By Pinky Dalal, Founder and Chairperson JBCN International School
Any discussion on mindfulness in education must start with a few basic questions. What is the purpose of education? How can education prepare our children for the challenges they will face as adults?
Is the purpose of education simply to cram children with more and more content knowledge, equip them to take examinations, crack those dreaded entrance tests, plant a victory flag on a highly coveted college admission and finally, to plot a career trajectory that guarantees a fat pay check and a swishy life style? Most evolved parents would agree that there is more to education and success than this.
The world seems to be full of adults who in the pursuit of this rather narrow vision of success, have ended up suffering from what has come to be termed, ‘toxic stress’ – stress that most people simply cannot cope with or have no tools to deal with. Mental health problems are on the rise as are stress-related illnesses.
If we extend the measure of a person’s success to a more holistic one that goes beyond material acquisitions and career growth, to one that includes a richer life, replete with peace, contentment, good health and the wherewithal to look beyond one’s own narrow interests to those of the world at large, it becomes absolutely imperative to begin with our children and create a programme of education that gives high priority to mindfulness and to social and emotional learning. So, what is mindfulness? While definitions may vary, mindfulness is essentially the practice of being truly present in each moment, to observe one’s thoughts and emotions, and to take a non-judgemental approach towards oneself and others, replacing it with a position of empathy and compassion.
On any given school day, children cope with a host of demanding forces– academic, social and emotional- that can be truly overwhelming. They often deal with extreme pressure to succeed, bullying, inability to make friends or gain entry into ‘cool’ social groups, causing lowered self-confidence and an increased sense of shame, hopelessness and isolation. Educators have observed that children increasingly demonstrate lower levels of generosity and tolerance and are poor at reading other people’s emotions or tolerating points of view that may be different from their own. While high levels of childhood stress have been linked to the development of health problems in adults, stressful events have an almost immediate impact on a child’s health and well-being, eventually leading to a variety of physical and mental problems and even learning disabilities. Mindfulness in education has huge benefits for students, both in terms of their academic success, as well as their development into happy, healthy, well-adjusted, empathic and competent adults. Educators report that bringing mindful practices into classrooms results in an almost 80% improvements in students’ ability to channel attention, sustain motivation, regulate emotions and engage with academic work.
It seems quite obvious that if our emotions are in disarray, our ability to think clearly and well would be impaired. The pre-frontal cortex of the brain is not only responsible for higher level cognitive processes but also for the processing and regulation of emotions. In fact, it is virtually impossible to separate academic success from the positive management of students’ feelings and emotions. When children and young people learn to live more ‘in the moment’ and to be less anxious, they often find they can pay better attention and improve the quality of their performance, in the classroom and on the sports field. Mindful practices help students to think in more innovative ways, apply knowledge more competently, improve memory, and enhance planning, problem solving, and reasoning skills.
Years of research on the impact of effective social-emotional learning programmes in schools make it clear that mindfulness practices reduce behavioural problems among students, building skills for long term mental health. Students report reduced stress and anxiety, improved sleep and self-esteem and the ability to control impulsive behaviour.
Mindfulness also appears to have a positive impact on students’ social skills. Through practice, students learn greater self-control and respect for others and get better at solving interpersonal problems. They are better at sharing and demonstrate greater empathy towards others.
However, all of these wonderful benefits of mindful practice in classrooms would be quite ineffective without adult role models - both parents and teachers- demonstrating the required emotional intelligence, self awareness, and interpersonal skills that are so intrinsic to mindful people. JBCN Education recently hosted a conference on ‘Mindfulness in Education’, under the aegis of NLE (Nation of Learning Excellence), its teacher professional development arm, where eminent speakers, ranging from industry stalwarts to senior educators and sports psychologists, shared with educators the importance of incorporating mindful practices in schools.
While the immediate outcomes of a mindful education in schools would be better academic achievement and the improved psychological well-being of our children, it holds out tremendous hope for a kinder, calmer and more compassionate world for us all in future. In today’s increasingly polarised and conflict-ridden scenario, this might be our only hope.