Two Wonderful Mindfulness Days

We spent two wonderful days at Gorse Hill Primary School delivering mindfulness to children, parents, and staff. We began each session by introducing ‘Stepping out of Autopilot’ and looking at something with a ‘Beginner’s Mind’. We wrapped Maltesers in foil and asked the children to examine this object very closely before allowing them to eat it. We asked them to pretend they were aliens who had never seen this strange shiny object before. Looking at something from the beginner’s mind is something that children do automatically as they discover new things, but as children grow they begin to lose the curiosity around things we see in every-day life.

The younger children were really interested in the crinkling sound of the silver paper as they examined the object. They came up with lots of lovely vocabulary to describe it such as crinkly, crackly, shiny, sphere shape, and smooth chocolate. They immediately began to make predictions of what may be inside the foil such as a pebble or a marble. The older children commented on things they didn’t expect such as the smoothness of the chocolate in the mouth and the way the Malteser dissolved on the tongue. One child said, “Normally when I eat chocolate I don’t notice the smooth texture because I eat it so quickly”.

We introduced listening to sounds to the younger children by playing a few musical instruments. We asked them to close their eyes as they were transported away from automatic pilot and were able to focus entirely on the sounds they could hear. They were eager to tell us what the sound of each instrument reminded them of, such as rain falling on a roof, a frog croaking and a snake rattling. They used really interesting vocabulary to describe what they heard. They enjoyed sitting in stillness and tried very hard to keep their eyes closed!

The older children were introduced to a ‘Noticing Distraction’ meditation. The feedback from this was really encouraging. One pupil, at the beginning of the session, had difficulty sitting still and had called out many times. After this meditation, she told us that she was now aware of how busy her mind had been and was able to calm this internal chatter by focusing on the breath. The transformation in that one session was quite remarkable.

We ended each session with a short, seated body scan. The children told us they didn’t usually notice how their clothing and shoes felt in contact with their skin. They had never thought about what it felt like to sit in a chair. They didn’t realise they could feel their feet on the floor and noticed lots of different sensations in the body. Most of all, they felt totally relaxed and said it had taken their worries away.

At the end of the day one, we delivered an introductory session to parents, who were interested in what mindfulness was all about and also wanted to work with their children on mindful activities. At the end of day two, we delivered an introductory session to the staff, who said they hoped to continue with the mindful practices as they thought it would help to reduce their stress levels.

We would like to thank Kirsty Chrysler, Deputy Head, for organising, and inviting us in to deliver, the two wonderful mindful days. We received really nice feedback from staff and children about the whole experience.

Teacher Wellbeing Day

We had the pleasure of introducing mindfulness to the amazing staff at Green Fold Special School, Farnworth, Bolton as part of their Health and Wellbeing Day. The staff had no idea that they would be scrutinising a raisin that morning but that’s exactly what they did as we talked about stepping out of autopilot.

We live so much of our lives in autopilot, doing one thing whilst our minds are already on the next. Our brains are very clever at allowing us to do routine activities without actually having to focus our attention on what we are doing. This is an invaluable skill but if we live in this mode all of the time we can miss what’s actually happening in the present moment.

There were lots of interesting responses to the raisin exercise. Some members of staff noticed the rich flavour of the raisin, which they hadn’t observed before, as one of them said, “I usually just grab a handful and eat them without really noticing what they taste like”. Another enjoyed the sensation of rolling the raisin between the fingers; whilst another told us how surprised they were that a raisin could make a sound.

We also introduced a noticing distraction meditation. The staff were surprised to notice how many times their minds wandered from one thought to the next and how a chain of thoughts could be totally unrelated to one another. We call this the ‘Monkey Mind’ because our thoughts jump to and fro, just like a monkey jumping back and forth through the trees.

We ended the session with a short, seated body scan. By focusing our attention on the body we are able to move away from the internal chatter going on in our minds. One participant said, “I have never noticed before the feel of my shoes and clothing in contact with my skin”. Another said, “I felt like I was floating.” By the end of the body scan the staff were feeling totally relaxed, in fact so relaxed they didn’t want it to end.

