Mindfulness: fad or functional; hype or helpful?

Mindfulness is the new ‘it-word’ in psychology, and whilst it is now firmly embedded in current therapeutic practice, its role in the classroom is still developing.  If you are a teacher, this is a great opportunity to learn more about this practice. Let’s dive deeper into Mindfulness and the value it could bring to learners.

In the UK, a government mental health study has selected 370 schools to introduce mindfulness programmes in the classroom. The aim is to validate mindfulness as a preventive measure that could lower the high occurrence of stress, depression, and anxiety amongst youth (The New York Times, Feb 4th2019).

For many teachers, however, the jury is still out. With the extreme time pressure that teachers work under, and the vast array of ‘hats’ a teacher has to wear every day, does the ‘mindfulness guru’ hat fit, or does it sound like another fad that takes one away from precious teaching time? These are valid questions, and a brief overview might provide some background to making a call on this.

Let’s take a step back

The ‘hype’ hypothesis often stems from seeing mindful practices as being based in religious contexts, as well as adding to time constraints in the classroom, and not necessarily having tangible outcomes. Whilst the origins of mindfulness do stem from the great religious traditions, it is important to note that current mindfulness practices for children and teens, are secular in both practice and intended outcomes. The scientific research on the effects of mindfulness is positive, indicating that it does appear to assist in stress reduction, self-regulation, and compassion, all of which are of particular concern in schools.  Contrary to the popular image of mindfulness needing a solitary space, green juice, and designer leggings, it is something that can actually be practiced by a child intermittently and in different forms during a school day, without anyone actually noticing.

Mindfulness Classes

In a longer form, it could take a few minutes at the start of a lesson, or before tests or sports matches. (Phil Jackson, one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time, would attest to this, as mindfulness forms an integral part of his coaching).

The following key points regarding mindfulness in the classroom may add some perspective:

  • Adult mindfulness programmes generally do not suit the classroom, as mindful practices on their own can seem boring and unrelated to children’s daily lives. It is rather done as a mix of activities, videos and brief practices that are not in any way overwhelming or anxiety-provoking.
  • Young people can explore ways in which they can ‘switch’ for a few minutes each day from ‘doing’ to ‘being’, or from thinking to sensing. Finding ways, in other words, to be in the present moment, however briefly.
  • Teaching pupils some basic information about how their amazing brains work i.e. ‘know your brain to grow your brain’, and linking this knowledge to all the things they need to deal with on a daily basis, can provide invaluable insight for young people.
  • Introducing some basic breathing exercises in the classroom, especially just after break, or before tests and sport, can be calming and reduce anxiety levels.
  • Mindfulness can help children to learn to respond rather than react and to press the ‘pause button’ when there are friendship altercations or in a crucial moment in a sports game (or any other competitive situation).
  • Mindfulness emphasises the need for young people to learn to treat themselves and others with compassion.

Positive Education and Mindfulness 

Positive Education SA uses an established and validated programme called the MiSP (Mindfulness in Schools Programme). This was developed by teachers and researchers in the UK and introduces mindfulness in a way that caters to young children and adolescents specifically.  This programme provides a combination of activities, explanations and short mindful practices that link to the problems and issues that they face on a daily basis. As an Occupational Therapist and Educational Psychologist involved in presenting the MiSP programme, we have adapted certain aspects of the content to suit the South African context. The programme consists of two different curricula designed for groups or classes from Grade 4 to Grade 7, and another for High School. They run for ½ to 1 hour once a week for a 6-10 week period. These programmes could be implemented in class during the school day or after-school for smaller groups.

Being Mindful of Mindfulness

In conclusion, it is important to mention that however well-intentioned and thoroughly planned programmes are, there are situations where they are not appropriate. The following scenarios are when mindfulness in the classroom is NOT recommended:

  • Mindfulness work with children in class is not meant to be a therapeutic intervention but is done as a mix of activities, videos, and brief practices, that are not in any way overwhelming or anxiety-provoking
  • When a child has experienced recent trauma or loss or is struggling with psychological difficulties, certain mindful practices can be uncomfortable or disturbing. An initial evaluation should be made as to whether or not he or she should take part in the programme

Finally, participation should be voluntary, and parents should be given an opportunity to understand the process.

If an external programme is being run at a school, teachers are encouraged to join in, so that they can continue with practices in the classroom.  If teachers want to implement their own practices and programmes on mindfulness, it is strongly advised that they first complete their own mindfulness training.

EduConnect 2Cents

Mindfulness has real value to add in the classroom, as it is both functional and helpful. As a teacher, you have a great opportunity to introduce this to your learners.  If you want to know more about mindful programmes in schools, check it out here: Positive Education SA.