Kaitlyn stayed behind at the end of her second .b lesson; that she had dawdled a little and been the last to pack away her things suggested there was something she wanted to discuss. She was one of a class of twenty-five 14 year-olds learning about mindfulness as part of PSHE. In the first lesson she'd learned what mindfulness was and why it was worth learning; in the second she'd learned that the mind is a bit like a puppy: it bounces around all over the place, makes messes and needs training. But this was only lesson three - their puppy training had just begun - and I was surprised Kaitlyn already wanted to chat.
She was very candid and direct, as teenagers often are. Her parents, particularly her mother, would regularly shout - even scream - at her at home. It would probably happen again when she got home this evening. She hated it and it made her angry; she didn't know what to do. Kaitlyn wanted something - anything - that would help her get through it when she got home.
My suggestion wasn't rocket science, and nor was it a long term solution. I asked a few questions to see how serious it might be and made a mental note to speak with her form tutor; there were broader issues that needed addressing. But in the short term all Kaitlyn wanted was a coping tactic...
The next time she shouts at you, I suggested, try doing a .b: drop your attention into your feet; even stretch the toes a little and gently clasp the floor so that you feel grounded right there, in the midst of it. And then turn your attention to your breathing, noticing how it is without any compulsion to change it. The old cliché is that "what you can breathe with, you can be with".
The idea, I explained, is to see if you can step back and observe how your body reacts when it is confronted like this, rather than being swept up in the drama and carried away by it. I played to her teenage sense of rebellion and mischief by reminding Kaitlyn that her mum need not have any idea she was doing this. It could be her little game. But this was 'a big ask' and I encouraged her to try it without any expectation that it might work.
One week later, at the end of the next lesson, Kaitlyn once again stayed behind. She'd had a go and it had completely transformed the experience; the sting had been taken out of her mother's habitual evening ambush. Had it healed the rift with her mother once and for all? No, but a more balanced and measured response from Kaitlyn might prompt her mother to reappraise things too. Did Kaitlyn's response turn her into a passive and uncomplaining victim of abuse? Only if her mother's actions were to continue unabated, but when I checked in with Kaitlyn at the end of the course things seemed to have improved. Greater equanimity and perspective makes reconciliation a possibility, even if it is far from guaranteed.
This story highlights two important themes in mindfulness with young people. Firstly, that kids want solutions to problems and they want them NOW! "What's in it for me" is their natural question, and if they don't taste the benefits quickly they'll move on. But as soon as mindfulness makes an exam less terrifying, a classmate less irritating or a good night's sleep more likely then they're in. Every now and again a kid is hooked and 'gets' that 20 minutes a day of proper mindfulness can be a life-changer; they are transformed. More often than not, however, pupils 'deploy' mindfulness in pressure situations rather than cultivate it gradually over time.
Secondly, mindfulness is not enough on its own; it is no silver bullet. Schools are complex places and people more complex still - teachers, pupils and parents alike. Mindfulness must be part of a broader pastoral net, not only in terms of social and emotional learning, but also child protection. Kaitlyn's form tutor and I knew about the situation at home, as did the designated officer for child protection and safeguarding. As it happened, she was fine; that is not always the case.
Mindfulness in Schools Project is a not-for-profit organisation specialising in mindfulness training for school communities - not only the pupils but the teachers, parents and others who care for them. For more information, please visit http://mindfulnessinschools.org/