Talking about feelings during lesson time can be more relaxing than watching television, pupils say. And being aware of their own feelings gives pupils renewed confidence when interacting with classmates, new research claims.
Yee-Ling Ng, of York St John University, conducted qualitative research into the teaching of spirituality in primary schools. She interviewed 52 pupils in Years 3 and 4, as well as their teachers and classroom assistants. Her findings were presented at the British Educational Research Association conference, held at the University of Manchester this autumn.
Since 1992, responsibility for pupils' "spiritual development" has fallen on schools, and is a criterion for inspection by Ofsted. However, Ng points out that there is no effective nationwide programme of spiritual pedagogy. This can leave teachers with little sense of how best to introduce the subject into the classroom.
She therefore encouraged teachers to allow time and space for children "to reflect, question, focus, use their imagination and share their developing awareness of self and others". She then examined the results of these activities.
Much of the classroom reflection focused on the importance of individuality. "You have teached me that everybody is speshle in their own way," Year 3 pupil Bertha wrote. "It doesn't matter what other people think about yourself, because you are unique and you can kinda only have one."
Holly, also in Year 3, agreed. The lessons, she said, helped her "to learn who yourself is, even if yourself is dressed like a lemon walking around with your friends".
In fact, the pupils acquired a fairly sophisticated sense of what "yourself" refers to. "It means ... not, like, your outside, like your eyes or your senses," Bertha said. "But you think about your emotions ... what you feel on the inside.
"On your outside, it's like your body. But, on the inside, it's quite private, and it's kinda really like yourself."
Part of learning to understand themselves, pupils said, was understanding what was important to each of them and what made them happy. "What is your heart's desire?" Holly asked. Year 4 pupil Aidan, meanwhile, reflected on: "What is meaningful to you? Where is your special place?"
Their teacher believed that this was a valuable exercise. "It's them thinking about themselves, and the things that matter to them," she said.
The spirituality programme also included yoga-like relaxation, allowing pupils to sit in silence. Many staff members extolled the virtues of this classroom calm. One said: "Often in the classroom, they don't get the chance to just be silent."
A classroom assistant said: "They just sort of realise where they are, the environment they are in. They need to be quiet ... in order to get on with the day."
The pupils, too, saw the benefit of such still, small periods of calm. Year 3 pupil Beth said that she had "learned how to stay more calmer and relaxed". Adam, from the same year, said that he had learned "things like relaxing. Yeah, relaxing. Just relaxing in the day. You just relax your muscles, and feel calmer ... Everything comes out of you, and you ... just enjoy that moment."
Something from nothing
Year 3 pupil Bernice said that she had learned something from doing nothing: "I used to think, like, every time I was relaxed, I was just lying down and then watching TV or something. But then you showed me that you can, like, do things when you are lying down that can make you feel even more relaxed."
Following the lessons, teachers reported that pupils were less wary of playground judgement. A teaching assistant noted that pupils had become more friendly to one another and were careful to ask others if they wanted to join in their games.
"Before the lessons, I felt a little nervous that all of my friends would find out my deepest stuff," Holly said. "But after the lessons I felt really relaxed."
Year 3 pupil Caitlyn explained that she felt newly able to start "saying things that we don't normally say to people", including facts about "my religion, what I care about, who I care about, and my life story".
"Spiritual development in the classroom is viable," Ng concludes. "Certain skills need to be facilitated in the classroom, otherwise innate spirituality may lay buried deep within."
Bertha summed it up slightly differently. "Basically, we all have soft spots," she said.
Ng, Y. "Spiritual Development in the Classroom: pupils' and educators' learning reflections". International Journal of Children's Spirituality, 17(2): 167-185
Yee-Ling Ng, York St John University: bit.lyXlnUVa
International Journal of Children's Spirituality: bit.lyU0H7Na
WHAT PUPILS AND TEACHERS SAID
Caitlyn, Year 3: "I learned that I shouldn't hide my expressions ... my religion, what I care about, who I care about, and my life story."
Bertha, Year 3: "You will learn about, not, like, your outside, like your eyes or your senses ... but you think about your emotions ... what you feel on the inside ... Because on your outside, it's like your body. But, on the inside, it's quite private and it's kinda really like yourself."
Bernice, Year 3: "I used to think, like, every time I was relaxed, I was just lying down and then watching TV or something. But then you showed me that you can, like, do things when you are lying down that can make you feel even more relaxed."
Supply teacher: "There is no right or wrong answer ... If I ask them something from literacy, it's kind of academic, isn't it? You have to think really hard. But this is something already inside you. It's part of you."
Teacher: "They are not used to finding those kind of thoughts ... It's just not at the forefront of their minds ... Deep thoughts are not something that they are prepared for."