It’s estimated (conservatively) that one in ten children in the United States would qualify for a diagnosis of Attention Hyperactivty Disorder. We live in an age of "continuous partial attention," where the constant pressure to react to a flood of stimuli goes beyond the reasonable capacities of our brains. We know that young, growing brains are especially vulnerable to being shaped by negative experience—a scattered attention can create a brain in disharmony, which may further impede our ability to focus. And a mind that can’t sustain focus is a mind that will find it difficult to learn something new.
Given all this, you might think training in attention would be critical to any schooling. Indeed, William James, back in 1890, said such a training would be "an education par excellence," although he confessed to being stumped as to what it might involve. Now, of course, we know—mindfulness practice nurtures attention, bringing with it a precious treasure of other well-being benefits. And yet, it seems that most of our educators remain unmoved by the power of meditation—like James over a century ago, schools know the importance of attention, but are less sure of methods to bring it about.
I was delighted to attend the second Mindfulness in Schools Conference here in the UK a couple of weeks ago. The event, at Tonbridge School, clarified both the challenges and rewards of introducing mindfulness to our youth. The conference was organised by Chris Cullen, Richard Burnett and Chris O’Neill, three intrepid teachers who have developed a superb mindfulness program for teenage students, which is now being used in a small but growing number of schools around the country.
The nine-week course skilfully adapts key meditation practices to appeal to young people—there’s beditation (a body scan), FOFBOC (Feet on Floor, Bum on Chair), 7/11 (breathe in for 7 seconds, out for 11) and .b (dot-b), which is the two-character text message that pupils send and receive as the cue for a breathing space. There’s also multimedia content from films like Kung Fu Panda.
Perhaps the most moving testimonies at the conference came from students who’d taken the course, and who reported feeling less awkward in social situations, more motivated but not as stressed when it came to exams, better sleep and even less acne. One 17-year-old was already looking at the big picture when she suggested mindfulness could lead to “less bullying, better grades, and calmer teachers.”
It was also illuminating to hear of resistance to the classes (which in one school was offered, somewhat comically, as a "games" option). Chris O’Neill summed up the quizzical reaction of some school authorities, who viewed the lessons as “a cross between witchcraft and maypole dancing,” even though pilot studies (supervised by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge) are validating some of the pupil reports with hard data. Professor Felicia Huppert, director of the Cambridge Well-Being Centre and happiness advisor to the UK government, said that mindfulness is the most important skill to teach kids if we want to help them flourish.
To understand the cynicism, maybe we should heed the cynic. Another conference speaker, Tim Parks, is the author of Teach Us To Sit Still, a memoir of his reluctant adventure into the realm of meditation as a last-ditch attempt to manage chronic pelvic pain. He described the practice of asking kids to feel their feet as “a radical act.” In a school system that cultivates head-based intellect as the way to reach goals and targets, offering lessons in mindfulness is nothing short of subversive, mused Parks. What would happen when these children heard the message from their bodies that perhaps they didn’t want to spend their lives on the materialistic treadmill that society has laid out for them?
Parks spoke of his own past: “My body and mind were just about on speaking terms, with the former mainly an accessory for furthering my career.” When pain led him to explore "paradoxical relaxation" techniques, he reported feeling furious at the suggestion that he was practising meditation. “I’m not the kind of guy who meditated,” he deadpanned.
In the main, we’re not the kind of society that meditates, and certainly not the kind that teaches it to our children. After all, they might grow up to decide that the social and economic structures we’ve built and preserved don’t offer the well-being they really yearn for. Feet on floor, bum on chair. Dot-be. Beditation. It sounds almost like… well, a sit-in. Best get the kids back to math class, hadn’t we?