1. Know the difference between focused awareness and mindful awareness
Firstly, we emphasize that mindfulness is more than just calm and concentration. If mindfulness training is to be distinguishable from relaxation or attention training, children need to learn about the mind and develop certain qualities of awareness—like openness, curiosity and care.
After stilling the mind using a narrow focus, the aim is to then develop an allowing receptivity to all experience, and particularly to thoughts and emotions. These qualities are thought to underpin many of the protective and therapeutic effects of mindfulness training. We recommend that a curriculum should either integrate appropriate learning content that develops mindful attitudes or that it not be called mindfulness practice. Otherwise, commissioners leave themselves open to the accusation of deploying ‘McMindfulness’, and if superficial programs are perceived by teachers as having limited benefits, this may hinder later attempts to implement deeper training that has more profound implications.
As an example, although the MindUp curriculum introduces elementary school children to the concept of mindfulness, the exercises they introduce are not described as mindfulness meditation. Instead they are skillfully called brain breaks for the purpose of developing focussed awareness, which is valuable in itself and is the foundation from which mindfulness can then later be developed.
2. Put on your own oxygen mask first
If teachers are to guide practices for children, it’s very important that they embody mindfulness themselves and have high levels of personal motivation. It is widely held that mindfulness training cannot be delivered from a script, much like you wouldn’t ask a teacher who can’t swim to teach a swimming class from a textbook. If a program cannot involve extensive teacher-training (often six months of committed personal practice and then a 4 or 5 day training) we recommend that it relies heavily on high-quality audio and video content, which teacher and pupils could follow together, perhaps leading to facilitated class discussion.
3. Avoid ‘top-down’ implementation
Although the Mindfulness Initiative has been speaking to government ministers for a number of years now about how they can catalyze all the interest in mindfulness bubbling up at a school level, we’d suggest that it’s probably never a good idea to mandate training in a curriculum. At least, not unless mindfulness becomes as ‘mainstream’ as physical exercise and schools have the resources to hire dedicated staff. Because critically, if a school were compelled to teach mindfulness without staff who have a level of knowledge and interest, the likely outcomes are resistance, misunderstanding and dilution.
4. Get buy-in at every level
In addition to cultivating interest at a grassroots level, it’s also key to identify both a senior sponsor, ideally the principal or head teacher, and a lead champion to oversee program development. A program driven by a lone champion without senior support is likely to collapse once that evangelist leaves the organization. Too much push from one person without buy-in from other stakeholders, like parents or governors, can also create resistance from colleagues. Similarly, the enthusiasm of a senior figure without the time and resource to work on the detail or inspire others can lead to half-hearted implementation, and then to erosion when their attention is drawn elsewhere.
How to get your school community to help a mindfulness program thrive
- Provide a mentor structure. One way to help embed mindfulness into school culture is to bring the expertise for providing mindfulness courses in-house. In this model a teacher or member of the support staff who has an established personal practice would train to teach courses for adults, and offer drop-in sessions to maintain practice amongst teachers. They could also offer mindfulness courses to teachers from other schools, which as well as contributing to consistent delivery and knowledge sharing, could help fund the program.
- Clearly define the purpose of the program. Before mindfulness training can truly flourish in the education system, it might first be necessary to interrogate the purpose of the system itself. Could capacities that help us to navigate the world like resilience, openness, curiosity, empathy, meta-cognition and the ability to focus be as important to human development as knowledge about how that world works? Popular psychologist Daniel Goleman, for instance, is a great exponent of research showing that self-regulation capabilities are the biggest single determinant of life outcomes. In a world where the only thing we can count on is constant change and the shape of work is likely to be very different in 20 years time, leading thinkers have suggested that future success will be as dependent on understanding the minds of others as understanding technology (giving rise to the term ‘STEMpathy’).
– Jamie Bristow