Mindfulness in schools: The why and how

Julie Leoni

Julie Leoni is a psychology, counselling, yoga and meditation teacher whose PhD investigated the links between emotions, gender and deviance in schools. She has written three books on well-being and coaches pupils and staff. She regularly writes for Psychologies Magazine and offers free resources on stress, domestic abuse, meditation and well-being at www.julieleoni.com

Julie was recently interviewed on Radio Shropshire to discuss her latest article The psychology behind how schools need to re-open. The interview can be found here

Website: www.julieleoni.com Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

In 2000-2001 I was carrying out action research for my PhD, investigating why some pupils got excluded and others didn’t and what schools could do about it. I introduced meditation and sharing circles to Year 7 drama at a time when it seemed new and radical, and it had a positive impact on the pupils I was working with. I combined meditation with a ‘check in’ or listening circle which allowed pupils to:

Get away ... it really gets rid of that stress that’s been happening all through the day I just forget all the bad stuff

Although pupils found it strange at first, they soon began to feel its benefits.

If check-in and breathing happened in registration it would "Students reflect on how it has developed them on a personal level."help everybody cos if you want to tell it and get it off your chest, people might understand and you might understand people more.

I have argued elsewhere that we need a radical new Curriculum for Peace in this world so torn with conflict, and the IB is a one vehicle for this:

Developed in Geneva with the aim of educating for peace after the world wars… [it includes] Service and critical questioning (about the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired) are at the heart of the IB. And it sets out with the aim of making the world a better place - rather than simply getting the right grades / number of points... Students have to keep a record of their service activities and reflect on how it has developed them on a personal level (there are a set of standards they have to address, eg reflecting on the ethical implications of their actions, developing leadership skills, initiating activities…” (Teacher of the IB)

However, while all schools are not ready for such a big change, every school can become more mindful.

Why do schools need mindfulness?

Schools are stressful places for the staff and for the pupils, and mindfulness reduces stress. Take this feedback from a pupil:

In a lesson ... before a test, cos you’re really tense cos you want to do well ... so if you do your breathing it helps calm you down so you’re not stressed by the test and you’re not so nervous. Cos if you’re nervous you get a worse mark cos you want to do it quick and get it over with. But if you are trying to stay calm it is easier cos you don’t rush and you want to do your best to concentrate.

Not only does it reduce stress in the moment, but it changes the structure of our brain so that we become physiologically less susceptible to stress, as Sara Lazar explains on her TED talk:


This means that staff and students can become less anxious and less stressed, not just while they are practicing mindfulness and meditation, but they can make long term changes to the way they live and see the world.

I work one to one with students and teachers and although I have many coaching tools in my skill set from cognitive to psychodynamic, the tools that make the most direct difference are the many mindfulness techniques some of which I will share below.

I recently spent a day listening to Dr Graham Music from the Tavistock talk about some of the very challenging young people he works with. His research shows that babies born to anxious mothers are more likely to be anxious themselves, so some of our young people and staff will have inherited a predisposition to stress and anxiety both behaviourally and biologically. Dr Music provided research to show that mindfulness can break this cross generational pattern.

Not only does meditation and mindfulness reduce stress and anxiety, it increases feelings of altruism, compassion and wellbeing, and the body of research evidence into the impact of mindfulness and meditation is growing. In schools which use meditation and mindfulness, exam results improve, behavioural incidents go down and illness rates decline.

What is mindfulness and meditation?

Buddhists, Taoists and Hindus have been meditating for over 2000 years, and there are many different practices; from the Sufi whirling, the Hindu chanting or Bhajan to the simple practice of watching the breath. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School studied meditation and yoga as well as medicine, and brought meditation into the West in a way that made it secular, restorative and curative. This mean that it was able to shed its religious and mystical trappings and reach a wider audience.

Put simply, mindfulness and meditation practice trains us to focus our attention on one thing, increasing our ability to concentrate "Babies born to anxious mothers are more likely to be anxious themselves."and decreasing our propensity for distraction. It also makes us bring our attention into the present moment – anxiety and depression can be caused by worrying about what could happen in the future, and depression can be caused by regret or pain from the past. When we come into the present moment we are able to experience the reality of that moment without the interference of the past and the future, and the present moment is usually okay.

Pay attention to what is happening in our body – we spend so much of our life in our heads and yet our body is a powerful feedback tool. Often when I teach meditation in schools people say that it makes them tired. However, meditation doesn’t ‘make’ you tired, it allows you to notice how tired you are. Mindful awareness of our body changes how we eat, how we stand, how we rest and we notice when we are feeling stressed or anxious, because we become aware of our heart beating and our muscles tensing. This awareness allows us to make choices and to do things differently (eg go to bed earlier!).

Notice our emotions – emotions are our internal guidance system; fear alerts us to perceived threat, joy lets us know we’re onto something good, anger protects our boundaries, guilt lets us know we’ve done something wrong and sadness tells us we have lost something that mattered. Each emotion as a concomitant physical manifestation and as we focus, we can become aware of feeling and emotions we hadn’t noticed and we can take steps to meeting our needs arising from that emotion (eg if I’m angry I can talk to the person who has crossed my boundary).

Notice our thoughts – so many of our thoughts are not only about the past and the future, but are repetitive and habitual. They are like a computer program running on auto, and when we become aware of this we have choices about which program, we want to run or stop.

