[Conference Review by Kate Andrews]
Take it slowly. This was the overriding message from the speakers at the 2016 Mindfulness and Education Conference, held at London’s Institute of Education on Friday. Organised by The Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP), the conference promised to provide an update of the organisation’s efforts to introduce mindfulness into UK schools, through their .b [dot-be] courses.
What Mindfulness is Not…
The day began with Katherine Weare, Emeritus Professor at the University of Southampton, commenting on the influx of interest in mindfulness and whilst influential, should never be seen as a panacea or quick-fix solution for mental health.
Depression in Teenagers
Mark Williams (Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford, and Founder of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre) spoke about the history of the practice, with hat-tips to Asian traditions, Parli texts and the pioneering Jon Kabat-Zinn’s MSBR programme that worked with chronic pain sufferers. Williams commented on how research has evidenced depression is happening earlier and earlier in our young people; it is most common to show up between ages 13-15yrs old, and “75% of those who get depression will have done so by 21 years old.”
“When did mental ill-health become normal?” he asked. This struck a chord – it has become normal. I hear it a lot and often brushed off as something kids have to handle these days. When did it become normal and ok to self-harm, take anti-depressants or have panic attacks? Williams – as all the conference speakers did – very cautiously discussed the success of mindfulness – reminding us that whilst “as powerful as anti-depressants”, must be understood as a complementary treatment to existing ones. “Do not put down your anti-depressants yet.”
Balancing Heart and Mind in Education
Kevin Hawkins (Partnership Development Lead at MiSP and Founder, MindWell) began his talk with a striking remark about human intelligence. He explained that whilst we are highly intelligent when it comes to technology and achievements like the Mars Rover, he quickly showed us images of war and climate change, commenting: “We are really not very intelligent at all, when it comes to how we share and look after our planet.”
We need to get a balance of mind and heart, he explained. He highlighted how we seem to have entirely forgotten Bloom’s 1956 taxonomy was three tiered and included feelings and emotional development:
- Cognitive: mental skills (knowledge)
- Affective: growth in feelings or emotional areas (attitude or self)
- Psychomotor: manual or physical skills (skills)
Anthony Seldon chaired a panel discussion where case studies were presented from schools and children who have been implementing and using the MiSP .b courses in mindfulness. Una Sookun made a heart-felt comment stating how “Mindfulness is bringing some humanity back to education.”
Will this be on the Curriculum?
Tim Houghton MP spoke about the governments interest in mindfulness: “In parliament we think mindfulness has a high potential,” he said. “MPs are putting their minds where their mouths are and actually practicing it themselves.” Houghton and others today commented lots on the importance of mindfulness for schools not becoming an add-on, but rather something embedded into the heart of every school and for everyone. “There are no no-go areas in mindfulness,” said Houghton.
Houghton commented on the creation of The Mindful Nation (PDF) report:
“[…] the culmination of over a year of research and inquiry including eight hearings in Parliament when members of the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group were able to hear first-hand and question some of those who have experienced the transformational impacts of mindfulness. […]
From improving mental health and boosting productivity and creativity in the economy through to helping people with long-term conditions such as diabetes and obesity, mindfulness appears to have an impact. This is a reason for government to take notice and we urge serious consideration of our report.”
– Tim Houghton MP, 2015
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness, an ancient Buddhist practice, means paying attention, on purpose and non-judgmentally to the present moment. “It wakes us up to the fact our lives unfold only in moments,” explains Kabat-Zinn. Thich Nhat Hanh (1976) defined it as “keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality.” Founder of Headspace, Andy Puddicombe (2012) defines it as “the ability to rest the mind in the moment, focused on a specific object or task, and to create a relaxed but alert state of mind.”
Mindfulness is universal – not specific to a particular religious practice – and is an inherent human capacity. In other words, it is something we can all do – be mindful or pay attention. The reality is how often are we focused on the moment, the thing we are doing right now? Or are we thinking about what’s next – constantly leaning into the future? When you are at home, washing the dishes we worry about the school run, and on the school run we are thinking about the dinner, doing the dinner we are thinking about the washing… and so on.
General Benefits of Mindfulness (Hawkins, 2014)
- Better focus and concentration
- Increased calm
- Decreased stress and anxiety
- Improved impulse control
- Skillful ways to respond to difficult emotion
- Increased self-awareness
- Increased empathy and understanding of others
- Greater overall well being
What is MiSP?
The Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP) is a non-profit UK organisation founded by Richard Burnett and Chris Cullen. It offers evidenced-based programmes for young people to learn mindfulness in schools.
There are currently three programmes:
How Does it Work?
- A set programme of lessons (pictured above), taught to children in school classrooms. Watch MiSP co-founder Richard Burnett’s TEDx talk for more.
- Led by a trained Mindfulness teacher – importantly who practices mindfulness themselves. It was emphasised throughout the conference that mindfulness is not something that can be learnt by reading a textbook or attending a single mindfulness training session – you have to want to learn it for yourself, practice it, and use it yourself, before you can teach it.
Why Does Mindfulness for Children Work?
- It is non-stigmatising
- It is accessible for young people
- It is relevant to the personal lives of every individual
For recent research, Charlotte E. Vickery and Dusana Dorjee (2016) published a research study reviewing the MiSP b.paws programme for children:
“This study showed that the Paws b mindfulness program delivered by classroom teachers significantly reduced NA and enhanced meta-cognition in children aged 7–9 years at 3 months follow-up, when compared to a control group receiving education as usual.” – Vickery and Dorjee, 2016
For our future generations, I hope that depression and anxiety will be looked back on, not experienced. I cannot express fully how painful depression was for me. It felt like a disease, that neither I nor anybody around me seemed to know how to cure. As a teenager I would lay awake at night, terrified to awake the next day, in the “same useless state”. That was a phrase that went around my mind and, until 27 years old, I believed. I was diagnosed with Depression at 17 but it took me (age 27) to demand better treatment to recover. I received 21 weeks of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), where I first heard of mindfulness, and which marked the beginning of the recovery I had been waiting for for a decade. Mindfulness wasn’t a fix by any means, it was more akin to light entering a dark room.
How do we use Mindfulness at SketchBetter?
What does this all mean for SketchBetter? Mindfulness is a mindset for us, it is about being present to where you are and what is happening in the moment. Every lesson we are beginners. We pay attention. We start every workshop with a mindful activity – typically Story Spheres for children and a Body Scan for adults where we check in with ourselves and ask how am I feeling?, what’s going on in my body?
Mindfulness is at the heart of what we do. As founder of SketchBetter I practice mindfulness daily and when required we use mindful-based techniques to ground and enhance learning. We also collaborate with qualified mindfulness trainers and meditation teachers to run specific events.
What’s next for Mindfulness?
Director of the Mindfulness Initiative and Associate of the UK’s Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group, Jamie Bristow, made the speech of the day on Friday, offering delegates a global and philosophical view on the potential impact of mindfulness and its future. Bristow stated that mindfulness is political – about regaining control – to be in the moment and in control of our choices. It offers some freedom from restrictions.
“What’s next for mindfulness? Having regained control we can ask, what can we do with the power of our attention?” – Jamie Bristow
Find out more about MiSP and how to bring Mindfulness to your school here.
 Hawkins, K. (2014). Mindfulness in Education. Teachers Digest. April-June 2014, 185/12/2013. 15. DGC Pte Ltd. Retrieved from: http://mindfulnessinschools.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Hawkins-Mindfulness-in-Education-2014.pdf