A recent rise in incidents of cyber-bullying has given renewed focus on the dangers of the internet. Young people today have instant access to internet and social networking sites via their mobile phones and iPads. Added to that, they experience an increased pressure to perform and achieve high scores. Taken together, these place children in negative and stressful situations, under which they struggle to reach their potential.
Claire Kelly, operations manager at the Mindfulness in Schools Project, talks about some of the distractions which plague school children today. She mentions exam stress, distractions from mobiles phones, instant messaging and social media. “The emphasis on exams and testing is everywhere and incredibly, it kicks in really early, at the primary school level” she offers.
Having experienced its benefits first hand, the organisation was started in 2007 by Richard Burnett and Chris Cullen to bring mindfulness to classrooms. Their website defines it as ‘a way of enhancing well-being and performance by a training in paying attention to experience as it happens”.
Mrs Kelly explains that the techniques used in mindfulness have been practiced for thousands of years. “Jon Kabat Zinn was one of the early pioneers to bring it to the western world. It was first introduced in the early 1970s at the University of Massachusetts to bring physical relief to those who were experiencing stress, anxiety and other mental disorders. Since then research carried out in the UK, at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Exeter has studied how it can be used to significantly increase mental health and well-being by those who practice it.
The organisation has developed an 8-week curriculum for school students inspired by Mark Williams, titled Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World. He has worked with the founders to develop a course which is now taught in 12 countries and in 8 languages.
Called “.b” which stands for “Stop, Breathe and Be!,” the classroom-based course can be done anywhere within a traditional school setting. The website cites that “it is packaged with a specific pedagogy that makes teaching and learning- mindfulness approachable and relevant to school life”.
“During the 8 weeks, students are encouraged to explore simple techniques, including meditation and deep breathing. They will be taught to ground themselves in the present moment, rather than worry about the future or be stuck in the past,” says Mrs Kelly.
“It helps to regroup themselves and get a stronger sense of time and space. The techniques will help them identify what makes them worry and how to respond to it. They will be equipped to deal with their anxiety; peer relations and helping them cope with anger and frustration”.
When asked if the course is also available for staff, she adds that there is no point in teaching students if the staff cannot deal with their own anxiety.
“We have a 4-day intensive teacher training course where we train teachers who eventually come back to their own school and deliver the curriculum. We have trained about a 1000 teachers and we are looking to train students at a 1000 schools”.
Mrs Kelly notes that the real worry is a lack of capacity to make space for themselves. “There is a lot of anxiety about passing exams and not being good enough. This is coupled with pressures from social media. Phones are left on through the night, they are Facebooking, bbming, all at once.
“When they encounter any kind of issues they don’t have the emotional resources and spiral out of control which leads to depression, physical illness and other mental health disorders”.
Stressing on the importance of personal time, Kelly says: “They are encouraged to break down long established patterns of behaviour by little practices every day. We encourage them to work together on these techniques. We give them techniques which would benefit them for the rest of their lives”.