Why Schools in England Are Teaching Mindfulness

The UK Government has for the first time invested public funds to study the benefits of mindfulness in the classroom.

Rawpixel.com/Adobe Stock

Hundreds of children in the UK will be taught mindfulness among a range of innovative techniques with the aim of promoting good mental health, through one of the largest studies of its kind in the world (in terms of participant numbers).

Led by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families in partnership with University College London, a series of trials will see children from up to 370 schools learn mindfulness exercises, relaxation techniques and breathing exercises which aim to “to help them regulate their emotions”—alongside pupil sessions with mental health experts.

The study will extend existing research into mindfulness and mental health education, comparing the effectiveness of different approaches, with the aim of establishing a robust evidence-base to help schools determine how best to promote students’ mental health and well-being. Announcing the trial at the beginning of Children’s Mental Health Week, UK Education Secretary Damian Hinds acknowledged plans to introduce children to issues around mental health, well-being, and happiness from the beginning of primary school.

“As a society, we are much more open about our mental health than ever before, but the modern world has brought new pressures for children… these trials are key to improving our understanding of how practical, simple advice can help them cope.” –Damian Hinds, UK Secretary of State for Health

A Decade of Grassroots Mindfulness Efforts

The Government’s current initiative builds on over a decade of grassroots work to bring mindfulness to schoolchildren across the UK. Thanks to independent curriculum innovators and enthusiastic champions at the school and local authority level, over 5,000 trained classroom teachers deliver mindfulness training in thousands of schools across the UK. Successive Secretaries of State for Education have recognized the potential for mindfulness training to improve well-being, cognitive skills, and academic performance, but until now they have been hesitant to put scarce resources behind a national program.

“Half of all mental illness, as we know, begins by the age of 14—and with young people spending more time online, the strains on mental well-being are only going to increase.” — Prime Minister Theresa May

A change in prevailing attitudes has been apparent in the past two years however, as the mental health and well-being of children has climbed the political agenda. It has been a regular feature in speeches by the Prime Minister Theresa May, who recently said, “I want us to do more to support the mental well-being of young people. Half of all mental illness, as we know, begins by the age of 14—and with young people spending more time online, the strains on mental well-being are only going to increase.”

An Education Minister, Edward Timpson MP, responded to a parliamentary debate on mindfulness in education, attributing his own on-going interest in mindfulness to its particular benefits to attention, which he identified as a developing problem in schools.

Investing in Resilience Training

Addressing members of the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group, Professor Katherine Weare, co-lead for education at The Mindfulness Initiative policy institute, recently summarized current evidence for mindfulness in education. Her systematic review found that mindfulness-based interventions in the classroom “can reliably impact on a wide range of indicators of positive psychological, social, and physical well-being and flourishing in children and young people.” The current, promising state of the evidence base has been sufficient to attract a 10 million dollar Strategic Award from the Welcome Trust for a research trial led by Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and UCL. The My Resilience In Adolescence (MYRIAD) project focuses on the comparative value of mindfulness-based interventions to support resilience and well-being in young people, through a five-year randomized control trial.

Mindfulness-based interventions in the classroom “can reliably impact on a wide range of indicators of positive psychological, social, and physical well-being and flourishing in children and young people.”

Amid criticism that the Government’s new initiative focuses on intervention rather than prevention of mental health problems, Dr. Jessica Deighton argued that the new study focuses on long-term resilience and literacy in mental health—saying “it’s not just to make (young people) feel better in the short-term, but to better equip them for later in life.”

Whether or not the Government’s current trial proves successful, it is vital that such future-forward initiatives are encouraged, so long as they are objectively evaluated. Skills such as focus and collectedness, and attitudes like kindness and open-mindedness may well be imperative in helping us all to meet the challenges we face in our rapidly changing world. These developments come at a time when scientists are beginning to consider mindfulness as a root construct—something ‘critical to how and what one values, thinks, feels, and does in all social domains.’ Some politicians are likewise starting to ask whether it could have a fundamental role in policymaking. Educators are not out on a limb then, in asking whether mindfulness belongs within a foundational approach to our health and well-being as we learn and grow. Indeed we might next move away from the model of mindfulness as an ‘intervention’—treating it rather as a trainable human capacity that has an indispensable role in flourishing.

Read More

x