Children are taking 10 minutes out from the hurly burly school day to reflect on their thoughts and their feelings. Some ground themselves by thinking about their feet on the floor, while others concentrate on their breathing.
This is mindfulness, the lessons quickly growing in popularity as an antidote to the stress of being a young person in the 21st century, be it pressure to perform in exams, social media, or the obsession with body image that is reported to even affect primary age children.
Children are learning about their brains and how to deal with unruly thoughts – to control emotions such as anger and fear. It is no longer head, shoulders, knees and toes, but amygdala, hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex.
The most recent NHS survey of young people’s mental health in 2017 shows one-in-eight five- to 19-year-olds in England has a diagnosable mental health condition. Hospital admissions for anorexia alone more than doubled in the eight years to 2017/18.
Stress is a known barrier to learning and a growing number of schools are targeting the emotional health of pupils through schemes such as meditation, mindfulness and the provision of mental health first aiders and buddies.
The Mental Health Foundation charity wants emotional wellbeing to be at the heart of the school curriculum, and has chosen body image as the key theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week. Dr Antonis Kousoulis, its assistant director, said its survey last year found 47% of people aged 18-24 had experienced stress over their body image to the extent of being overwhelmed or unable to cope. “Social media has certainly played a part,” he says. “Historically, it was the mirror that was the main driver of perception of our image and how we thought others perceived us. Nowadays, young people are exposed almost on a 24/7 basis to manipulated and heavily edited images, whether that’s in advertising or photos of their friends.”
Over the past five years there has been a proliferation of mindfulness organisations and companies selling lesson plans and staff training to schools. But does it work?
Secondary school teacher Richard Burnett, who founded the Mindfulness in Schools Project 10 years ago, warns against “quick fix” approaches. “We are a charity started by teachers who wanted to teach children how best to manage their thoughts and feelings and deal with the rollercoaster of being a young person,” he says.
It has two training courses for teachers – one aimed at secondary students and another for younger classes. “It’s about training your attention to notice what is going on. If you are aware of that, you can choose how to respond, for example to manage the amygdala, the part of the brain that detects fear and prepares a response,” he says.
Emotional disorders are on the rise, and we should instil something in our children and young people about coping with stress, advises Lee Hudson, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s mental health lead. But should it be mindfulness? There is evidence that the process can bring benefits to adults, he says. “[But] the evidence for its effectiveness with children is not yet sufficiently robust and we need more research. However, some schools are rolling it out and children seem to enjoy it – and it unlikely to cause harm.”
The Department for Education is funding a major project to find the most effective ways of promoting positive mental health in schools, which is being run by the Evidence Based Practice Unit, a collaboration between the Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families and UCL’s faculty of brain science. One of the five approaches being trialled is mindfulness.
“A lot of people are interested in mindfulness and are doing it in different ways, but there is not a large evidence base for its delivery in schools,” says programme director Jaime Smith.
Meanwhile, teachers at Cherry Tree primary school in Basildon, Essex, say mindfulness lessons are already making a difference. “Children aged eight to 10 in four classes do different exercises for 10 minutes after lunch each day,” says school pastoral leader Kim Milsom. “Children have told us that mindfulness helps to calm them down and that they use it at home as well.”
Experience: ‘We need to equip them with coping strategies’
Tracey Ward, assistant head teacher at Stanley Grove primary academy, reviews her work as a trained mental health first aider
Being a mental health first aider means you have been trained to spot signs and symptoms and can “intervene early”. If you have done the Mental Health First Aid England training you are more aware of depression and anxiety.
To give a bit of context, 97% of pupils in our school have English as an additional language and 57% of the population of our area are living in poverty, according to a report last year. Wellbeing is a priority for us and we want to make sure that if our children are in a crisis in their lives, that we have equipped them with the right coping strategies – ones that are sustainable and that they will be able to use in the future.
We have converted our first aid stations into mental and physical health stations and we have trained mental health first aiders to be there at break and lunch times.
On their trays the children all have a “first aid kit” – which is a picture of an open case with a red cross on it. They write on it what they need when they are feeling distressed, overwhelmed or anxious. The children love this approach.
This week I was at one of the first aid stations when a child had an outburst and came to me saying they were “overwhelmed”. I told him to collect his mental first aid kit from the tray and we discussed what he could do. Another child came to us because they had “a busy mind” and we carried out the stress bucket activity. We discussed what was making the stress container full and what could be put in place to empty out some of the water.
We had a session with mental health first aiders in our sensory room for targeted children who need support.
Part of our approach is to embrace physical activity to support mental health. One of our wellbeing activities is the daily mile, marked out on the playground. Every child from nursery to year 6 walks, jogs or runs it every day and they can do it with a friend or a member of staff. We find children are more likely to open up about their feelings outside of the classroom. Our ethos and culture is warm and happy and I think that’s a lot to do with the importance we place on mental health and wellbeing.