If you come across an article about mindfulness in schools, the chances are the main picture will be of someone sitting crossed-legged, with their eyes closed, looking completely serene.
But mindfulness is about so much more than the lotus position. In fact, you can practise it anywhere, doing anything, in any position you like. More importantly, it is a skill that has the potential to not only help young people to focus and learn better, but to increase their resilience and help them navigate their way through life.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the process of “paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment with an attitude of curiosity and kindness” (Mindful Nations UK, 2015 report). It is typically cultivated using a range of simple practices like meditation or mindful movement (such as yoga).
At the heart of most practices, you are learning how to focus on one thing at a time (such as your breathing) and when you notice your mind has wandered off, you bring your attention back to focus on the thing you had intended to focus on. This helps to increase your attention, ultimately giving you greater control over where your mind goes. This is important: two Harvard researchers showed that we tend to be less happy in a state of "mind wandering", compared with when our minds are present-moment-focused.
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You are not failing if your mind wanders off 100 times during the practice; you simply need to bring your mind back 100 times. Studies show that regular meditators benefit from improved health, a greater resilience to stress, increased concern for others and an improved ability to pay attention.
Is mindfulness a fad?
That’s all very well, you might be thinking, but isn’t mindfulness just another fad? After all, education is full of initiatives that were once flavour of the month only to disappear once the hype ran out, or the evidence failed to materialise.
I believe mindfulness is different for a number of reasons. First of all, we’re talking about something that has been practised by people for over 2,500 years – it has its roots in Buddhism and similar traditions.
Secondly, we have a Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group with a cross-section of MPs and Lords practising mindfulness and gathering the world’s leading experts to investigate how it can support people in the workplace, healthcare, armed forces and education.
Thirdly, mindfulness is what it means to be fully and innately human. When we practise mindfulness, we are learning how to be comfortable in our bodies, how to skilfully relate to our thoughts and emotions and how to relate to each other and the world around us. There is nothing faddish about that.
Why practise mindfulness in schools?
But why exactly does mindfulness deserve a place in schools? Critics argue that while mindfulness courses outside of the timetable might be great, the practice is not worth wasting precious learning time.
However, growing evidence suggests that mindfulness could be just what schools need to help their students learn. A recent meta-analysis of randomised control trials (RCTs) using mindfulness-based interventions with young people (Dunning et al, 2018) showed “significant positive effects in terms of executive functioning, attention, depression, anxiety/stress and negative behaviours.”
And let’s not forget that, according to the latest statistics, young people’s mental health is getting worse, with one in eight five- to 19-years-olds having at least one mental health disorder.
These statistics are one reason why several large trials are currently being conducted into the positive effects of mindfulness for young people.
University College London and the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families are conducting a huge trial in up to 370 schools of mindfulness and other innovative techniques to see what impact they have on promoting good mental health in children. And the Oxford University Mindfulness Centre is halfway through its MYRIAD (My Resilience In Adolescence) study – the largest ever RCT into the effects of mindfulness in schools with around 25,000 students involved.
The MYRIAD project has been tested in smaller-scale studies with promising results. There is no doubt that more research needs to be carried out to find out what works, but the current evidence base is providing some good foundations to build upon.
How to introduce mindfulness
So, what can teachers do to incorporate mindfulness practices into their classrooms? Here’s a short exercise that I have borrowed from Katherine Weare, emeritus professor of education at the University of Southampton.
Invite your class to adopt a strong, upright posture – straight spine, but with shoulders relaxed. They can close their eyes if that feels comfortable for them. Ask them to "take a quick selfie" by noticing what’s here for them in the moment. They could begin by noticing what sensations are in the body. Maybe sensing areas of the body that are tense and tight, but also parts that are soft and relaxed.
Next, ask them to shift their attention to any moods or emotions that are around. What’s the weather pattern like inside? Is there a sense of calm, or agitation? Are there feelings of relaxation or sadness? Encourage your class to notice the mood with curiosity but without trying to judge it with labels like "good" or "bad".
Finally, ask them to rest their attention on their breathing (placing a hand on their chest and one on their abdomen if that helps). See if they can focus on the sensations of the breath coming in and out of the body. Gently remind them to refocus on their breathing if their minds start to wander. This short practice could be repeated for a couple of minutes at different parts in the day.
Of course, teaching mindfulness in schools works best when you have your own practice and "embody" mindfulness. It’s no good guiding your class through a lovely mindfulness practice and then shouting your head off at a student who’s talking in the "silent corridor".
Speaking in Westminster at an all-party parliamentary group education event in June 2018, Weare said that mindfulness is like “WD40 for education – it seems to make everything else work better.” And it seems to me that we teachers could all do with a little oiling.