Schools are compassionate places, but sometimes things can go wrong. The problems of bullying and the mental health problems being experienced by both pupils and teachers, are indicative of the fact that for many, experiences in schools can be detrimental to health and well-being. This paper explores the role that mindfulness with a focus upon self-compassion can play in schools. With reference to research and literature, mindfulness and its relation to the human brain and mind, are explored. The potential benefits of practicing mindfulness for both pupils and staff in schools are discussed. Practice and policy implications are considered, with links to resources. The conclusion summarises 6 key points regarding mindfulness in schools which it is hoped, will stimulate both thought and discussion.
Key Words Mindfulness; Compassion; Children and Young People; Teachers; Bullying; Mental Health; Stress; Well Being.
Kindergarten, primary, VET, High Schools and Gymnasiums, are compassionate places, where children and young people are safe, cared for and nurtured. At least they should be, but sometimes the reality can be different. Maintaining compassion under pressure for long periods of time can be difficult for teachers. Their job is very demanding; they have to meet multiple demands, play several roles, and deal with challenging circumstances and situations, the causes of which are often out-with their control. Most children are compassionate in their attitudes towards others, however bullying is a serious and challenging problem in many schools. Furthermore, children and young people are increasingly suffering with significant mental health issues. In 2015 the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported that in 27 European Countries in 2010, between 4% and 21% of boys aged 11-15 reported being bullied, with the average being 11%. For girls the average who reported being bullied was 6%.
The World Health Organisation in 2009 published ‘A Snapshot of the Health of Young People in Europe’. Using data from 35 countries, including the 27 EU states, they reported that between 10-20% of adolescents have a mental or behavioural problem. 4% of 12-17 year olds suffer from depression and 4.4% from Hyperactivity/Attention Deficit Disorders. Furthermore,
‘Anxiety disorders (that is, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and separation anxiety) are the most prevalent mental disorders among young people, with an average national prevalence rate of 10.4%.’ OECD, 2015, page 44.
In March 2017 the online newspaper ‘The Independent’, reported that the risk of suicide among nursery and primary school teachers in England between 2011 and 2015, was 42% higher than in the broader population. Three in four suicides among teaching professionals in England are nursery or primary teachers. Teaching is described as being ‘one of the most highly stressed occupations in the country’ (The Independent, 2017).
These reports indicate that for both students and staff there are challenges in schools which can significantly erode their health and well-being, potentially leading to serious and detrimental outcomes. Maintaining compassionate attitudes towards both self and others is highly relevant to maintaining health and well-being and to these underlying issues – bullying, mental health, stress and burn out – with implications for both policy and practice in schools. These implications will be discussed in this paper. The main focus, however, is the potential of mindfulness to make a valuable contribution to the health and well-being of children, young people, and staff in schools.
Findings from more than 30 years of research show many potential benefits to health and well-being from practicing mindfulness and meditation. Control trials as well as self-reporting, indicate improvements in a range of physical and mental illnesses and conditions. Furthermore, data from neuroscience illustrates that not only does brain function improve as a result of regularly meditating, but also that the brain can stay healthy for longer. Social science research shows the impact that mindfulness can have in a range of social and professional contexts – education, the judicial system, health care and business (see https://goamra.org).
Mindfulness has been defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is almost universally viewed as the founder of contemporary secular mindfulness as,
Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally’.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, 2012, page 1
‘……the awareness that emerges by way of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment’.
Jon Kabat-Zinn 2002, page 732
Similarly, international mindfulness teacher Rob Nairn offers this definition,
‘Mindfulness is knowing what is happening while it is happening, no matter what it is.’ Rob Nairn 1998, page 40
These definitions show that mindfulness practice, has two distinct dimensions – it is both a technique and an attitude.
Developing our innate capacity to be mindfully aware, or having what Millar (2014, no page no.) calls ‘spontaneous awakened presence’, requires the sustained practice of a particular technique. This technique involves learning ‘to intentionally direct and sustain the focus of attention’ (Culsada et al, 2015, loc. 790) and to develop mindful awareness of what is happening in the present moment. In doing so we will, inevitably, be distracted by thoughts, emotions and sensations, as well as by the environment around us, however when this occurs, we return to mindful awareness without self-blame or doubt about our ability to practice. In mindfulness practice we become an observer – observing thoughts, emotions and sensations as they spontaneously arise in the mind and body – without engaging, analysing, or having an internal dialogue about them.
