The start of the school year can create anxiety for even the happiest and most confident children: new demands on their time, new expectations of their skills and behaviour, new stresses to contend with on a daily basis Alex Gray investigates techniques that can help youngsters to develop coping mechanisms at an early age, and give them skills for later life
We have a term of endearment for our six-year-old daughter: ‘Manic Monica’. It refers to the fact that when she’s tired, she goes into a kind of crazy hyperactive mode. When we settle her into bed, it can often take up to an hour to get her to sleep. Her mind is awash with endless questions. She herself says she can’t ‘switch her head off’. Then she’s tired again the next morning and the circle begins again.
So when I saw a CD made by a company called Relax Kids, it piqued my interest. It’s hard to think that kids as young as six can have such an active mind that they can’t fall asleep, but in my daughter’s case it’s true. Marneta Viegas, who founded Relax Kids in 1999, isn’t surprised. “Before starting up Relax Kids I was a children’s entertainer for about ten years,” she explains. “I went round London entertaining children at parties and events, and over the ten years I noticed a marked difference in the children’s behaviour. They didn’t listen as well, couldn’t concentrate, they seemed more hyperactive.” For Marneta, meditation as a route to calm their minds was the obvious answer. She herself has practiced it since she was 12. “I felt passionately that this was something children needed,” she states.
Of course, no one is going to suggest that you can sit a group of children down and ask them to meditate; the key was to make it accessible. “I had to make meditation for children mainstream in a way that parents were going to find it ok. I rewrote well-known fairy stories and turned them into meditations. The children were sent on an imaginative journey, imagining that they were Jack climbing a beanstalk, for instance. And it seemed to work. After that I got some inheritance money and instead of buying a flat, I made my first lot of CDs, based on the books. I developed a simple seven-step system to teach children to relax using movement and dance, games, stretching, peer massage, breathing affirmations and then visualisations. In that very specific order, it teaches them to go from high energy to low and it absolutely works.”
Relax Kids then started going into schools, after teachers brought in the CDs and used them in their classrooms with impressive results. “Personally I feel meditation on its own for children can be a bit dry, they need that creativity; something to spark that young mind. Even in a classroom situation, they’re just fun lessons, the children don’t realise they’re learning these valuable skills,” says Marneta. “We were working with this little boy, he was so angry all of the time. He listened to a CD and at the end he opened his eyes and said ‘oh wow, everyone used to be say ‘be calm’ and I never knew what that meant until now.’” Another parent says that her nine-year-old-son was experiencing severe anxiety about going to school. By listening to the CDs he has learned to slow down, breathe and clear his mind. He has become able to relax. “I must say, without learning these incredible skills, he would not be where he is today: more confident and happy in school,” says his mother.
And there’s plenty of evidence to back up these claims. In a study led by Katherine Weare, Emeritus Professor at the Universities of Exeter and Southampton, mindfulness – the act of focusing on one thing, such as breathing, also known as mindfulness meditation – has been shown to ‘reduce stress, anxiety, reactivity and bad behaviour, to improve sleep and self-esteem, and bring about greater calmness and relaxation. It can help young people pay greater attention, be more focused, think in more innovative ways, use existing knowledge more effectively, improve working memory, and enhance planning, problem solving, and reasoning skills. Studies also show that adolescents who are mindful, either through their character or through learning, tend to experience greater well-being, and that being more mindful tends to accompany more positive emotion, greater popularity and having more friends, and less negative emotion and anxiety.’
In fact, evidence-based research on the positive effects of mindfulness is such that it’s likely to soon become part of the school day. Back in March, Schools Minister David Laws told MPs that courses in mindfulness should be introduced to help improve pupil well-being. “We are very interested in promoting this and we certainly think that it is an area that merits consideration based on the evidence we’ve seen to date,” he said.
Its recent rise in popularity means that mindfulness is now a term on everyone’s lips… but do we actually know what it is?
“Meditation is directing your mind to where you want it to go,” explains Marneta. “So mindfulness is being very aware of the present, it’s training the mind to be still and calm and quiet and focus on what you want to focus on.”
It’s about being fully in the present moment. And apparently we need it now more than ever. “There’s no peace at home,” says Marneta. “Our bodies are releasing cortisol all the time. Children are constantly stressed and it’s incredibly difficult to bring them down and get that feeling of peace.”
Claire Kelly, Operations Director at the Mindfulness in Schools Project, agrees. “It’s a perfect storm,” she explains. “There are a lot of worrying statistics relating to things like anxiety disorder, depression and self-harming among young people. What’s causing the anxiety is a complex issue, but we need to give them the tools to cope.” The Mindfulness in Schools Project was set up by two teachers, Richard Burnett and Chris Cullen, along with Chris O’Neil, who had each experienced the benefits of mindfulness themselves and wanted to bring it to life in the classrooms. Their method of teaching is a nine-week course designed specifically for schoolchildren. They called it .b – Stop, Breathe, and Be. A non-randomised controlled feasibility study on the Effectiveness of the Mindfulness in Schools Programme, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, showed that children who participated in the intervention reported fewer depressive symptoms post-treatment and at follow-up, along with lower stress and greater well-being. The degree to which students in the intervention group practised the mindfulness skills was associated with better well-being and less stress at three-month follow-up, too. In other words, the more you practice it, the better.
Lucy Mortimer is a .b mindfulness-trained practitioner: “There is more need for it now. I think the way children are growing up, their brains are structurally different, and that’s because of all the fast-paced lifestyle they lead. They have access to everything instantaneously. It creates a low level of stress that’s constant. They’re not getting out and about doing so much sport so it gets stored up as mental stress.” Lucy teaches the programme to children aged seven and up. “It’s very new for almost all of them, this idea of being able to sit and learn about strong silence, anchoring themselves, the whole idea of silence is quite alien to them. They’re generally really excited when I first go in,” she adds. “They’re excited at the idea of it when I introduce the sessions, because it can help with different areas in their own life. It does make their brains clearer, they actually feel different, their clarity of thought has changed. The boys get more out of it, girls are very verbal; they talk through their problems, boys don’t and they feel it physically, they’re the ones that are almost falling asleep.”
The earlier the children begin to practice the art, the better. Lucy finds that her seven year olds can assimilate the learning into their daily lives much more easily than the older children, whose stress responses are already on autopilot.
And as for my daughter? Within ten minutes of listening to the Relax Kids CD she was snoring soundly. Enough said.
www.relaxkids.com • http://mindfulnessinschools.org
http://bemindful.co.uk • www.mindful-child.co.uk