importance of the individual school and the individual teacher”. Could mindfulness training support teachers’ wellbeing, influence the school ecology and so indirectly support young people to flourish?
Introducing anything new into a school is hard. Making it stick is harder still. This is especially true for anything to do with young people’s wellbeing. So we started from what we already know works; we drew on the best available theory and research evidence.
Joseph Durlak is one of the leaders in this field; he has reviewed hundreds of studies with hundreds of thousands of children. One of his most important findings is that you need to consider carefully how best to introduce any social-emotional curriculum into a school if it is to work and prove sustainable. Our research project, the My Resilience in Adolescence (MYRIAD) project, used Durlak’s framework as we set about how best to implement mindfulness training. We’ll describe here what we learned as we implemented mindfulness training in 43 UK schools.
But first, what is the MYRIAD project? It’s a collaboration between the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, Exeter and others. It is funded by the Wellcome Trust. It is led by experts in the field of neuroscience (Professors Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Tim Dalgleish) and in clinical psychology (Professors Willem Kuyken and Mark Williams). It has involved more than 540 staff and 43 research leads within schools. It has worked with over 36,000 pupils and 100 secondary schools all over the UK since 2015, asking if mindfulness training in schools enhances wellbeing.
There are quite a few mindfulness curricula. We used the Mindfulness in Schools Project ‘.b’ programme because there were two studies suggesting it is acceptable and may be effective. It was developed for pupils aged 11 to 16 in secondary schools. School teachers first learn mindfulness for themselves and then learn how to teach the .b curriculum to children. The maxim is: learn mindfulness, be mindful, then teach mindfulness. The curriculum consists of 10 lessons of 40 to 60 minutes each, and four additional lessons as a follow-up. It is intended as an introduction to mindfulness, psychoeducation and social and emotional learning. The lessons include brief mindfulness practices and activities covering topics such as how to train your attention, neuroscience, how to manage emotions and how to step back from negative thoughts that can create stress, anxiety and depression. Each lesson revolves around key short mindfulness practices. We’ll be publishing the main results in 2021.
Mindfulness in schools: 10 steps to support you
Are you considering implementing mindfulness in your school? There are no quick fixes. Time, careful strategic planning and careful use of resources are needed to effectively implement mindfulness in a school setting. So what did we learn? We think these 10 steps are particularly important.
1. First impressions really do matter
It’s make or break in the first minute, so don’t waste the time of school staff – find the right person to introduce mindfulness. It is critical to introduce mindfulness to your school effectively, starting with the head and SLT. We used school mindfulness specialists for this role who had backgrounds in school leadership to foster respect and credibility.
Taking care that the messaging resonated with what schools were trying to do was critical. Using language that is commonly used in schools and avoiding jargon promoted mutuality and trust. The initial contact, vocabulary, dispelling myths and highlighting the links to wellbeing and learning are essential. This means providing evidence from the latest scientific research on both adults and young people.
In those initial connections we took the time to foster relationships and listened carefully to everyone we met. We had a professional approach, using standard PowerPoint presentations with our university logos on all our materials. Many heads said the phrase, “I didn’t realise the evidence for health was so robust."
2. Without backing from the head and SLT, it’s going nowhere
There must be support from headteachers and SLTs. This is critical, as they can make the strategic decisions necessary to get mindfulness on the school improvement/development plan and on the timetable.
If they are not familiar with mindfulness then step one hasn’t been taken. Encouraging the head and SLT to learn mindfulness for themselves can be an effective way for them to experience its effects and thereby the possibilities for their staff and pupils. Of all the 540 school staff who were trained, across 43 schools on our training arm, 12 were headteachers and we felt that this led to greater engagement and more effective implementation. One school, for example, made this an ongoing offer for its staff and has over 60 members of staff who have taken part in a mindfulness course: a real demonstration of how heads can look after their staff by offering them skills to look after themselves.
3. Enthusiasm is infectious
You need a single person or group of people who are advocates for mindfulness in your school and who have specific responsibility for implementing and managing it in school, with at least one person on SLT. This role needs to be written into their performance targets so that its importance is recognised, it is given “clout”, priority, and progress is monitored. We called these people our “research leads” in MYRIAD, but they’re often called “champions”. It was critical that they were effective in their ability to influence both the school management and the person responsible for the timetable.
4. Timetable is key
Find out who can get things put on the timetable and make them your best friend. The mindfulness programme needs regular time allocation on the normal school timetable, either in a particular year group or spiralled throughout the school. These lessons can be included in the “wellbeing” sections of PSHE or life skills. Many schools are now including “mental wellbeing education” as part of physical education, and it also sits well here. There is also growing enthusiasm for using science slots for these lessons, as they draw upon aspects of applied neuroscience and physiology.
It can be tempting to only offer mindfulness classes to specific groups of pupils who may be experiencing difficulties, such as anxiety. Try to avoid this as it can create stigma and encourages the misconception that mindfulness is only used when pupils have “problems”, rather than encouraging all children towards flourishing, wherever they start from.
