As someone who discovered meditation at the ripe old age of 30, I sometimes wonder what my teenage years would have been like if I had learned mindfulness at school. If the latest research is anything to go by, I would certainly have been better equipped to cope with the anxiety of revision and exams.
I would also have been able to concentrate and learn better, been more confident and composed in my interactions with teachers, friends and enemies, and I might even have scored more goals for the football team.
Having recently finished editing a book on the health benefits of meditation, I didn't need convincing that mindfulness is good for you. But this week I got to hear from teachers who have introduced mindfulness at primary and secondary schools in the UK, and from pupils who say it has changed the way they live their lives.
Mindfulness is a type of meditation based on learning to direct our attention towards our experience as it unfolds from moment to moment - and because it's presented in a completely secular and accessible way, it's perfect for schools.
The introduction to the Mindfulness in Schools course, for example, is delivered by a cartoon tortoise, in a clip from Kung Fu Panda where the comfort-eating hero is urged to stop worrying about the past or future and accept the gift of the present moment. Apparently this is the most effective way to persuade even the most cynical teenagers to put down their phones and gaming devices, sit still and start paying attention.
The course was developed by two teachers, Richard Burnett and Chris Cullen, who adapted the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme founded 34 years ago by Jon Kabat-Zinn to create a nine-lesson curriculum for secondary school pupils called .b (pronounced dot-be). The title stands for "Stop, Breathe and Be!"
At Wednesday's Mindfulness in Schools conference in London, Burnett said children are rarely shown "how to use the lens through which all the information they are taught is being processed - their mind, and their attention... We are teaching them how to train their attention."
Kabat-Zinn, whose work has inspired an array of different mindfulness-based programmes, pointed out that we wouldn't expect musicians from the London Philharmonic Orchestra just to turn up and start playing. Yet we are happy to ask a group of children, some of whom might not have eaten breakfast, or might even have witnessed violence at home before leaving for school, to start learning together straight away. "Why not tune the instrument of learning before you actually use it?" he ventured.
Year 11 pupils at Bethnal Green Academy in east London, which has gone from 'Special Measures' to 'Outstanding' in five years, told us that the techniques they learn have helped them cope with assessments and exams, argumentative parents and the other pitfalls of teenage life.
At Altrincham Girls Grammar School, where voluntary lunchtime sessions were offered to Year 11 students preparing for GCSEs, mindfulness is now part of the curriculum for all Year 9 students, as well as new staff. A Colwyn Bay primary school, Ysgol Pen y Bryn, has been trialling a project for younger children. The kids said it has made them more relaxed, less irritable, and helped them steady themselves before times tables tests. One has even taught mindfulness to her grandmother.
Mindfulness now has its own street slang: Beditation is a type of lying down meditation. FOFBOC is an exercise called Feet On Floor, Bum On Chair. Pupils do "7/11s" to stop themselves losing their cool, and if you overhear two teenagers planning to "do a .b", relax. They are just taking a moment to stop and breathe, in order to settle their minds.
Only a few thousand pupils in the UK have tried mindfulness, but the project is gaining momentum. Supporters hope the benefits to pupils and teachers alike will encourage more teachers to learn how to deliver the course. At the same time, mindfulness is moving up the political agenda. A cross-party group of MPs and Lords completed their own mindfulness course in Westminster this week, and Jon Kabat-Zinn was whisked away from the conference for a meeting with the Prime Minister's advisors.
Chris Ruane, a former deputy head and now MP for Vale of Clwyd, believes mindfulness could help to address the worrying levels of mental illness among young people. Studies of the effectiveness of the .b programme suggest he is right, and have been backed up by research in Belgium which found that mindfulness helps reduce and prevent symptoms of depression in adolescents.
In other words, young people deserve the chance to give mindfulness a try - and not just because it might boost their exam results. So why don't we all stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and see what we can do to make it happen?
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