How to Avoid A Poorly Designed School Mindfulness Program
By Jamie Bristow
In the UK, it was recently announced that the national government will put public money into mindfulness in education for the first time. One hundred and fifty schools will take part in a trial training program as part of a wider piece of research into mental health and wellbeing programs. This new level of interest is welcome, but it does bring to light some critical tensions that could arise when designing and implementing programs in schools with tight resources. There are a number of things that must be made clear in order to avoid problems.
In my role as director of the Mindfulness Initiative, a policy institute that provides the research and administrative support to the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness, I’m helping MPs engage with the Department for Education on mindfulness and offering a number of suggestions for their consideration. These suggestions could be helpful for anyone thinking of bringing mindfulness training into schools.
Mindfulness in Schools: Potential Problems and How to Fix Them
1) Know the difference between focussed 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.
…children need to learn about the mind and develop certain qualities of awareness—like openness, curiosity and care.
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.
…you wouldn’t ask a teacher who can’t swim to teach a swimming class from a textbook.
It is possible to thread learning points progressively through a program of guided mindfulness practices, as is the case in popular consumer apps that use short animations to communicate core principles but then don’t separate teaching content from practice guidance. One alternative is to parachute in an external mindfulness teacher, but be aware in doing so that teaching kids is different to teaching adults—and this person must be properly trained to work with young conscripts! The downside of bringing in external teachers, in addition to cost, is that mindful attitudes are not then integrated into staff culture. If mindfulness is not modeled for children, it’s less likely to be seen as important and adopted.
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.
…it’s probably never a good idea to mandate training in a curriculum. At least, not unless mindfulness becomes as ‘mainstream’ as physical exercise…
Mindfulness requires personal intention and you cannot command someone to be mindful. If teachers are being asked to deliver content themselves, robust practice and voluntary dedication must exist first. Across sectors, the spread of quality training won’t be top-down—the how and where of mindfulness teaching is largely in the hands of grassroots advocates. It therefore requires patience to establish a program with integrity.
How to avoid top-down mindfulness implementation:
- First find a local qualified mindfulness teacher to hold a taster session for teachers and staff, so that they can get a sense for what it’s all about.
- Then, for those who are interested, we’d suggest providing an eight-week course for teachers derived from MBSR or MBCT or another evidence-based program.
- Once a cohort of teachers have taken a mindfulness course themselves, perhaps support them to continue with personal practice by organizing half an hour once a week for sitting together – and/or provide access to apps and other support materials.
- Then, if they are inspired to do so, they could undertake teacher training, to learn how to introduce mindfulness to children. Most mindfulness teacher training programs, in the UK at least, require six months of practice.
Training staff has many benefits in its own right, and research is currently taking place into the impact of teachers’ own mindfulness practice on general teaching quality. If you need help justifying staff training to stakeholders, our recent publication Building the Case for Mindfulness in Workplace offers detailed advice.
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.
A program driven by a lone champion without senior support is likely to collapse once that evangelist leaves the organization.
The $8 million Wellcome Trust-funded research program into mindfulness in schools, led by teams in Oxford, Cambridge and University College London, has examined existing implementation of mindfulness in schools as an early phase of the work. In common with innovative schools programs more generally, anecdotal evidence suggests that mindfulness training tends to operate in stops and starts, with only those schools that are already running effectively being able to find the resources to properly embed mindfulness into school life.
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’).
This new initiative from the Department for Education in the UK is a welcome response to the rising tide of mental ill health and poor wellbeing amongst children in our schools. But in giving young people the skills to train their own minds; in helping them to be more aware of their experience the better to learn and grow in each moment; in providing the space for natural discernment to arise and lead to actions that are more in line with values… perhaps a yet greater prize waits to be recognized.