Growing numbers of children as young as 5 are struggling to cope in an increasingly pressurised and competitive society, but mindfulness in schools can help to combat the stresses.
“My mum was going to have a baby and I was making up stories in my mind about how terrible the baby would be; how much it would feed and sleep and how much time it would take up. But I practised mindfulness and it helped me realise that the baby would be a good thing not a bad thing.”
Holly, a pupil at Ysgol Pen-y-Bryn primary school in Colwyn Bay, was part of the Year 4 form whose teachers helped to pioneer PAWS b, a version of the mental discipline of mindfulness specially designed for young children. She and her classmates are convinced it helps them deal calmly with a frantic world.
According to the mental health charity YoungMinds, stress and anxiety related conditions such as depression, self-harming and eating disorders are rising steeply among the very young, with more than 8,000 British children under 10 suffering from severe depression.
Over the last ten years the number of young people admitted to hospital because of self-harm has risen by 68%. 1 in 10 children aged 5–16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder – around three children in every class. Among the most common triggers are children’s fears about exam results, friction with their peers, unrealistic parental expectations and schools’ obsession with league tables.
Concerned at the rapid rise in psychiatric disorders, many schools are adopting mindfulness to boost youngsters’ equilibrium and wellbeing. The practice is rooted in Buddhist meditation and breathing techniques and many teachers believe that a version tailored to children – PAWS b (Pause and Breathe) for primary school youngsters and .B (Stop and Breathe) for older ones – can help them to improve their academic performance as well as their mental health.
The Mindfulness in Schools project was launched in 2007 by teachers from Tonbridge, Charterhouse and Hampton School. They collaborated with academics including Mark Williams, former Professor of Clinical Psychology at Oxford University and Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre to devise a programme, using the principles of mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy to help children unclutter their brains so that they respond more skilfully to negative thoughts and focus calmly on the present.
“This is not about converting people to Buddhism,” explained Professor Williams, “but showing that there is scientific evidence that these practices are useful. So why deny them from being used?”
According to Hampton School’s headmaster Kevin Knibbs, the sessions help everyone “to recognise their inner critic and balance this with more discernment and kindness towards themselves” as well as identifying certain ‘corrosive’ negative attitudes that can trigger mental disturbance.
Teachers Rhian Roxburgh and Tabitha Sawyer who pioneered the PAWS b technique for young children at Pen-y-Bryn are equally convinced.
“My lively Year 4 class were well-known for bickering and fallings out, friends one minute and enemies the next” said Roxburgh, “and after a few weeks of doing mindfulness, I noticed a real difference in them: I wasn’t having to deal with arguments between them after break times. I overheard them having an impromptu discussion about the benefits of mindfulness and they said they had become better friends, they argued less, they were calm with each other and they were able to accept each other’s faults.”
“During the pilot mindfulness year, I found from my results that the academic levels of kids who had mindfulness lessons showed a greater improvement across the core subjects compared to those who weren’t having the lessons,” added Sawyer. “They were also far more positive about how they viewed their education. It was great to see all those smiling faces.”
Scores of influential educationalists now support the project, including Dr Anthony Seldon, the outgoing Master of Wellington College; Ann Clark, Principal of King Edward VI High School for Girls, Birmingham, and Lucy Elphinstone, headmistress of Francis Holland School. All say that mindfulness is proving a vital tool in boosting the mental health of pupils and staff.
“Girls are particularly prone to anxiety and stress, exacerbated by the internet,” said Lucy Elphinstone. “Concentration is hard nowadays. Most pupils no longer read deeply but skim read as they’re multi-tasking and often distracted.
When we introduced mindfulness last September we saw almost instant results. The core practice known as FOFBOC (Feet on Floor, Bum on Chair) can be taught in 30 minutes and is great for calming and centring you. Many teachers start lessons with it to help the girls feel calm and in control of their environment.”
Practitioner Dr Mariette Jansen has taught mindfulness at numerous organisations including the American School in Surrey and is convinced the practice has immediate, provable benefits for children of all ages.
“I worked with a boys’ prep school cricket team who were rowdy and chatty beforehand and all over the place mentally,” she recalled, “I asked them to throw a cricket ball through a V-shaped space between two tree branches and almost none of them managed it. Then we did some very simple one-nostril breathing and centring exercises, which they found fun. They tried again – and all but one did it perfectly.”
“Focus on the breath,” advised hockey international Sarah Blanks, pedalling hard on the exercise bike, alongside a group of her students at the highly-academic King Edward VI High School. “Feel your feet pushing down on the pedals and the sweat on your foreheads. You’re not thinking of the future or the past. You’re just being in the flow.”
For Blanks, who has helped to introduce the school’s mindfulness programme to girls as young as 10, exercise is the key, while her colleague, artist and puppeteer Hannah Proops shows pupils how to attain a sense of beatific calm through colouring intricate Paisley-style patterns. Mobile phones and social media are banned during the sessions, to avoid distractions.
“This school is full of exceptionally bright girls” explained Proops, the school’s head of Personal Decision-Making. “Some put huge pressure on themselves to be academic, pretty, popular and successful and we want to help them avoid the pitfalls these pressures can cause. Social media has turned many children into utter narcissists who imagine that their opinion is worthwhile even when they’re just posting pictures of themselves eating a sandwich. Part of learning to be happy is working out what makes you feel good – and checking Facebook ten times an hour certainly doesn’t.”
Having seen the positive effects of mindfulness on children as young as 7, I now understand its rapid proliferation – and why, if it hasn’t already, it could soon be coming to a school near you.Sally Jones writes widely on news, education, sport and health for the Daily Telegraph, Hello! magazine and the Daily Mail. Follow Sally on Twitter.