The attitudes which are part of mindfulness practice, include acceptance, self-kindness/self compassion and curiosity. Acceptance in mindfulness practice involves allowing whatever arises – thoughts, emotions and sensations – to be, without any denial, suppression or turning away from, which is often our spontaneous response to things we do not like. Acceptance does not mean putting up with things as they are, nor not endeavouring to change and improve our lives. Acceptance allows us to more fully see, know and understand what is happening in our mind, including habitual tendencies and responses. Acceptance and the insight it can bring, is the starting point for change.
‘Acceptance means seeing things as they actually are in the present. ….. Acceptance does not mean that you have to take a passive attitude toward everything and abandon your principles and values. It does not mean that you are satisfied with things as they are or that you are resigned to tolerating things as they “have to be”. Acceptance as we are speaking of it simply means that you have come around to a willingness to see things as they are. This attitude sets the stage for acting appropriately in your life, no matter what is happening’.
(Kabat-Zinn, J. 2004, pgs. 38-39)
Acceptance involves the suspension of judgment in order to see what is arising in our mind, free from the filter of pre-conceived opinions and attitudes. Thoughts, emotions and sensations arise spontaneously in response to experience; they do not necessarily have intrinsic meaning or require a response. Self-kindness or self-compassion allows us to let ourselves ‘off the hook’ and to increasingly avoid cycles of reactivity, negativity, blame and feelings of unworthiness. An attitude of curiosity, self-reflection and inquiry, can lead to insight into why we think, feel and act as we do. We may, for the first time, become aware of our habitual responses to common experiences, and the negative emotions that these responses evoke such as anger, disappointment or rejection. Our reaction to these emotions may involve blaming others, denial or self-criticism. Interestingly, the act of being mindfully aware and seeing without pre-judging, in itself, over time, changes the thoughts, emotions, and attitudes which arise in our mind. This is summed up by Jiddu Krishnamurti (1979) in his powerful phrase, ‘The seeing is the doing’. Mindful awareness changes things, by itself.
The Human Mind
The human mind is, of course, not synonymous with the brain; indeed, it is not an organ to be found in the body. Seigal (2011, p52) defines the human mind as ‘..a relational and embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information’. This constantly ongoing process of communication occurs throughout the body. Evidence from cognitive neuroscience shows that we have ‘brains’ in our heart, gut, solar plexus and skin. McCraty et al, 2001, page 4, highlight that ‘the heart has its own intrinsic nervous system that operates and processes information independently of the brain or nervous system’. Hadhazy (2001, no page no.) explains that ‘…. about 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around.’ This flow of energy and information is precipitated by experience and stimulated by input from the senses. Much of it occurs without our conscious awareness. Developing mindful awareness allows us to observe the mind processing information, to be less on ‘auto-pilot’, and to have more conscious involvement in decision making.
In an early model of the brain, Millar’s Triune Brain (1990) has three distinct aspects. The oldest, the brain stem or reptilian brain is the site of our fight, flight or freeze response when we are alerted to danger through fear. It is reflexive and instinctive and is all about self-preservation – it keeps us safe. The limbic or mammalian brain is the source of our emotions and allows us to develop social relationships, including parenting and nurturing. The cerebral cortex allows us to develop our higher order thinking skills, making us unique compared to other animals. It is the source of rational thought, language, judgment, empathy and self-awareness. The ‘experience-dependent neuroplasticity’ of the brain (Hanson 2010, p10) means that it changes in response to experience. As Hanson states ‘The brain is the organ that learns, so it is designed to be changed’ (ibid).
Reflecting these perspectives on the mind and brain, Gilbert’s (2009) emotional regulation systems are a product of our evolution. The threat and self-protection system activates automatically when we perceive a threat or danger. We take immediate action to be safe. It involves emotions of anger, anxiety or disgust. The incentive and resource seeking system drives us to achieve our goals and fulfil our desires. It is resource focussed and consuming. Although achieving what we need/want involves effort, energy and commitment, for most of us, this system also is easily activated. The soothing and contentment system makes us feel safe and content and involves pleasurable activity that allows us to re-balance after avoiding danger or actively seeking resources. It is focussed upon kindness and soothing and, unlike the other emotional regulation systems, it does not occur automatically but needs deliberate switching on (Gilbert, 2009, loc.741).
