On Saturday 16th June I was incredibly excited to be attending the Mindfulness in Schools Project Conference in London.
As part of my work in education, I am the Mental Health Lead in a large secondary academy. In this role I have become increasingly worried about the high stakes exam regime that dominates the secondary education sector, and the impact it has on our young people. The statistics point to an epidemic of mental ill-health among secondary aged children, and there is emerging evidence that this is starting to be felt in primary schools too. Young people are being put (and are putting themselves) under unprecedented levels of pressure to achieve academic success, and this is having a devastating effect on their emotional well-being. This conference explored the role of mindfulness in supporting young people through this challenging period of their lives and beyond.
Picking up the conference brochure on arrival, it was immediately clear that the schedule for the day was pretty intense. Indeed, pre-conference joining instructions had already warned delegates that there would be no coffee breaks because there was too much to get through. A glance down the list of speakers was mouth-watering for anyone with an interest in mindfulness and meditation; Jon Kabat-Zinn, Chris Ruane MP, Katherine Weare, and Rohan Gunatillake to name but a few, and when the conference started I literally couldn’t make notes fast enough. But arguably the stars of the day were the young people who spoke during the numerous “Voice Of Experience” interludes. My personal highlight was when an eight year old girl got up on stage in front of 800 people to deliver a short meditation practice; holding the entire conference in the palm of her hand before walking off stage as if she did that kind of thing every day of the week!
Walking back to the tube station at the end of the day I reflected on the main messages from the conference. Without a doubt, my commitment to mindfulness - both personally and professionally – had been reinvigorated. However, there remained a nagging worry that too many education practitioners and (perhaps more importantly) too many leaders of education do not see the promotion of emotional well-being as part of their role. This must be addressed.
Of the many memorable quotes from the day, two stand out at relevant to this issue. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Clogged up minds miss things”. We all know that this is true, and we could all give examples of when we have been so stressed, pre-occupied, or over-burdened that we have made mistakes. So, if for no other reason than that mindfulness promotes attention and clarity of thought, it should be an integral part of the education we offer our young people. But I hope lots of us agree that the purpose of education goes far beyond the collection of qualification certificates. In her speech to the conference, Cathie Paine paraphrased a classic mindfulness text* by saying, “You can’t weave a parachute when you are already falling.” Mindfulness in schools offers young people the opportunity to take a proactive approach to their emotional well-being that could support them through the inevitable ups and downs of their time at school, but also throughout their entire lives.
I believe that there are sound educational reasons for incorporating mindfulness in our education system that will lead to greater academic success. But I also believe that mindfulness can help school students to become well-adjusted, compassionate young people with a clear understanding of the interconnectedness between themselves and others. I hope it is for this second reason that we chose to teach mindfulness in schools.
* Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world Paperback –
Mark Williams & Danny Penman 2011