Ideas for mindfulness in schools

Written by: Jyoti Jo Manuel | Published:
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Yoga and mindfulness is one approach that might help schools to support the mental and emotional resilience of their pupils and staff. Advocate and expert Jyoti Jo Manuel offers some ideas

I have had the privilege of sharing yoga and mindfulness in schools for more than 25 years. I know how hard teachers work and how committed they are to students and it breaks my heart to see the on-going and ever-increasing challenges that teachers, school management and children face.

Today, in all walks of society, there is more pressure to achieve, more stress, more anxiety, more illness and more unhappiness. The ancient practices of meditation and yoga could be the key for not only supporting a more resilient generation of young people, but also to support the adults around them.

As a mother of a highly anxious child with additional needs, and also someone who has worked with young people for years, particularly children with special and additional needs, I am very aware of the requirement on us to be the model for the child.

This doesn’t mean suppressing the emotional baggage that we all carry so that it ultimately comes out in unhelpful ways, but by using these tools ourselves we can be present to and learn how to effectively navigate our way through the challenges of life with compassion and kindness.

Mindfulness, which includes mindful movement, mindful breathing, relaxation and self-compassion, is about being present to whatever may be arising in us in any given moment. This could be a thought, a physical sensation, and ultimately an emotional response.

It is said that humans have approximately 60,000 thoughts per-day, many of which are self-sabotaging. The practice of mindfulness gives us an opportunity to be a witness to those thoughts, to slow them down and to become aware of this habitual and mindless process.

Mindfulness is not aiming to eliminate negative thoughts but is the process of becoming aware of all of our thoughts. It gives us the skills to better respond to the more challenging or difficult thoughts or emotions that arise within us.

Often at times we let our negative thoughts define who we are, but through the practice of mindfulness we can learn the importance of separating ourselves from these thoughts. It teaches us that we are not our thoughts, that thoughts are just thoughts and we have the power to choose our thoughts and to meet ourselves with more kindness and compassion.

Through the practice of mindfulness you can be confronted with resistance that might emanate as frustration, anger, tiredness, or boredom, but it is important to stick with it. These reactions are your mind distracting yourself from any issues, challenges or wounds within yourself that you might be holding onto consciously or subconsciously.

Developing the ability to be compassionate and patient with ourselves is a key part of the practice. Despite having practised meditation for more than 40 years, I still have days where it is hard to sit and be with uncomfortable thoughts.

The young people that we are privileged to work with might face similar resistance, and only when you attempt to confront your own resistance can you better accommodate and understand your student’s struggles. Many children are greatly affected by the world around them and when we become better aware of our own stress, we emit a sense of calm and peace, which creates the optimum environment for the child to be able to benefit from mindfulness practice.

A child’s awareness of how to recognise and label how they are feeling, together with an ability to contain and regulate their emotions, play a fundamental part in their relationships with themselves, other people and the world around them.

Emotions are experienced as physical and mental sensations and we often create stories around the feelings, and they manifest in different behavioural responses. As teachers we need to help young people to recognise and contain and accept their feelings, because their developing neural circuits are very “reactive” to “big feelings”, which can be very overwhelming.

From deepening your practice through a mindfulness course, one specifically developed for schools, teachers can learn the skills to then practise with their pupils in the classroom. Adults can learn how to model the language of emotions, so it becomes normalised for the children to hear a range of emotions being labelled, contained and accepted. We learn how all emotions are validated as comfortable and uncomfortable (rather than good or bad) so that it prepares children for learning, both emotionally and physiologically.

Young people can then begin to understand how they are feeling and what to do when they experience a certain feeling. These experiences are provided when children are feeling calm to consolidate the skills, vocabulary and self-soothing techniques. In time and with support young children can begin to use these self-regulatory skills when they need them. Teachers ask children and then children begin to ask their peers – how is your body feeling?, how are your thoughts?, how are your feelings?

Below are some concepts and activities you can practise with your students to begin noticing thoughts and strengthening the mind muscle.

Mindful breathing

Mindful breathing is a good practice for everyone to bring the attention to the present moment. It helps calm the stress response, strengthen attention skills, promotes brain integration, offers better sleep and strengthens self-awareness.

In moments of stress the practice of a longer exhale and a slower inhale will calm students. Breathe in for the count of six and out for the count of six. It needs to be practised for at least two minutes for the heart to rest.

Tree pose

A very useful exercise to do with children in the classroom is the tree pose. Stand and focus on your feet. This helps to reduce over-thinking and bring our energy down. Lift one foot up and put it on the ankle, with the inner calf or inner thigh of the other leg. As we focus on our feet, keep your eyes still and stabilise yourselves. With this the nervous system will calm.

Bubble practice

The child visualises a bubble around themselves. Breathe out and visualise your breath blowing a beautiful, coloured soap bubble that completely surrounds you. Within the bubble you can choose how to behave. So we might stamp our feet or any other expression of how we feel in the moment. Outside of the bubble we do not express our reactivity. The concept is to work towards self-regulation by cultivating awareness of the choices we make and how our behaviour can have an impact on those around us.

Weather analogy

The weather changes all the time just like our emotions. Using the weather report as an analogy for how we feel is a great tool for young people. What’s your weather like today? Or what’s your weather like at the moment? It helps to remember that behind the clouds is the sunshine – and that storms blow over.

  • Jyoti Jo Manuel is the MD and founder of Special Yoga, which offers training for CCGs and schools in mindfulness and yoga. Visit www.specialyoga.org.uk


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