We thank Gary Anders, Headteacher, for inviting us to take part in their day. We received lovely feedback from the staff and the mindful experience was enjoyed by all.

Stepping out of auto pilot

We operate on automatic pilot most of the time and our brains are so powerful that we are able to do most everyday things without actively thinking about what we are doing.  How often do you brush your teeth, put the kettle on, make a cup of tea, wash the dishes, take a shower and hundreds of other daily activities and not even notice anything about what you are doing?

When we learn to drive a car we pay attention to the steering, we focus on how much pressure we apply to the accelerator, concentrate on the tricky manoeuvre of depressing the clutch and releasing the accelerator whilst changing gear, and then breaking without catapulting the instructor through the windscreen. In the beginning, we wonder how on earth we are going to master this skill as there are so many different things to focus on simultaneously, however, within a few weeks we have begun to do many of the skills involved automatically. We can even drive from home to work without even recalling how we got there.

When we teach young children to brush their teeth, we show them how to hold the brush, how much toothpaste to apply, how to brush each surface of the teeth, and how to rinse. They do this all with great curiosity and pleasure. When adults brush their teeth they do this on automatic pilot and probably look at it as a chore that has to be done and may even begin multitasking by walking away from the sink to do something else at the same time.

When babies eat their first solid food, they are experiencing the feel of the spoon in their mouth, the texture of the food on their tongue and the new flavour reaching their taste buds. They take their time to eat and are not worried if the food spills out all over their face, hands and clothes. We gradually teach the child to eat neatly so as to remain clean and as they grow up it all becomes automatic and they no longer have to think about the eating process. As adults, we often eat whilst watching the TV and may not even recall eating the meal. We miss so much of our lives because we are not aware of what is happening in the present moment.

So how can we step out of autopilot? There are certain things we need to be able to do automatically, for example, when typing on a keyboard you don’t want to stop to notice what it feels like to touch each key. However, there are certain things that we do every day that we can pay more attention to if we purposely turn our minds to it. The next time you take a shower, notice the water temperature on your skin, smell the soap, tilt your head back and allow the water to fall onto the top of your forehead, maybe turn the temperature down a little to see what that feels like. When you do an activity like this you are stepping out of autopilot and becoming aware of what is happening in the present moment.   This can be applied to all sorts of everyday activities, such as eating, getting dressed, walking, cooking and cleaning. Try paying attention to a different activity each day for a week and see what you notice.

Emotional Friendly Schools 3rd Annual Conference

Staff wellbeing was this year’s focus at the Emotional Friendly Schools Conference and was very well attended.  A big thank you to Hannah Cartmell and Anna Serjeant for organising this excellent event.

Graphic by Inky Thinking

The key-note speaker Professor Neil Humphrey began the day with some alarming statistics around the poor mental health and wellbeing of teachers. To demonstrate the opinions of the delegates around this topic he asked them to take part in a live poll using Mentimeter.

Ever felt like giving up?

The results of the poll showed that 58% said they had felt so stressed over the last two years that they had given serious consideration to leaving the profession. It’s quite possible this statistic would have been even higher had the room been filled with just teachers.  He also asked, “What has an impact on your wellbeing at school?” and the option ‘Demands (e.g. workload)’ received a huge 87% response.  Professor Humphrey also reminded us of why we continue to do the job, with 63% saying they experienced weekly “…one of those joyful ‘moments’, where you are reminded why you became a teacher in the first place” and 23% experienced this daily. The poll was, of course, done in a light-hearted and fun way, however, I think it’s a very good demonstration of the feelings within the profession today.

Ever flipped your lid?

Unfortunately, I was one of those statistics. I became so stressed that I began to suffer with anxiety and subsequently developed a heart condition and depression. I was fortunate to be offered mindfulness as part of my recovery and it literally turned my life around. It wasn’t a quick fix but a lifestyle change. I began, for the first time, to see what I was putting myself through on a daily basis. I decided to leave my full time teaching job and I am now a qualified mindfulness teacher delivering mindfulness to schools, colleges and the mental health charity Mind in Salford.

