It is one of the great ironies in education, says US holistic physician Dr Amy Saltzman, that dozens of times every day teachers tell their students to 'calm down and pay attention' yet never teach them how.
A handful of schools in the Northern Rivers, however, are addressing this paradox with mindfulness training, which aims to teach the simple, powerful skill of paying attention to one's inner and outer experience to reduce stress and wellbeing.
Far from a classroom fad, mindfulness draws on research in contemporary neuroscience, education, social and emotional learning and meditation.
Bobbi Allan, Director of Lismore-based organisation, Mindfulness in Education, says increasingly Northern Rivers educators are finding that mindfulness lessons are as beneficial to learning outcomes as the three R's.
"Good mental health habits such as taking a few mindful breaths to calm down should begin when children are young. They're as important as the habit of learning to clean your teeth after meals. Mindful breathing and learning to relax and focus your attention are great mental hygiene habits that will last children a lifetime.
"Students of all ages may come to school with stressors arising from many sources including family problems, peer conflicts, learning difficulties and physical and mental health problems. Combined with the challenges of learning and achievement, these sources of stress can sometimes make it more difficult for students to pay attention and recall information.
These small pioneering steps towards mindfulness in education by a handful of Northern Rivers schools cannot be underestimated, given the startling statistics regarding mental illness and learning outcomes.
By age 14, half of all lifetime cases of mental illness are already apparent while three-quarters have their onset by age 24.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show mental illness rates are as much as one-third higher in people who have not completed secondary school. Being able to enjoy school, and cope with stress, is one of your best indicators for success.
Bobbi adds, "Research shows that too much stress is bad for the developing brain. Sustained stress in childhood and adolescence lowers well-being, general functioning, and factors specific to learning such as executive function and working memory."
"The school-based programs in the Northern Rivers which were introduced in the last two years are already showing positive results. Teachers learn simple mindfulness practices and lead them in their classrooms several times a day, for a few minutes. These frequent short mindfulness practices strengthen attention and stress-reduction pathways in the brain."
Blakebrook Public School, just outside Lismore, has adopted the mindfulness lessons, and already its impact has made positive ripples throughout the school.
Teachers Louise Tate and Lois Skorjenko have received training in 'Mindfulness for Primary Teachers', run by local trainers, Bobbi Allan and Shakti Burke from Mindfulness in Education. The training included an introduction to the MindUP program, a school mindfulness developed by educators and neuro-scientists for the Hawn Foundation, which was started by actor Goldie Hawn.
"We started by introducing Mindfulness in small ways," said Louise. "The children responded very positively, so in Term 3 last year we started to implement the MindUP curriculum in K-2 and 5-6 classes. Now it's being implemented across the school, with the support of our new principal, Allan Duroux."
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