Ideally mindfulness in education is not a once-a-day intervention in the classroom. It is a mindset deeply rooted within a school’s culture. Mindfulness is a journey towards awareness. It opens the door to key features of Positive Education: e.g. appreciation, positive emotions, cultivating meaning, dealing with negatives, engagement and relationship building. Raised awareness of oneself, one’s actions and the given environment guides towards better choices and leads to an upward spiral within the individual, between people and within the organisation.
Mindfulness is ideally connected to a deeper questioning of the school´s culture and values on all levels. In my work as an international well-being consultant I came across many different attempts of bringing mindfulness to schools. When introduced as just another tool to address student´s well-being, it was more often than not forgotten when the next wave of reforms rolled over the school. Despite good intentions, it also often ended up being more frustrating than helpful.
How to make mindfulness fail
Imagine a homeroom teacher, who has never really been exposed to the notion of mindfulness, is instructed to lead a session in his Year 8 class as a new approach to wellbeing at school. Unsure and in parts uncomfortable, he dutifully reads the script in class, picks nice relaxation music to go with it. Only his class is looking at him as he was a pink elephant. What happened to Mr. Smith? Is is going mental doing this esoteric nonsense with us? More and more students get restless, start laughing and make jokes and noisy OM sounds, distracting their mates who are actually willing to participate. Mr. Smith needs to stop the session to manage behaviour. Suddenly the session is over and a chance is missed. The teacher is probably not willing to go down that road again, the student’s stereotypes of mindfulness have been confirmed – the door to this relaxation technique is closed – at least for a while.
Making mindfulness work
Mindfulness like many other key features of positive education is ideally introduced to staff first. Proper mindfulness training and the experience of its benefits first-hand opens doors for further exploration and authentic delivery by staff.
If woven into different areas of the day-to-day operations, mindfulness can become a natural part of schooling – it becomes visible and therefore easier for teachers and students to buy into. This might start with a centring breath before writing exams, a moment of silence before staff meetings, or by offering a voluntary lunch time relaxation/mindfulness session for staff and students. Mindful moments like these help to slow the speed at school down and increase acceptance.
Accept that mindfulness might not be everyone’s gateway towards wellbeing. Teaching mindfulness should be voluntarily, not part of a compulsory home room curriculum. There are many roads towards increased awareness and relaxation, different approaches work for different people.
Aligning mindfulness to school values
Most importantly, to successfully introduce mindfulness to schools, it should be linked to the deeper belief system of the organisation. In a religion based school this might be faith, in an non denominational educational setting it might be a set of agreed values within the school’s culture.
Ongoing discussions within the school community around topics like ‘Who are we?”, “who do we want to be”, and “are our actions aligned with our values and purpose?” offer the opportunity for schools to stay aligned with a consistent value-driven path. This discourse also teaches students to look more deeply into their own values, goals and character strengths and thus supports their purpose finding. Mindfulness is used in a similar way, it invites individuals to be in the present moment and to register what is happening around and within them. This awareness invites the question: “is this how and who I want to be?”
Ultimately, positive education is all about awareness. Awareness of our own way of thinking, being, our perspectives and our way of relating to others and to the situation at hand. Mindfulness serves as the door opener to this awareness and done right it builds a base on which positive education can flourish with a school community.
Dr. Elke Paul | Germany
Dr. Elke Paul is an international change agent for Positive Education. Her passion is holistic school innovation with the aim to establish student / staff wellbeing skills at the core of education. In her work as a school consultant at Berlin Brandenburg International School, she integrates all aspects of positive education into school life and learning from curriculum development to organisational and spacial reshaping. German origin, she has lived and worked in Asia, Australia, England and the US. Elke Paul holds a doctor in education, a diploma in social work and she has had her own yoga and mediation school for eight years in Sydney. Her diverse set of skills is mirrored in her international workshops, conference presentations, writing, and in her school- and organisational consulting engagements.