Meditation can help create calmer and more relaxed classes as well as help a school achieve great SAT scores, says Kevin Hogston
Like many other teachers, I am fed up with most of the ‘initiatives’ we are asked to undertake. Too many of them seem to come around again and again, contradicting the other things we are doing and having very little impact. But some recent initiatives are different. These recognise that a child is body, mind and spirit. It has always been so, of course, but the need to recognise it has become urgent.
Life has changed for the children we teach. The world outside our schools is fast-paced, competitive and sometimes nasty. The stable relationships that underpin a nurturing home have become more of a luxury. Many children are anxious about the impact on their lives of the many things they don’t understand. It has become hard for children to relax, as they find that the little teddy bear they cling to at bedtime cannot solve everything any more. These are all barriers to learning, as well as to contentment.
Children need, above all, to:
- understand themselves
- find comfort from a world still full of quietness and beauty
- understand health and how to maintain theirs
- solutions to their problems
- know how to manage relationships
- be at peace with themselves and in control of their feelings
- be able to change things they can change and at least understand and face those they can’t.
That is what wellbeing means to me, as a way to liberate and nourish the learning part of a child.
Believing in it
All of this is just common sense, and yet educators can still see it as something else to squeeze into an over-crowded curriculum. We are too busy checking the externals – accelerated learning, different learning styles, whiteboards, extended schools, standards, levels, targets and data – to check that the ‘inside’ of our children is OK too. The result is that there is too much ‘pace and vigour’, not enough ‘thinking time and reflection’. The encouragement of competition between and within schools creates destructive anxiety as well as effort. It sometimes seems as if we have forgotten that a child who is at peace inside will learn better than one who is stressed, anxious and confused.
The school in Surrey where I am deputy head achieves first class SATs results with a far from selective intake, and it does this in part by devoting what many would consider an ‘unwise’ proportion of its time on ensuring children are ‘fit and happy to learn’. Our first step was to look at meditation for children. Meditation is a technique to promote the wellbeing of the mind and to teach self-control over the confused and destructive thoughts which often disable it. There is significant research that highlights the benefits for children.
I was introduced to meditation and relaxation as a route to better learning by the inspirational psychologist David Fontana, author of Teaching Meditation to Children. He describes the benefits as being enhancements in:
- learning (and test scores!)
- concentration and memory
- visualisation skills
- creative and thinking skills
- ability to deal with stress
- spiritual development.
More than that, meditation is relaxing. It gives us greater energy, helps us live in the now and become more productive, gives us more restful sleep, reduces tension, headaches, blood pressure, anxiety. It even helps our relationships!
I started introducing meditation to children by setting up a voluntary lunchtime club for our juniors. They took to it immediately. The club steadily grew by word of mouth so that, soon, 40 pupils from all year groups were regularly attending the weekly sessions. The impact surprised me. Picture the scene: outside in the playground, 350 children are dashing about, shouting and playing football; inside, 40 children are sitting with me in silence, visualising an orange! But it never seemed strange or odd; the children felt they needed time out, a pause, space to relax and reflect. They decided to come; I certainly didn’t apply any pressure. Meditation and relaxation offered a chance for them to sit, think and unwind in the hectic school day. And the children who came were not just those who didn’t enjoy playtimes and thought that sitting down for half an hour was a safe way out. They covered the whole range, including some of our more able pupils, sports-mad students, dyslexics and the ones who usually just can’t wait to get out of the classroom. Some of our staff started coming along too!
We had to spend some time explaining meditation to parents, knowing that it rings alarm bells for some and creates false pictures of those who have anything to do with it! I made clear from the start that it was essentially about relaxation and life skills: nothing religious or wacky, something to improve children’s concentration and happiness. Now, though, parents have noticed the difference in their children and report improvements in sleep patterns as well as self-esteem.
Four years on
The club has now been running for four years. All classes learn meditation and most start the day with a one-minute session. Everyone agrees that children are calmer and more relaxed. The school is a happier place for teachers as well. There seems to be more time for everyone and attendance has improved. We are regularly visited by people wanting to find out about what we are doing.
The Blue Room
Three years ago I obtained a grant of £4,500 from Creative Partnerships, together help in kind from Crown Paints (who are researching the links between colour and learning). I persuaded the headteacher to renovate an attic room up a flight of twisty stairs. This quickly became known as the Blue Room, a quiet place for us to meet, with velvet cushions, trickling water-toys, soothing artefacts and poems. The room is now used by all 12 junior classes on a regular basis, and KS1 pupils visit occasionally too.
When we asked children to describe their experience of the room, this is was they said:
- I see the benefits daily. I was struggling to get to sleep. Now I’ve learnt how to relax in different circumstances. (Year 6)
- We all feel a lot calmer after each session and I’ve learnt how to breathe properly. Also I can see pictures clearly in my mind. The visualisations have helped my imagination and writing. (Year 5)
- At bedtime I used to feel stressed and hassled, always thinking of the negative nerve-racking things, not those that made me feel calm and proud of myself. Controlling your mind is a very powerful and useful skill. (Year 6)
- I don’t get ill as much and I have more friends since I started meditation. (Year 4)
- It helps you get out of your own way. (Year 5)
Others spoke movingly of defusing playground conflicts, coping with arguments and difficult choices, handling friendships/emotions, family problems – and doing those tests!
The next stage of Latchmere’s emotional wellbeing programme was setting up ‘EQ chapters’ throughout the school day. This is based on the self-science curriculum running in California. The process includes a morning greeting at the school gate and classroom door. A feelings meter is used where children can place their own photo at a point along a feelings scale, and then move it when their mood changes. This helps the children think about how they feel, while giving the teacher a visual guide to the emotions of their class. The register asks for names to be answered with the numbers 1-10 with 10 being high-spirited, followed by a feelings word reflecting their own emotions. A healthy homemade flapjack helps pupils to deal with an energy drop at about 10am. SEAL and peer massage is taught throughout the school. Specialist teachers promote social skills through regular lessons, with a strong emphasis on drama. The school employs two counsellors as social skills assistants. They help pupils understand themselves and solve conflicts. Parental support and advice is another important part of their role.
Other curriculum provision includes:
- Philosophy for Children (P4C)
- healthy days
- healthy school dinners
- 30 after-school clubs
- a school kitchen garden
- a vulnerable pupil group (Positive Solutions)
Conclusion With SATs looming, anxiety and stress will be rising as you read. No need! Meditation and relaxation will release some of the pressure through the simple activities of breathing, relaxing and quiet concentration. I am now convinced that spending some time looking after the mind and our emotions is the way to better performance as well as more rounded human beings.
For more about Latchmere School:
Our school SEAL page
On Teachers TV
Kevin Hogston is an advanced skills teacher for emotional wellbeing at Latchmere Primary in Kingston