We generally avoided after-school clubs as our experience was that the programme needs to be more integral if it is to flourish. We asked all our schools to put the lessons on the main timetable if at all possible. One school decided to have a rolling programme of mindfulness across all the Year groups, revisiting key themes each year and keeping the learning alive and ongoing. Another used it during the transition activities with its feeder primary schools and had a focus in Year 7. The key is that there is a good fit between what mindfulness skills can offer and the school curriculum.
5. There’s no cheap and easy fix
Train and encourage your staff to look after their own wellbeing using the mindfulness skills. There are different training routes, but be wary of cheap, easy fixes. We offered voluntary adult mindfulness courses with trainers, who were listed on the British Association of Mindfulness-Based Approaches (BAMBA) and thus had been through a recognised training pathway. This meant that a pool of staff were in the school with knowledge and appreciation of mindfulness skills, fostering collaboration and a shared approach. For the research, we used an eight-week (two-hour class) course called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Life (MBCT-L). In some schools it started with teachers but rippled out to include parents, governors, primary feeder school staff, associated staff or local authority staff.
6. Find your ‘wow’ teachers
Because this mindfulness curriculum is taught by school teachers, it is important to put your best, most enthusiastic staff forward for the training to teach it. Teachers who are passionate and creative. Teachers who walk the talk. Teachers who have good connections with the students. Teachers who really care about pupils’ mental health and wellbeing. These teachers’ authenticity will shine through in the lessons and they will better support the pupils to learn the skills. We saw many lessons and it was really noticeable that when the teacher was enthusiastic and authentic, themes were really brought to life.
7. Support is critical
Help your teachers by providing support. Having access to a specialist mindfulness coach or mentor in school will save time and money. It will encourage and support teachers to teach the programme effectively. Even after all the training we put in place, there were misconceptions about teaching mindfulness. Some teachers thought they needed to relax their approach to classroom management, which only created confusion for the pupils. Some found guiding the practices difficult, tending to put on a “mindfulness” voice and speak really slowly, which didn’t sound or feel authentic, especially to teenagers.
We had regular personal contact with all our teachers via text and coaching. We spent time connecting with them, and supporting them emotionally, as well as practically – and chocolates and pastries also seemed to go down well! We found that as we supported the teachers, so they were able to support the pupils. Their role is pivotal and they need support.
8. Weave it into every aspect of school life
The real impact of mindfulness programmes in schools emerges when it isn’t simply something that happens once a week in a “mindfulness class.” Instead, mindfulness needs to be integrated into all aspects of school life.
Introduce everyday skills and practices into the normal school week and encourage the use of apps for staff and pupils. Headspace, a popular app, offers free licences to schools, teachers and children. Trained members of staff, who have the respect of the student body could lead practices at the beginning of each school or year group assembly. We’ve seen this be an incredibly effective way of settling a large body of students. Give opportunities for pupils to use the skills they’ve learned throughout their day, in the corridors, at breaks and lunchtimes. Use pupils as mindfulness champions or mentors. There is a great case study from The King’s School in Devon to illustrate this. The more staff who know about the skills, the more they can be used in the everyday life of the school.
9. Make it visible, for all to see
Use every opportunity to celebrate the mindfulness skills, for example via the school website and social media. Ask the pupils to make video clips, documenting the school journey, interviewing staff and pupils. This was extremely effectively organised by a teacher in one school and used during staff training. Our experience is that staff are often persuaded and even moved by students describing their experiences.
Make some of the vocabulary mainstream so it can be used as part of the everyday life of the school. For example, the phrase “.b” (“dot b”) means to take a pause; and the acronym “FOFBOC” is an invitation to come to the present moment by attending to our “feet on the floor and body on the chair”.
10. Spread the word
It’s important to encourage the wider school community. Inform parents via events in school, banners in the foyer, newsletters, and plant the seed of offering parents adult mindfulness courses in school. This will not only support families but also surround the young people with the skills and approach both inside and outside school. We found that children often introduced it to their parents.
This list is by no means exhaustive and more detail will be available in due course. It is intended to be a very practical and brief summary of our learning during MYRIAD in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, helping you navigate these uncertain times and supporting you to explore implementing mindfulness effectively in your school.
Special thanks to Jem Shackleford and Kath De Wilde for their work in this area.
For any further details please contact Liz Lord:
Durlak, JA (2015). What everyone should know about implementation. In Durlak J, Domitrovich, CE, Weissberg, RP, and Gullotta, TP (Eds.), Handbook of social and emotional learning, research and practice. New York: Guilford
Liz Lord is mindfulness implementation lead, MYRIAD research, and Willem Kukyen is Sir John Ritblat Family Foundation professor of mindfulness and psychological science, in the department of psychiatry at the University of Oxford