Following a year of research and inquiry, the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) recently released its report ‘Mindful Nation’, which gave us reason to urgently re-address the issue of mental health in our schools.
The report highlights that one in ten children experience mental health issues between the ages of five and 16 (roughly three in every class) and calls for the roll out of mindfulness-based meditation across the education system in a bid to tackle the issue head on.
This will come as no surprise to those versed in mindfulness and its potential to both enhance learning and reduce anxiety and stress. Indeed, the report acknowledges the ‘increasingly promising evidence’ of the benefits of mindfulness programs in schools and calls for a ‘significant scaling up of their availability’.
A key recommendation of the report is therefore the establishment of a £1 million fund to which schools may bid to meet the costs of training teachers in mindfulness.
However, although well-intentioned, this recommendation highlights the problem in establishing an effective mindfulness program in a school: resources. Given that there are some 24,000 schools in Britain, a £1 million fund will train teachers for very few schools indeed and will therefore serve to prioritise the mental health of some children over others.
The problem of resources exists across the spectrum of schools: to be effective, a mindfulness program must be well-designed, well managed and well taught and it must be available across the whole school, not only to preselected classes. Ineffectual programs will be, well, ineffective. And developing, implementing and maintaining a program meeting all criteria is a massive undertaking, both financially and in terms of time.
Recognising this, the report goes on to recommend that the Department for Education (DfE) also work with private providers to produce an online mindfulness program, which seems a possible solution to the resource problem: but how realistic is it?
The web's ease of use and accessibility seem to make it ideal but this convenience comes with its own hazards, and great care must be taken in using material offered on the web. Mindfulness, particularly for children, suffers from something of an identity crisis. In common usage, mindfulness for kids has become simply awareness – awareness of the here and now: to teach a child not only to notice the roses, but to notice the individual flower as a collection of petals in all their subtlety. This has led to a proliferation of audio sessions on the web which are aimed only at this immediate awareness and, whilst fun and well-motivated, don’t actually teach mindfulness.
A mindfulness program of real use to schools must be complete in its curriculum and must develop what is now being termed 'meta-awareness'. This is awareness of awareness itself, a state which leads to an individual's thoughts, emotions and behaviours being intentional and deliberate, rather than simply individualistic and reactive. In such a program, the sessions must be engaging, delivery must be modified for age, and the course structured with a careful path from beginning to end.
To conserve teaching resources, home use is essential, but teachers must also be offered remote training to allow them to engage classroom discussion. The program should engage and include teachers, but not burden them. Offering an online solution, then, is not as simple an undertaking as it may appear.
That being said, aside from resources, there is a clear advantage an online program will have over a classroom model: it may be produced and taught by experts, those wholly immersed in both the practice of mindfulness, and the study of its theoretical basis in neuroscience, cognitive science, and behavioural sciences. Whilst 10,000 hours of practice may not necessarily bestow mastery in a subject, expertise in mindfulness comes only with extended practice.
The best web-based program will never be as effective as the best one classroom-based - this is a reality that Anamaya has been facing these last two years in developing our own program. However, given the reality of scarce financial, human and time resources, a properly designed, produced and supported web-based solution will certainly fill a gaping hole in the coming years.
The call by the MAPPG for the Department for Education to work with private providers is a welcome one, but, given the need to address the mental health of our young people, is one that need not be limited to the DfE — the call can and should be taken up at school level.