Earlier this year, the UK government announced a series of trials in around 370 schools for children to learn mindfulness and breathing exercises, and relaxation techniques. The aim of the trials is ‘to help them regulate their emotions’. One of the largest studies worldwide into the benefits of mindfulness, led by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families in partnership with University College London, the study introduces children to mental health issues, happiness and wellbeing.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May said, ‘Half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14, and with young people spending more time online, the strains on mental wellbeing are only going to increase.’

Using mindfulness in schools to help tackle the growing mental health crisis has been steadily rising across the UK. The Mindfulness in Schools Project trained almost 2,000 teachers in 2018, a massive 40% increase on 2017, to help children deal with panic attacks, stressful situations and anxiety. Whilst many were sceptical about the benefits of mindfulness in schools, research has demonstrated that young people’s mental health has significantly improved.

What is mindfulness?

An ‘all-purpose’ definition of mindfulness from Mindful is, ’the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on.’

Mindfulness education teaches meditation practices and techniques to young people and students so they can apply them to life events. Such practice includes:

  • self-awareness
  • empathy
  • relaxation and breathing techniques to calm and focus the mind, and
  • mindful communication.

Why mindfulness in schools?

Last year, an evidence-based research programme conducted over 4 years demonstrated that teaching mindfulness in schools had huge benefits in helping students deal with mental health issues. Just one hour a week learning mindfulness techniques enabled young people to handle the stress of exams and personal issues experienced outside of school, as well as improving self-esteem and confidence.

Teaching mindfulness techniques in schools can help young people deal with a variety of situations, be it inside the school from bullies or outside the school via social media. These situations include:

  • Managing stress – mindfulness education is a form of meditation which can be used to relieve the ever-increasing pressures of school work and growing up.
  • Improving concentration – being able to concentrate, and sustain that, is crucial to the learning process. It is a proven fact that meditation and relaxation techniques boost serotonin, or the ‘grey matter’, in the prefrontal cortex of the brain which enables better concentration for longer periods of time. Mindfulness education is about learning to focus. When children are calmer and more relaxed, what they learn in their studies is much easier to absorb.
  • Changes of perspective – if your own mind is calm and relaxed, it’s much easier to see situations in a different perspective. Mindfulness teaches young people the ability to change the way they think, to understand their actions and to know whether they are right or wrong in social interactions, particularly with difficult confrontations such as bullying.
  • Health and sleep – mindfulness in education helps to reduce anxiety and gives a feeling of calm. This rolls on to boost the immune system to keep kids healthy. With a more relaxed and calm mind, sleep is improved, and fewer restless minds and worries enables kids to wake up with more energy and be ready for the day ahead.
  • Being happy – we all want to be happy and parents want their children to be happy. Mindfulness promotes a happy, positive outlook and more optimism, generating greater learning – think glass half full!

The research that backs it up

75% of mental health issues begin before the age of 24, with half by the age of 15 (Kessler et al., 2005). The Department of Health in 2011 said, ‘By promoting good mental health and intervening early, particularly in the crucial childhood and teenage years, we can help to prevent mental illness from developing and mitigate its effects when it does.’

The Mindfulness in Schools Project created the .b mindfulness in schools programme, which is proven to be effective in preventing depression and promoting good mental health in adults. Following two feasibility studies, the programme was adapted to help teenagers and children of preliminary school age in mainstream classroom settings.

Since the government took the topic of mental health amongst the young generation seriously, and the establishing of the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group, the funding has been there not only for schools to develop mindfulness programmes, but also for educational organisations to conduct studies.

The current country-wide trial being run by the Anna Freud Centre and University College London, which will continue until 2021, is already revealing positive results. The Mindfulness in Schools Project (MISP) has published a series of papers on mindfulness for young people and teachers, and support the Wellcome Trust-funded MYRIAD research project. The MYRIAD project – My Resilience in Adolescence – works with schools, children, parents and carers to help them to manage emotional health and improve resilience across the UK.

Is it just a fad?

Whether you’re a teacher or a student, schools are tough environments, and it isn’t getting any easier. The pressures on both sides are huge. When mindfulness first became a part of the school’s language, it was an unproven technique in that environment. Not only would the teachers have been sceptical but so too would the students and parents, who, when informed of these weekly classes, couldn’t be blamed for thinking, ‘Whatever next!’

As with any new initiative, and certainly one on this scale, nothing happens overnight. But over the last few years, a number of research projects have taken place and actual evidence of success is being reported, and so attitudes are beginning to change. The more it’s put into practice and the more successful results are reported, the more mindfulness education will be accepted.

When a 9-year-old boy tells MISP that mindfulness education helps him to forget about ‘all the scary stuff’, then it’s an initiative that’s well worth pursuing.

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