Jessica Nash, Head of Special Schools Network and SEN, writes…

I was astounded, when looking for a birthday gift recently, to see how significantly mindfulness features in the book market. The bestseller shelves appear to be heaving with a range of texts, including the usual ‘quick fix’ versions.

Clearly publishers and marketers recognise an opportunity to promote the ancient practice of mindfulness as a response to the dilemmas and fast pace of life the 21st century. Yet it seems somewhat ironic that this approach is being packaged in a way that suggests it is an off-the-shelf solution to personal pressures such as stress, anxiety, anger or depression. Earlier this year, the Daily Mail ran an article entitled ‘Become healthier and happier: mindfulness on the go’. Are such approaches symptomatic of a culture of immediacy – or perhaps a genuine attempt to speed up these age-old practices to suit contemporary life?

Mindfulness is described by The Mental Health Foundation as ‘a way of paying attention to the present moment, using techniques like meditation, breathing and yoga. It helps us become more aware of our thoughts and feelings so that instead of being overwhelmed by them, we’re better able to manage them.’ It goes on to explain how practising mindfulness can give more insight into emotions, boost attention and concentration and improve relationships.

And more information about self-management is available via the national charity, Young Minds. Currently, their website distinguishes between positive and negative forms of relaxation for its young readers; it highlights the risks of ‘quick fixes’ which may stimulate rather than relax. Their assertion is that ‘there are many positive ways to relax that can have a better impact on your mental health’. They recommend pausing, regulating breathing and visualisation techniques.

For a considerable time now, educators have raised concern about the emotional wellbeing and mental health of pupils – reflecting that mental health affects all aspects of a child’s development including their cognitive abilities, their social skills and their emotional wellbeing.

The change to the broad area of special educational need set out in the 2014 SEND Code of Practice has caused consternation: social, emotional and behavioural difficulties has been revised to social, emotional and mental health difficulties. There is the concern of behaviour being totally overlooked as a result – and perhaps part of the issue also, is that the phrase mental health difficulties veers us into the realm of specialist knowledge and understanding. It refers to needs which can cause disquiet because of their very human characteristics and potentially extreme vulnerabilities.

Whilst many of us can quote the popularised statistic ‘one in every four people will experience some form of mental health problems’, this area of need can promote anxiety and perplexity in those adults with a duty of care for children and young people; some of their concern may reflect a wish to respond appropriately as a professional despite a lack of specialist knowledge and skills, some of it may be prompted by the pressures of pupil achievement being summatively assessed.

In a recent article, Katherine Weare reminds us that

Given that mindfulness is essentially about learning to pay attention and cultivate attitudes such as kindness, curiosity and non-judgmentalism, the link between education and mindfulness could be seen as even more obvious and fundamental.

Weare suggests that the principles established within programmes for developing social and emotional skills may also be relevant for introducing mindfulness in schools. (To read more on this, try their article Mindfulness in Schools – where are we and where might we go? in Handbook of Mindfulness edited by Amanda Ie, Christelle T. Ngnoumen and Ellen J. Langer, The Wiley-Blackwell, Spring 2014)

Building on the moral imperative that schools do want their pupils to be happy, educators also recognise that learners need executive skills to develop proficiency across curriculum areas such as resilience, perseverance, optimism, focus, memory. In addition, schools have the clear duty to ensure pupil and adult safety, are bound by equal opportunities legislation and have a duty of care to address such matters as bullying, aggression and self-injurious behaviours. Wellbeing, mental and emotional, may therefore be regarded as being integral to effective school performance although the evidence for the impact of social and emotional interventions with young people is currently limited.

So, with schools working to respond to the revised area of need, social, emotional and mental health difficulties perhaps it is wise to begin with whole school culture and consider how the ‘school’ experience is shaped for both staff and pupils.

  • How do the daily routines of registration, moving around the school, verbal communication, taking turns in class or waiting for lunch etc. actually support each individual to feel valued and respected?
  • What opportunities are there during class or tutor time, in assemblies and by structuring group activities to make explicit the social and emotional skills which encourage every pupil to become confident and optimistic?
  • When can pupils be supported to explore commonplace issues such as recognising and managing anxiety, healthy risk taking, reflecting on their motivations, understanding the challenges and potential benefits of persevering?

Such character forming experiences can be systematically woven through the daily fabric of life in school without recourse to specialist training. They don’t happen by magic however. The resource required is committed leadership and collective responsibility.

They can be the first responses to nurturing emotional wellbeing and good mental health. The practice of mindfulness – paying attention, being in the present, being non-reactive and being non-judgemental – may be a tool to support. School leaders who bravely commit to developing the quality of Wave 1 provision for social, emotional and mental health needs will understand that there isn’t a single panacea but rather a range of approaches. Coherent planning to enhance the affective curriculum is the necessary strategy – whether or not mindfulness is part of the plan.

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