23rd October 2016 – The Observer – Schools Sign Up to Classes in ‘Mindfulness’

Now close your eyes and just breathe… schools sign up to classes in ‘mindfulness’

Over 4,000 teachers are now qualified in meditation exercises to combat pupil stress.

Children at the Buddhist-based Dharma primary school in Brighton take a class in mindfulness.

It’s Wednesday morning and the children from year 5 at St John the Baptist primary school in Brighton are chatting noisily at their desks. A bell chimes and the chatter stops. Thirty children close their eyes and place a hand across their chest, breathing in and out slowly. It’s as if they’ve been hypnotised.

“If your mind wanders away, let’s notice where it goes,” says Kerstin Andlaw, in a soothing voice. “Then bring your attention back to your breathing.”

The pupils are practising mindfulness, a way of making them stop, relax and “be”. Classes like this one used to be the preserve of independent schools, but this year more state than private schools have signed up to mindfulness classes, both at secondary and primary level.

According to the Mindfulness in Schools Project, there are 1,350 teachers being trained in the technique this year, double the number taught last year and up from 90 in 2011. Nationally, more than 4,000 teachers are now qualified.

“Where did your mind go?” asks Andlaw. Angel says she was thinking about her mum going into hospital that day for an operation. Jose is looking forward to his sister’s birthday party at the weekend. Daniel’s mind is on lunch.

“Were you able to let those thoughts go and come back to your breath?” asks the teacher. They all nod confidently. A class involves breathing exercises, discussions about meditation and simple stretching movements. “It’s a practice to help the children self-regulate, to calm down or to help them lift themselves up if they’re feeling low,” Andlaw says.

The project has already broken into the mainstream in America, where some tough high schools now get pupils to do meditation rather than detention. There’s been a big drop- off in playground aggression, plus a rise in grades.

Richard Burnett, co-founder of the project, is wary of the US model, though, especially where mindfulness is used to “correct” bad behaviour as opposed to being a practice in and of itself. “If you pitch it like that you’re feeding into precisely the achievement-based culture that’s putting such huge pressure on children,” he says.

Yet few doubt that stress is a major mental health concern in today’s hyperconnected world, and children – teenagers especially – are vulnerable. Does that make mindfulness in schools more relevant? Dr Richard Graham, a consultant psychiatrist at the Nightingale hospital in London, thinks it does. He has seen a rise this year in the number of teenagers requiring treatment for technology addiction, especially for gaming apps.

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