We were heartened to hear from Professor Humphrey that the Manchester Institute of Education are including mindfulness as part of the teacher-training programme, so the new cohorts will have the tools under their belt to deal with the stresses and strains of the profession.

The Government Guidelines recommend all mindfulness teachers should have completed an eight-week mindfulness programme, plus a one-year supervised pathway (or other similar qualification), and have their own personal mindfulness practice well established. This is because mindfulness isn’t a quick fix, like putting on a sticking plaster. It is a subtle practice and can only be taught well by people with considerable personal experience. It is not something that can be learnt quickly. It is deceptively simple, and people can easily think that they know what it is when they are actually only using a small aspect of mindfulness. Presented simplistically, or with misinterpretations, the radical perspective-shifting potential of the approach is lost.

The success of mindfulness programmes in school depends to a considerable extent on the quality and experience of the teacher’s own mindfulness practice, and this can take several years of sustained personal commitment well beyond the formal training. Quality is also affected by how it is implemented; an isolated instance of a teacher working with one class is less effective than a whole school approach in which everyone in the school community including parents and all the staff participate in the programme. (Mindful Nation UK, Report by the Mindfulness All-Parliamentary Parliament Group (MAPPG), October 2015).

We were delighted to be able to deliver a workshop at the conference on mindfulness, which was really well received. We were able to give delegates a taster, which included:

  • Stepping out of autopilot: to help you become aware of how much we operate on automatic pilot and don’t stop to notice what’s happening around us, or to enjoy what is happening in the present moment.
  • Noticing distraction: to notice where our thoughts are. We get caught up in planning what we need to do, or thinking about what somebody said, or maybe having an imaginary conversation, which may not ever happen. Our minds are constantly caught up in thoughts and this practice is great for noticing what our minds are doing.
  • Body scan: this helps us to become more attuned with
    what’s happening in our body.  We may be unaware that we are holding tensionin our body, and may not have noticed this until we stop and focus our attention. Through meditation we train our brain to notice when we are feeling anxious, what we are feeling and begin to recognise sensations such as shallow breathing.

The conference was rounded up by Inky Thinking who were amazing at getting everyone to come up with ways of improving their school’s wellbeing. They drew a huge graphic to reflect what the conference was all about (image at the beginning of this blog).  Each group came up with unique ways to improve staff wellbeing, centred around the question, “What will staff wellbeing at your school look like?” Groups came up with ideas from toolkits to singing and it was interesting to see many people had included the need for mindfulness in their school.  Below are ideas from a couple of the groups:

Why Schools are Turning to Mindfulness

We cannot ignore that today’s children are growing up in a fast moving, competitive and technologically complex world.  It is becoming increasingly difficult for children to avoid scrutiny and to switch off.

Schools are under increasing pressure to perform to standards and this pressure is pushed downwards onto the children who feel it necessary to ‘succeed’ to a set standard.  In addition to this they have tremendous peer pressure.

Issues around educational failure, family disruption, disability, offending and antisocial behaviour impact significantly on the mental health and well-being of children and young people; if left untreated this can create untold distress for all those involved. This may continue to cause difficulty into adult life and most certainly impacts on future generations.

Mindfulness is a pro-active way of dealing with the stresses and strains of life and doesn’t single out children like other forms of therapy such as counselling or psychotherapy because it can be practiced by groups of children.

Benefits that mindfulness offers to children include:

  • The physical body and emotional mind are balanced.
  • Children develop self-knowing awareness, which is essential for building positive social connections.
  • Children become more “tuned in” to themselves, wand thus become more “tuned in” to those around them.
  • Developing empathy, which enables us to feel another person’s experience and image others’ reality.  They learn to consider the bigger picture, imagining and acting on what’s best for the group rather than just seeing things from ones own perspective.
  • Improved impulse control is developed and children learn to pause before taking action.
  • Children are be able to calm and self soothe, and even unlearn fears.
  • Improved attention span; the practice of paying attention can build our focus and attention.
  • It enables individuals to develop a balanced perspective, to be able to deal with set-backs and have the inner resources to cope.

Further information about our Mindfulness for Children