Most of the time, our mind and our brain(s) operate in our best interests. They keep us safe, well and content. We achieve great things. Our rational mind is the source of many great human achievements through science and technology. Furthermore, as rational, social scientists we develop a deep understanding of ourselves, our languages, culture and society. We are creative and expressive. We deeply feel and share joyful emotions, based upon positive, loving relationships. But sometimes it can feel as through, rather than being a friend, our mind is actually our worst enemy. Our mind can incorrectly sense danger or threat, leading to unhelpful mind states, such as anxiety or panic attacks. Inaccurately sensing threats can also result in irrational, obsessive-compulsive behaviour. We can drive ourselves too hard to achieve goals, disrupting our relationships, being ‘workaholic’ and leading to a poor quality of life. We can deny our feelings, over-analysing and becoming detached from ourselves and others, or in the other extreme, become overwhelmed by emotions, unable to think clearly and see a way forward. Or we might fail to regularly activate our soothing and contentment system, becoming overwhelmed or exhausted.
Being mindfully aware and developing a friendly, appreciative but firm relationship with our mind, allows us to see and consciously participate in these processes and systems as they are activated in the mind, brain and the body. This awareness naturally leads to re-balancing, and over time, less negative and harmful thoughts, emotion and behaviour.
‘Compassion enables us to stay afloat on the turbulence of the open sea, whilst mindfulness is the way in which we skillfully navigate the sea.’
Gilbert and Choden, 2013, page 148.
Mindfulness in the Classroom
Mindfulness in the classroom involves students practicing mindfulness (something you do) and developing mindfulness as a cognitive state (something you have, or are). These two aspects are closely related but they are also different and need therefore to be considered independently. They both positively influence mental health and well-being, and learning.
Teaching mindfulness practice to very young children involves short, informal approaches which encourage children to be still, to be quiet, to pause, to be aware of the breath, to reflect, to relax, to take time out, to be aware of their senses/the environment, to observe, and to learn more about themselves.
For older children in primary school and those in secondary or high school, there are several well-established approaches to teaching mindfulness practice. These all involve a structured curriculum and teacher training.
Professor Ellen Langer has led research into developing mindfulness in education for over 35 years, yet she does not see mindfulness involving practice. For Carson and Langer, mindfulness:
‘…is a flexible cognitive state that results from drawing novel distinctions about the situation and the environment. When one is mindful, one is actively engaged in the present and sensitive to both context and perspective. The mindful condition is both the result of, and the continuing cause of, actively noticing new things. The cognitive state of mindfulness is distinct from the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness meditation…’ Carson and Langer, 2006, pages 29-30
‘Actively noticing new things’ (ibid), is concerned with the cognitive state of mindfulness. It is potentially developed through every classroom activity, rather than being a discrete practice or curricular programme. Developing mindful awareness is integrated throughout learning and teaching. This approach raises pedagogical issues and reflective questions for educators. These include: Are learning activities resulting in learner’s becoming more aware and noticing new things? Are learners drawing connections between subjects – seeing how their learning in one subject is relevant and transferrable to another? Is dialogue in the classroom (between students and students/teacher) making students aware of new perspectives and their feelings about them? Is the teacher crafting and asking questions of learners which encourage mindfulness – deep thinking and an articulate response? Are learner’s noticing and aware of their own learning – their strengths and learning needs? Are they ‘learning how to learn’?
The potential benefits to children and young people of all ages of ‘doing mindfulness’ and ‘being mindful’, encompass both mental health and well-being, and learning. Mindfulness provides an opportunity to ‘take time out’, to find time, however short, to connect with oneself, and to re-balance. Knowing about the nature and functioning of the human mind can lead to understanding of how and why feelings and emotions arise and the most appropriate response. Practicing mindfulness can support children and young people in challenging situations, such as bullying, peer pressure or stress, and enable them to respond appropriately. Increased focus, enhanced awareness, sustained attention, noticing more, and emotional regulation, all aid learning.
Mindfulness for Teachers
The technique and attitudes of mindfulness can support and enable teachers meet the demands of the classroom whilst also maintaining their own well-being. Many teachers effectively do this, of course, without mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness however, research indicates, makes a significant, positive contribution to the health and well-being, and effectiveness of teachers. Reported benefits include reductions in psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression, increases in self compassion, reduced occupational stress and burn out, improvements in organisation, greater attention and working memory capacity, more acceptance without judgement, and enhanced ability to observe (Flook etc al, 2003; Gold et al, 2009; Roeser et al, 2013).
