Outlook on life all in the mind
As the students from a Year 7 class at Richmond River High School tell me how mindfulness techniques they are learning at school have spilled over into their home lives, teacher Paul Hurley sits watching them, amazed.
"Last year I got really anxious and stressed but mindfulness really helped me calm down," one student tells me. "I used to be bullied quite badly too... but I practised mindfulness on holidays and when I came back I just starting smiling and walking past them. The breathing helps me if I'm freaking out."
Another student explains "I used to have fights with my stepdad and scream at him because I hated him, but now I do my breathing techniques and listen to him and I even kind of like him now. I also told my stepmum about it and now she's doing it with her friends," the girl says. Another tells me her grandmother is using the techniques with a drama group she teaches for people with disabilities.
Mr Hurley looks at me with a look bordering on bewilderment.
"I never suggested to do this at home... they are spontaneously using it as a skill outside of school," he says to me.
Mindfulness helps children gain emotional and cognitive tools to help them manage emotions and behaviours, reduce stress, sharpen concentration and increase empathy and optimism.
Mr Hurley's students come to class and before they begin work they concentrate on an object for 60-90 seconds. They then do 60-90 seconds of deep breathing and write three things they are grateful for in their Gratitude Diary.
He turns back to his students.
"See the ripple effect you're having - see how powerful you are," he beams. "You should be really proud of yourselves."
My Hurley has been practising mindfulness for 10 years and along with four other teachers, has been piloting a program for Year 7 classes since the beginning of the year. He said he used to have "monster anxiety" as a young teenager and mindfulness helped him "burn away" much of his anger.
I ask the students how it's helped them in class and 20 hands immediately shoot up.
"Last year I used to get distracted really easy and now I don't," one girl says.
"Yeah, we used to be rowdy and talking and laughing all the time but now we're pretty quiet," another boy says.
Lots of the kids tell me it helps them concentrate and calm down in class but the positive effects it seems to be having in their own homes keeps coming up.
"I used to lie there with my eyes open and stay awake for ages because I would think a lot, but mindfulness helps me to clear my head and get to sleep," one boy says. Another girl added, "My brother makes me angry, like pretty much all the time, but now I lock myself in my room and do mindfulness. It really helps."
I keep being bombarded with comments and Mr Hurley laughs, saying he never realised the impact the mindfulness was having at home, although it had certainly improved class behaviour. He would like to see mindfulness become a whole school cultural practice across the region.
"If we could have all secondary students in our local high schools learning mindfulness we could have upward of 5000 kids doing it," he said. "They are obviously taking the skills into their social life and that would have a really positive effect on a whole generation of kids, and therefore a huge impact on the whole community.
"Then we could convince our local representative Janelle Saffin of its value and she could convince Julia Gillard we should all do it!"
Janet Etty-Leal has been teaching mindfulness in Victorian schools for over a decade and she will be visiting Lismore in February next year to provide training for primary and secondary teachers.
Janet says mindfulness is an essential skill for children at school, particularly with the increasing incidence of syndromes such as attention deficit disorder.
"If children are unable to settle and manage emotions such as anxiety, then they are not able to learn effectively."
Children face many distractions, she says, such as mobile phones and digital technology, which makes it difficult to think deeply.
"Neural pathways can become scrambled and less effective, which disrupts learning."
During Janet's visit there will also be a public talk for parents and interested people. Local mindfulness teacher Bobbi Allan is sponsoring Janet's visit and would like to hear from teachers, parents and other professionals who would like to encourage the teaching of mindfulness in schools. You can contact Bobbi at bobbi@stillness
inaction.net or phone 0428 886 147.