Focus on Life Skills, Mindfulness and Children’s Mental Health Week

‘Peace is every breath.’ Thich Nhat Hanh  

 When introduced to the concept of mindfulness or meditation, beginners may wonder:

Do you just sit there and do nothing? Don’t you get bored? What does meditation look like? Is it sitting cross-legged, fingers and thumbs touching, and humming to yourself? I do not have time for mindfulness. My mind will not stop. I just don’t get meditation.

  

John Kabat Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction (MBSR) programme explains, “It’s very important to get this right.  It’s not a technique. It’s a way of being in wise relationship to experience as you find it, and that means pleasant, unpleasant, and even the neutral stuff that you never bother to notice because it doesn’t seem to have a big effect on you.” And this week, some of our Prep School learners experienced just that: to accept experiences for what they are, pleasant, unpleasant and neutral, while utilising the power of their breath to be in the present moment. A resonating effect was a sense of calmness and some pupils were left asking, ‘Do we get another session with you?’

With Children’s Mental Health Week coinciding with examinations for some of our senior pupils, we took the opportunity to acknowledge some of the emotions they are currently experiencing. Nervous. Worried. Depressed. These were just a few of the thoughts that came to mind; unpleasant indeed. Together we acknowledge that exams have their purpose and while we often associate them with negative connotations, there are ways in which we can face challenges as opportunities for growth. We also discussed that completing simple acts of mindfulness, for instance gently sipping a cool mouthful of water, has the ability to calm the mind.

Studies have shown that practising mindfulness and meditation can decrease stress, increase focus, improve immune function, and foster compassion. Mindfulness also promotes self-regulation. How better to enter exam week with even just one of these benefits in our pupils’ personal toolkits?

Our children are no strangers to mindfulness. While we may not call it directly as such, our Life Skills lessons often incorporate an element aptly named Calm Me. Here is an excerpt you can try at home with your family:

Please sit upright in your chair, and imagine a golden thread pulling up through the crown of your head so your spine is long and dignified, with hands in your lap and feet flat on the floor. Start focussing on your breathing and close your eyes to blank out distractions. 

Breathe in through your nose, nice gentle, slow and mindful breaths … aware that you are breathing, aware that you are relaxing your body with every out-breath. 

Breathing in … breathing out … You may like to silently count your breath in … 1,2,3,4,5.  And out … 1,2,3,4,5.  Regulate the speed of your breathing so it is comfortable to you and slightly deeper than usual. Feel how relaxing and calming it is to focus your mind on your breathing.   

So, what actually went on in these mindfulness sessions? you may continue to wonder.  

Pupils were invited to come prepared with warm, comfortable clothing. Being warm and clean during meditation ensures fewer distractions when we invite the physical body to stillness. First, they entered a room, desks separated with a sheet of paper awaiting them. Simulating an examination environment, we discussed how the situation made them feel. We then talked about our Calm Me practices and that our breath is like an anchor. In times of distress, over-excitement, worry, overstimulation, our breath has the power to quiet the mind and gain a sense of relaxation.

Pupils were exposed to a few ways they can focus their attention on their breath. We began by bringing a hand up to the face. The children were invited to focus their attention on the lines in their hand. ‘Look at them. Study them. Count them. Breathe in. Breathe out. Only focus on the lines in your hand. Breathe in. Only the lines, nothing else. Breathe out.’ We then realised everything in the room around that hand became blurry. So too did the noisy distraction within our minds … and the looming thoughts of exams.

Encouraged to take these practices with them, the pupils also practised ‘Palming is Calming’, ‘Toe to Top Relaxation’, ‘Sipping Water’, and ‘Clench and Release’. Some will be useful moments before an exam, some best in comfy clothing in the evening at home with a potentially stressful day ahead. Please ask your child to teach you what they remember and encourage them to tap into their mindfulness toolkit throughout our final week of half term and beyond.

With Children’s Mental Health Week upon us, it is important that we stimulate healthy and open conversations about mental health, remembering that ‘It’s okay to not be okay.’ Our society tends to categorise emotions as negative or positive but we are experiencing a shift in this school of thought. It is important to acknowledge emotions for what they are and accept the purpose they may serve.  As we explore the theme Growing Together next week, as we learn to breathe a little deeper and feel a little calmer, our aim is to equip our resilient children with strategies that support self-regulation. Well stocked with self-worth, acceptance, and compassion, our children will appreciate the ‘here and now’ a little more and worry a little less about what comes next.

Ally Linney