The Telegraph, 22/03/15, pupils who learn to slow down and concentrate their fast-growing minds will reap rewards in every aspect of life, says Eleanor Doughty. HMC members Leo Winkley, headmaster of St Peter’s School, York is quoted, and HMC member schools Hampton, Tonbridge and Wellington College feature.
When asked what impact mindfulness has in schools, Richard Burnett of Tonbridge School quotes T S Eliot. “ 'Teach us to dare and not to care. Teach us how to sit still.’ English literature is a wonderful source of unknowingly 'mindful’ passages.”
Burnett co-founded the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MSP) with Chris Cullen, then a teacher at Hampton School in south-west London. He remains a teacher at the all-boys Tonbridge in Kent, where all Year 10 pupils “do” mindfulness, taught by Burnett and the headmaster Tim Haynes.
Mindfulness was elected as part of the school day because Burnett believes it to be an important life skill – it is more than just an aid to academia, but something to take on into later life. “The knock-on benefits to wellbeing, mental health, the capacity for empathy and simply for young people to be content and to flourish make it well worth it,” he says.
MSP dates back to 2007, when Burnett and Cullen devised a course that would be easily accessible for young people within a classroom context. “They chose Year 10 boys as their target group,” Claire Kelly, operations director of MSP, says, “working on the premise that if they could engage this specific group – a notoriously 'tough crowd’ – they could engage anyone!”
From this came the .b course – pronounced “dot, be”. It stands for “Stop, Breathe and Be!” and is a nine-week classroom-based course written by teachers for teachers, and embedded through a school’s PHSE or wellbeing programme. The curriculum has now been translated into eight languages and is being taught in 38 countries. “This year,” Kelly says, “we have launched our primary curriculum for ages seven to 11 years, 'Paws b’.” This has a waiting list of 800 people wanting to take part in teacher training.
At Hampton School, mindfulness is also thriving. “Mindfulness is an integral part of Hampton’s balanced approach to education,” Mark Nicholson, head of religious studies and philosophy, says. “It helps our pupils to manage the demands they face and supports them in achieving and sustaining outstanding performance, whilst maintaining a healthy and balanced perspective on life and the resilience to cope with the occasional disappointment.”
But MSP isn’t the only mind-calming initiative in schools. Wellington College, Berkshire, advocates mindfulness, and wellbeing lessons were introduced in 2006. Now, a dedicated mindfulness practice is held weekly for Years 9 and 10. “It is felt to be valuable by many of the pupils,” English teacher Dr David James says. “The impression is that pupils would miss it if we took it away.”
But what about chapel? Many independent schools benefit hugely from the still and quiet of morning services. Does the quiet experience of chapel not suffice – even if you are non-religious and at a multi-faith school?
“We are currently practising shared silence in chapel three times a week,” Leo Winkley, headmaster of St Peter’s School in York, says. “The chaplain gives us simple instructions on how to sit, breathe, close our eyes and allow the mind to drift and then focus.”
But how important is mindfulness, really? “In our 'always-on’, multi-window world, with its many distractions and interruptions, there is a real danger that our ability to pay full attention gets frayed away,” Winkley says. “Concentration is an important skill that needs cultivation. It is important for our sense of purpose and happiness to be able to stop and think.”
But what do the pupils think? Sixteen-year-old Zack Santos, a talented rugby player at Hampton School, uses mindfulness to help him on the pitch. “Mindfulness helps you to calm down, take a step back and stops you focusing on negative thoughts,” he says. “I regularly use the 7/11 technique [breathing in for the count of seven and breathing out for the count of 11] in games. Mindfulness allows me to transform any stress into drive and focus, and helps my mind and body work in unison.”
Charles Turner, a fourth-year pupil at Hampton with GCSE stress ahead of him, has had a similarly positive experience. “Mindfulness allows me not to get overwhelmed – it helps me clear my head and focus so that I can take things one step at a time. It has been brilliant for me.”
But should mindfulness be part of the national curriculum?
Winkley says that the very fact that the word mindfulness has found a place in the lexicon of education is a good sign. “It means we are thinking about the right thing,” he says. “How to live a good, healthy life.”
And that, we can agree, is as important for pupils, teachers and parents as it is for us all.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness aims to train practitioners to respond effectively to whatever is happening to them in the “here and now”.
This is done by paying sustained and undistracted attention to immediate circumstances: sensations in the body, thoughts and feelings.
Classes often start by asking participants to concentrate on their breathing, then extend the technique to other straightforward activities such as walking and eating.
Mindfulness has been proven to reduce stress and improve human performance in many contexts and for all ages. It is recognised by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence.
The theory and basics of mindfulness can be grasped in a single session. But the full benefits are best achieved with regular and frequent practice.