Teachers routinely engage in classroom situations where the benefits of practicing mindfulness can make a positive difference. When teachers are fully engaged with pupils, meeting multiple demands, and multi-tasking, it is helpful to have sustained focus of attention and mindful awareness. Furthermore, the ability to manage emotions, your own and other people’s, by observing them as they arise and choosing when (and when not) to engage with them, helps teachers to do their jobs without accumulating stress. Having a mindful and non-judgmental attitude helps decision making, especially in complex situations where appropriate and effective action is important. Prioritising ‘mindful time out’, however short, to be ‘kind to self’, to let go, to quieten the mind, or to re-balance, maintains well-being. Mindfulness practices such as ‘The 3 Minute Breathing Space’ or the ‘Self Compassion Break’, can be useful to teachers, especially when they have been dealing with difficulties or problems.
‘.. more educators are realizing that cognitive ability is not the sole or necessarily the most critical determinant of young people’s aptitude to flourish in today’s society. Proficiency in emotional management, conflict resolution, communication and interpersonal skills is essential for children to develop inner-security and the ability to effectively deal with the pressures and obstacles that will inevitably arise in their lives.’
(McCraty et al, 2001, page 43)
For mindfulness in schools to be effective, those leading it must practice it and believe in its efficacy. Furthermore, because mindfulness is both personal and experiential it has to be engaged in through choice. Developing mindfulness in schools and classrooms has, therefore, to begin with teachers and other school staff who are interested in, and practice mindfulness. It is most likely to be introduced when such a teacher encourages students and/or colleagues to learn about and experience mindfulness. From this beginning, it may become established in more than one classroom, in a department or across a whole school. Once mindfulness has been identified by staff is an interest or priority, parents need to become involved and mindfulness training has to be available for adults, perhaps as part of the provision to support staff health and well-being, or as an optional professional development activity. At this point support from school leaders can make a tremendous difference to the successful implementation of a policy and strategy to develop ‘a mindful school’. There are a number of pre-requisites to ethically and effectively teaching pupils how to practice mindfulness. Those leading the student training, need to have completed mindfulness training, training in the teaching of mindfulness to school students, and practice mindfulness. The staff and school leaders need to select a course or curriculum for students from those that are available, or create their own. The latter option would best be achieved in collaboration with staff in other schools or regionally. Decisions have to be made about whether the student course will be an optional extra or if it will be integrated into the school curriculum and timetable. If the latter, there are different options. Mindfulness could be integrated into science (learning about the human mind) or a humanities/social science course. Perhaps the most appropriate context for mindfulness is for it to be part of the personal social, emotional, and health curriculum. Whilst there is such a curriculum in many schools, it is not a feature of school education in all European Union countries. As the quote above from McCraty et al (2001) highlights, the development of social and emotional skills in schools is increasingly seen as being essential.
Mindfulness in Schools: Six Key Points
In conclusion, the following key points sum up aspects of the human mind and brain, and the potential benefits of mindfulness. Each statement is simple, yet also significant in that it highlights an insight potentially of value to both teachers and children/young people.
1) We are all a complete mess…. and that is perfectly ok!
Rob Nairn who has made a very significant contribution to our understanding of the human mind, often uses the phrase ‘we are all a complete mess…. and that is perfectly ok!’ In doing so, he is highlighting the fact that everyone’s mind is similar. We all can have a very unsettled and easily distracted mind. We all experience powerful emotions which can cause us to act irrationally and in ways that are detrimental to us. All of us have a mind that has the potential to be both our best friend and sometimes, our worst enemy. Recognising and acknowledging this, can be both empowering and compassionate. When our mind acts unhelpfully, it is not our fault, but the product of our evolution. The mind is just like that! It can be trained however, and we can develop a more stable mind which more often than not works for us, rather than against us. We can also manage our emotional response systems. But the human mind will always be responsive to emotion and perceived threats and dangers, with the tendency to become unsettled, rather like a tamed wild horse.
2) Resistance is futile! Understand and be good friends with your mind.
