Can mindfulness contribute to a broad and balanced curriculum that enriches life?
Philippa Griffiths, PGCE (geography), University of Oxford
Before embarking on my PGCE, research led me to an array of negative reports on poor teacher and student mental health. This sparked my interest in mindfulness, an intervention for improving wellbeing and has already been incorporated into the curriculum of some schools.
Mindfulness is mental training that has benefits for adult health and wellbeing, and is grounded in numerous psychological studies. It is beyond the scope of this paper to include the full breadth, but key empirical studies will be reported. There is an equally positive evidence base emerging for mindfulness in schools, which will be explored in greater detail. The aim is to demonstrate that mindfulness is a highly usable, quantified psychological therapy that can contribute to an education that is ‘a direct enrichment of life’ (Dewey, 1934).
What is mindfulness?
There are multiple definitions for mindfulness, but one commonly cited is ‘the type of awareness that arises through paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally’ (Kabat Zinn, 1990, p. 4). Another definition considers mindfulness in two components: self-regulation of attention, and an acceptance of experience with curiosity and openness (Bishop et al., 2004).
The Eastern tradition of mindfulness was adapted by Kabat-Zinn et al. (1985) in response to the limitations of Western psychological therapy for chronic pain. The result was a treatment programme called ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’ (MBCT) which has sparked the development of numerous mindfulness-based therapies (MBT). The results of a comprehensive meta-analysis concluded that MBT improves symptoms of anxiety and depression across a range of severities (Hofman et al., 2010).
A popular variation of MBT is ‘mindfulness based cognitive therapy’ (MBCT) (Teasdale et al., 1995). I participated in an eight-week MBCT course during the first term of my PGCE. Weekly group sessions involved practice of sustained attention through a focus on breath. Other topics included the power of perception, the mind/body connection, and empathy. The course was rewarding and I gained the prerequisite to attend the ‘.b mindfulness’ four-day programme for teachers aiming to teach mindfulness in schools.
MBT in schools
The .b mindfulness programme is an eight-week MBT programme already used in some UK schools. The evidence base for its success is emerging but positive. For example, a non-randomised controlled trial concluded that children participating had reduced stress and greater wellbeing (Kuyken et al., 2003).
Despite enthusiasm for mindfulness, Dunning et al.’s (2018) study stresses that there is currently not enough gold standard research on MBT school interventions. Current research is positive but too small in scale and variable in methodological quality. There is continued momentum towards more conclusive evidence from UK projects such as Myriad (My Resilience in Adolescence), which is being carried out in 85 schools across the country (Kuyken et al., 2017).
What does this mean in practice?
To introduce a sustainable and successful mindfulness programme into the school environment, Wilde et al. (2018) stress the importance of involvement from the senior leadership team. Determination and vision are required from the beginning to ensure the intervention is seen as more than a passing fad.
Skills developed can have positive impact in school behavioural culture. For example, the power of self-awareness can be summoned by both teachers and students during situations that provoke an emotional reaction. Through the self-awareness to take a breathing space, there is a pause between perception and reaction, resulting in a more reflective response and avoidance of conflict (Bishop et al., 2004).
The evidence base for the benefits of mindfulness in schools is positively emerging. Some caution is necessary, based on the need for comprehensive quantified results, but as Feagans Gould et al. (2016, p. 19) remark: ‘scientists and practitioners must remain open to the full ramifications of mindfulness as a way of being and knowing’. If implemented carefully, mindfulness can contribute to a broad and balanced curriculum that enriches life for both teacher and student.
Embedding mindfulness lessons into the primary curriculum
Tim Smith, Headteacher, Hampton Pre-Prep and Prep School, UK
It is only relatively recently that the benefits of teaching mindfulness techniques to children have gained traction in schools. Creswell (2017, p. 491) explains how ‘mindfulness interventions aim to foster greater attention to and awareness of present moment experience’. Mindfulness lessons at our school teach children mental training exercises that develop sustained attention and self-regulation. They encourage children to be aware of thoughts and feelings without becoming distracted by them. We are fortunate in that we can draw from the expertise of our colleagues in the Hampton Trust Senior School – currently teaching mindfulness to pupils there – to teach the Paws b curriculum, aimed specifically at seven- to 11-year-olds and developed by the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP; see https://mindfulnessinschools.org/).
Working closely with the MiSP, Katherine Weare (2012) describes the positive effects on pupils’ personal development when mindfulness interventions are revisited in a spiral manner. We introduce mindfulness in our ‘Life Skills’ programme in Year 4. We then teach the 12-week Paws b curriculum as a distinct aspect of our ‘Life Skills’ lessons in Year 5.
In our mindfulness lessons, pupils are taught a range of techniques that encourage them to take a moment to ‘stop, breathe and be’. The content of the Paws b curriculum is focused on steadying emotional reactions. Pupils are taught to register how their mind is operating relative to how their body feels. Pupils in Years 5 and 6 comment that the techniques they have learnt have encouraged them to remain calm, particularly when they are undertaking what they perceive to be a stressful academic activity.
Kaunhoven and Dorjee (2017) suggest that mindfulness techniques can have a positive impact on the development of emotional wellbeing in pre-adolescents. We are critically aware of the need to prepare our pupils – not only academically – but also psychologically and emotionally for the challenges inherent in the 11+ examination process.
Kielty et al. (2017) stress the importance of a school’s context in ensuring the optimum effect of a mindfulness programme on pupil wellbeing. We continually reflect on the culture and ethos at Hampton Prep so that mindfulness lessons remain relevant. Although we have not conducted any targeted research on a school-wide level, it is clear from consistent pupil feedback that they recognise the positive impact of mindfulness on how they manage their responses to a range of uncomfortable situations.
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