Notice that we are not our thoughts, feelings or sensations – This sounds like a step too far into the mystical at first, but when I explain it to my students they find enormous relief in the realisation. When we look at the sky when there are clouds passing across it, we see that while the clouds come and go, the sky is constant. When we become mindful we notice as thought, emotions and sensations arise, but we also notice that they come and go as the clouds do, and what actually remains like the sky, is the part of us which is aware of the thoughts, feelings and sensations.

This realisation means that we are no longer the slave of our programmed thinking or our emotions. For young people who have thoughts that ‘I can’t’, I’m stupid’, ‘I’m ugly’, there is a huge relief in knowing that these are just thoughts and that they will pass. For the teacher who has had a bad lesson, noticing the feeling of disappointment and failure and then noticing that the feeling passes allows them to move on rather than to believe the story of failure.

Change without changing - so often we think we have to make change happen in our self, in our pupils and our world; we try to take control. However, the more we meditate and become mindful, the more change happens effortlessly because we are freed up from the old thoughts, feelings and sensations which have held us back.

Mindfulness tools

So, here are two simple tools to try with your staff and your students, but of course, as with all change, it really starts with you. They don’t take long, and once you know them you can do them anywhere and at any time. These are practices; they are not goals, they are not achievements the are not a means the an end, the practice is the purpose. You will never be able to stop thoughts or feelings arising, that is not the point, the point is to increasingly notice them without getting caught up in them.

1. Mountain pose

Stand with your feet hip width apart with your feet flat on the floor (shoes off is best). Start with your hands by your sides, and just allow your awareness to focus on your breath. Then move your attention to the sensation of your feet against the floor and allow that awareness to move up your body in your mind’s eye. As you move up your body notice any tensing and clenching, any tightening or quickening; you don’t need to change anything, just notice.

Scan up your body until you come to the crown of your head and then slowly, while noticing the sensations in your body, raise your arms above your head so that your palms are touching and your arms are stretched skyward.

Stay in this position, stretching as high as you can. You might want to stand on your toes, you might want to lean to one side then the other, really feeling your body as it moves and stretches. Enjoy taking the time to be in your body. If you notice any thoughts, let them go and come back into your body and its sensations.

Relax when you are ready.

Some people like to add a visualisation into this exercise. When you are stretched up high, inhaling, you can imagine energy, or light, entering your body from the soles of your feet. Picture it travelling up your body to the tips of your fingers up towards the sky. Then, while exhaling, imagine a light or energy being drawn down from the sky, into your fingers and picture it as it runs down through your body, into the soles of your feet and out to the earth.

2. Grounding

You can do this one in a chair or lying down or walking. Grounding is when we use our five senses to focus our attention and bring us into the moment. As you sit on the chair, just gently close your eyes and become aware of your breathing - don’t change it, just watch it. When your attention wanders off, bring it back to watching the breath.

When you are ready, bring your attention to your body. Feel the sensations in your body where it is in contact with"Pay attention to how your posture changes the sensations in your body." itself, the floor or the chair. Notice the pressure, the temperature, the sensations. Make slight adjustments to how you are sitting, and pay attention to how this changes the sensations in your body. Scan up your body as we did in the exercise above, noticing how you feel in your feet, your calves, your thighs, your groin, your stomach and lower back, your chest and upper back, your shoulders and neck, your arms, your hands, your head, your face. Just scan your body with your mind’s eye and notice the sensations in it.

Then notice the taste in your mouth. Become aware of different areas of your mouth and what you can taste in them.

Then bring your attention to your eyes. If they are shut, what you see with your eyes shut, look at the quality of the dark, notice any patterns or shapes or changes. If you have your eyes open, look at your hands. Look at them up close, from as distance, closed up, stretched out. Notice the changes in colour and texture.

Then bring your attention to your sense of smell. What can you smell? What are the different notes of the smell?

Finally, bring your attention to what you can hear. Listen to the sounds of your own body, your room and outside the room. What do you hear near and far?

Then slowly come back to feeling your body against the floor / chair and, when you are ready, open your eyes. Focusing on your hands, wiggle your fingers and toes and look around.
Watching your breath.

This is the simplest form of meditation, and you can do this sitting or standing, moving or still. Tune into your breath and watch it come and go. You don’t need to change it, just watch it. See if you can pay attention to it as it enters your body, travels down into your lungs and back out again. Notice any changes in temperature, any changes in breathing - but don’t make them happen, just notice what is happening. Your mind will wander off, and when you notice it has, just bring it back to the breath.

You might like to focus on a particular part of the breath; the place where it crosses your upper lips to enter your nostrils or the place where it hits the back of your throat.

You can also try controlling the breath by exaggerating it’s pattern. Breathe in for the count of three; hold for three, breathe out for three and hold for three. You can then extend the count if you want to deepen the breath. Remember, this isn’t a competition. The point is awareness, not achievement.

What next?

If you try these approaches and like them you can move forward in your school in different ways. It may well be that you already have staff who practice meditation, mindfulness or yoga who would be happy to share what they know. Change happens most powerfully when it is top-down and whole-school. One-off meditation sessions are unlikely to make a sustained difference; an ongoing commitment to be mindful will.

Often when I am working with students and teachers, it is at a crisis point in their life. Using a parachute for the first time as you jump from a plane is not ideal. Mindfulness is a life-time practice. Put your parachute on daily so that when the plane is in trouble, either you will be calm enough to steer it or you are so used to parachuting that it is second nature to drop into the moment and breathe.

Do you use mindfulness in your school? Let us know below!

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