The mind is a very powerful process that often wishes us to act in ways which ‘it’ believes will keep us safe and well; if we decide to defy it by sheer willpower, the chances are that it will win! A more effective strategy is to befriend the mind and work with it, taking charge of decision making but in a way that appreciates when your brain and mind autonomously responded to an experience. This will lead to you and your mind working together, more harmoniously.
‘… take a moment to greet your feelings as guests. Say, “Hello” and start a conversation. You can begin by saying something like “Yes I know that you’re real.” Then ask “Are you true? Are you based on present conditions, or are you based on past experiences?”’ Tsoknyi Rinpoche, 2012, page 11.
‘When students ask me how to handle their inner critic, I often suggest, “Make her a nice cup of tea and suggest she take a nap. She’s tired and it’s been a long day. Going over and over these negative thoughts must be exhausting. She’s beginning to repeat herself, a sure sign that she needs a rest”. This gentle approach to the inner critic diminishes her power. Does this mean that you are going to forever silence your negative thoughts? No, that’s not likely. But you are going to deal with them differently.’ Salzberg, 2017, page 61
Learning about the brain and mind functions and how we might respond is, arguably, an important aspect of education and human development.
3) Acceptance is a starting point for change.
Deliberately not seeing, suppression or denial, might work as a short-term strategy for avoiding what we don’t want to see, perhaps because doing so is just too painful. Eventually however what we are ignoring or suppressing will come to mind and we will have face to it, or continue to live with it as a limitation. Both professionally and personally, understanding is the first and most important step in change, and the first step in understanding, is seeing. We cannot change what we don’t know. Mindfulness allows emotions to arise and be seen. We may have been ignoring or suppressing these for some time and so the process of surfacing them may be emotionally difficult and challenging. Often for good reasons, teachers may not acknowledge professional failures and learn from them, yet doing so can be a powerful tool in learning and in pedagogical development. Learning from failure is only feasible however, in a supportive and blame-free school environment. Being mindful is part of personal and professional acceptance and change.
4) Be the observer…. you are more than your thoughts and emotions.
Whilst your thoughts and emotions are yours (whose else could they be?), you are more than just them. Knowing that thoughts and feelings often arise spontaneously in response to experience – thinking and feeling is what the mind does – and that they do not all need a response, can be liberating. Observing what arises in your mind allows choice.
‘Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.’
While this quote has often been misattributed to Viktor Frankl’, ’Man’s Search for Meaning’ (1946), its true author is unknown.
Observing thoughts and feelings and allowing them to pass without engagement or analysis, can help maintain mental health and well-being, and be part of the solution for people living with conditions such as anxiety or compulsive behaviour. People experiencing mental health concerns, should not, however, begin training in mindfulness without first discussing doing so with a qualified and experienced mindfulness teacher and/or a medical professional. A beneficial outcome of developing more ‘inner space’, may be that demands and challenges in our environment seem less pressing or demanding.
5) You can change your brain… and develop your capabilities and capacities.
Whilst it may not be possible to change our personality, neuroplasticity allows us to change our capabilities, capacities and character at any age. Intelligence is not fixed; this has profound implications for learning. Practicing mindfulness supports learning through its impact upon awareness, attention and emotional regulation. It also makes it possible to develop and enhance desired characteristics by, what Rick Hanson calls ‘taking in the good’ (Hanson, 2014, page 14). Dwelling upon positive feelings and experiences for 10-20 seconds can convert an experience or activity into a neural structure and then a trait or characteristic.
‘All mental activity – sights and sounds, joys and sorrows – is based on underlying neural activity. Repeated mental/neural activity leaves lasting changes in neural structure and what’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. This means you can use your mind to change your brain to change your mind for the better.’
Hanson, 2014, page 16
6) Compassion arises naturally from mindfulness.
Practicing mindfulness involves learning techniques and developing certain attitudes. The insight that results from understanding our mind and from developing mindful awareness, enables us to see that much of the mind’s activity is not as a result of our deliberate choices. As a result, we can free ourselves from guilt or blame. Compassion-based mindfulness practice encourages us to develop self-kindness and self-compassion. For some, this can be difficult after many years of self-blame and self-criticism, which perhaps was fostered by family and cultural attitudes. Once we have become kinder towards our self, we naturally find it easier to be kinder to others, and to develop more compassionate relationships. Developing self-compassion can be very important for teachers as leaders in the classroom. It may also help in encouraging children who bully, to change their behaviour.
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