A lesson in mindfulness

Given the considerable amount of time students spend at school during their formative years, there is now an expectation to provide much more than education. Schools and teachers today are expected to be on the frontline of social care, health care, and family liaison. The pressure on students is also growing with concerns about anxiety, depression, self-harm, and mental wellbeing more broadly, being high on the national agenda. Subsequently, it’s no surprise that the practice of mindfulness is becoming increasingly important for students and teachers alike.

According to the Mindfulness in Schools Project, mindfulness, at its core, is the practice of training your attention to be more aware of what is happening, rather than worrying about what has happened or might happen. Mindfulness helps bring greater curiosity to our experiences – it is about focusing on the practical and calming the chaotic mind; skills that will serve those who practice it well throughout life.

Attending the Mindfulness in Schools Project’s ‘A Million Minds Matter’ conference last week, it was evident that despite the growing threat of anxiety, depression, and self-harm to pupils, there is an army of teachers and school leaders who understand the value developing this skillset in school and are committed to spreading the word. The event attracted a diverse line-up of speakers, each with their own personal experience of mental health challenges and unique perspective on the role of mindfulness in schools. These included Caroline Lucas MP; Jason Steele, founder and CEO of Raise the Youth; Ruby Wax OBE; Game of Thrones actor, Jerome Flynn; Manchester survivor, Emily Brierley, and Martha Wright, founding director of Mindful Music.

Each of these speakers had valuable insights to share however, common threads in the narrative were clearly emerged. Uniting each experience and perspective was a grounding understanding that as a practice, mindfulness goes a long way in nourishing the wellbeing and health of staff and students. Additionally, they each recognised that despite being a degree of personal accountability for each person’s mental wellbeing, as educators, there is a responsibility to equip students with the mindfulness toolkit and help develop the mental fortitude and resilience that will not only allow them to overcome any number of challenges but will help improve their education outcomes. Afterall, as Julie Hunter, deputy headteacher at Aureus School said, how can we expect students to learn effectively if their minds are chaotic and their focus fragmented?

Despite the impressive profile of these speakers, those that left the most lasting impression were the panel of students and teachers who discussed their struggles with mental health and the ways in which mindfulness has helped them push through these barriers. David Bignell, deputy headteacher at Deanwood Primary School, spoke about the demand for teacher training in mindfulness and the benefits he had witnessed across his whole school with teachers and students now responding to the behaviour of their peers, rather than reacting to it. Discussing the mindfulness programme with some of his students, the impact was almost palpable. Students spoke about the range of benefits they had experienced, including learning how to stay calm and developing greater self-awareness, as well as the impact mindfulness had had on their learning – like reducing exam anxiety and helping overcome their fears, even for small acts like asking questions in class.

By far, these pupils, and their secondary counterparts, who also shared the need for mindfulness as mental health issues and suicide become more prevalent, were the most convincing advocates. Their call to action to embed mindfulness training in schools was championed by the audience and their testimonials second-to-none. Their unadulterated perspectives and commentary compelled the 600 attendees and left a lasting impression – one that will no doubt continue the ‘a million minds matter’ legacy to a million more.