Image: Heidi Forbes Oste
Schools are increasingly turning to mindfulness as a way of helping pupils relax, concentrate, and avoid distractions. Here, Claire Kelly, director at the Mindfulness in Schools Project, explains what mindfulness is, how it can help and how parents can lead the way for their children to follow.
Digital technology is brilliant! It connects one human being with another at lightning speed anywhere on the planet, is an instant encyclopaedia, excites, entertains and tests us, and speeds up mundane tasks such as shopping and paying bills.
At the same time, a growing number of research studies and reports have focused on fears that the over-use of digital and mobile technology leaves young people vulnerable to both mental and physical health problems.
One thing to acknowledge right at the outset is that digital technology isn’t going away any time soon. Indeed, it is evolving at a speed most of us could never have envisaged, and many of us find baffling.
As adults and as parents we therefore have a choice: we can adopt a Canute-like stance, denying access to the very thing that connects us to a wide and exciting world; we can allow it to consume us, leaving us with a sense that the ‘unplug’ option is inconceivable; or we can attempt to deal more skilfully with what’s on offer.
This is where mindfulness may have a potential role to play.
Parents are role models
It’s important first to remind ourselves that as parents, we do become the model for our younger children’s behaviour. Our older, pre-teen and teenage children may no longer feel the need to use us as role models (quite the opposite), but they continue to use us as a gauge of what’s ‘OK’.
Before we therefore turn our attention to protecting our children from the potentially harmful effects of ‘too much’ or ‘inappropriate’ use of technology, we must first examine our own relationship with it.
It may be useful to spend a few moments reflecting on whether you ever experience any of the following:
- Compulsion to reach for the phone in moments of awkward silence, or just silence.
- Feel the urge to reach for the phone as soon as you wake up, eat breakfast or drink your coffee, travel to work, then periodically throughout the day, until you finally collapse into bed and then ‘just one more time’ before you go to sleep.
- Repeatedly check your bag or pockets for your phone, even though you only did so a few moments earlier.
- Feel the need to empty the email inbox, noticing the frustration when new emails come in as you are trying to do so.
- Feel the email inbox as a palpable pressure – a little like a ‘box of voices’ all screaming for your attention.
- Live for the ‘me time’ that might come at the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the term, when you go away on holiday. Then finding your ‘me time’ taken up with technological catch up – answering those emails or messages that have filled your inbox since you last checked it.
None of these behaviours is unusual, but they are potentially depleting and exhausting. Furthermore, engaging in them while in the presence of your children sends them a signal that says ‘this is normal’ or ‘this is OK’. Before we then chide them for the amount of time they are spending on their electronic devices, perhaps we should stop to reflect.
As adults, it is clear that many of us have a potentially addictive relationship with our electronic devices.
Look at numbers 1-3 on the list above, and try replacing ‘the phone’ with the word ‘cigarettes’ or ‘a bottle’ and you’ll see what I mean.
No matter how much we consciously acknowledge that we would change the situation if we could, the powerful compulsion to reach for the keyboard or phone seems beyond anyone’s control.
We are looking at a complex set of factors that leave us feeling like puppets dancing on the strings of our impulses. Aside from the neurological and hormonal factors that play a significant role here, it’s the cultural norms – in the workplace and society at large – that leave us feeling that if we were to put down our devices, spend time with our children, take a break and look up or outwards instead of down at the screen, we fear we may be seen as abnormal/lazy/friendless, or worse.
And this is exactly what we hear from young people when they are questioned about their own obsessive and compulsive relationship with their devices. It’s no surprise that while on school trips teachers observe separation anxiety when students are asked to hand in their mobile phones. As adults, we need to ‘look to ourselves’ before trying to liberate our children from any negative effects of technology.
So, how can mindfulness help?
Mindfulness is a notoriously slippery thing to define. For a really neat overview, you can do no better than Professor Mark Williams’s definition:
‘Mindfulness is a very simple form of meditation that was little known in the West until recently. A typical meditation consists of focusing your full attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Focusing on each breath in this way allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind and, little by little, to let go of struggling with them.’
Among the many skills you learn through regular mindfulness practice is the ability to train your attention. With a commitment to simple practices, you can begin to notice the mind’s natural tendency to wander (perhaps towards the laptop on the table or the email chain you feel you need to contribute to) and then gently guide it back to a more nourishing state of present moment awareness.
In time, you may notice the mind’s propensity for ‘story-telling’ in the absence of complete information. The one short line of text (‘can you talk?’) which may lead to a powerful emotional and even physical reaction from you, could be seen as simply a line of text that could be interpreted in a number of ways.
The urge to reach for the mobile device in those ‘awkward’ moments of silence or stillness can also be tuned into, and a choice to engage or not engage can open up.
More thoughtful reactions
The complex interplay of thoughts, emotions, physical sensation and urges that can arise following a difficult email or text can be very powerful. This can lead to a speedy, reactive response such as pressing ‘send’ a little too soon, followed by the regret and self-recrimination that follows. Mindfulness practices can be used very effectively in such situations, giving us a little bit of breathing space between reaction and response. Sometimes just a few seconds stepping back from the situation can be enough to allow you to make a more skilful or appropriate choice.
Heightened awareness of your body
The ability to notice the signals your body sends you that may be ignored as we sit at our desks, deeply engrossed in on-screen planning, reflection and rumination become clearer to read. The physical signs of anxiety, exhaustion, tension or reactivity can be recognised and, in some cases, mindfulness can provide you with a series of techniques to help you make self-compassionate choices without the guilt that can sometimes accompany these.
Technology for mindfulness
Finally, it’s worth noting that technology can help you be more mindful. The international phenomenon that is the Headspace app provides a great way to dip your toe into mindfulness practices anytime anywhere. The Insight Timer app allows you to time your mindfulness practice while connecting with others around the world who are doing the same thing at the same time. There are many, many more, and they are well worth exploring.
When working with school staff we often talk of the ‘oxygen mask principle’. The safety demonstrations on planes routinely advise you, in the case of loss of cabin pressure, to put on your own oxygen mask before helping the young people in care. The same applies to parents who may wish to resource their children as they navigate their way through a world lit up by technology.
Neuroscientists are famous for stating that ‘neurons that fire together wire together’. The more we engage in a particular thought or behavioural pattern the ‘better’ we get at it, and the more likely we are to engage in it next time. When these patterns are unhelpful, we need a strategy to help us step back, observe and resource ourselves in order to make more helpful choices. We can help our children do this, but only once we’ve learned to do it for ourselves.
What is the Mindfulness in Schools Project?
The Mindfulness in Schools Project (“MiSP”) is a not for profit company hoping to convert to charitable status in the next few months whose aim is to encourage, support and research the teaching of secular mindfulness in schools. MiSP trains teachers how to teach one of its three curricula - .b (“dot b”) designed for 11-18 year olds, paws.b designed for 7-11 year olds and .b Foundations designed for mindfulness teachers to teach an 8 week introduction to mindfulness course to adults.
‘Research indicates that children who participate in some mindfulness programmes have reported fewer depressive symptoms, lower stress and greater wellbeing than the young people in the control group. Approximately 80% of the young people said they continued using practices taught in MiSP’s mindfulness curriculum after completing the nine week programme. Teachers and schools also rated the curriculum as worthwhile and very enjoyable to learn and teach.’ Read the full report here.