Integrating mindfulness into learning

Issue: Volume 99, Number 19

Posted: 19 November 2020
Reference #: 1HAE_C

Mindfulness practices are emerging as one of many strategies schools and kura can use to support learner wellbeing. Education Gazette looks at one mindfulness programme that has recently been scaled up, allowing more schools access.

On any given day at St Mark’s Church School in Wellington, you can see students practising mindful breathing or movement, using these techniques to calm down after lunch, or doing jigsaw puzzles to wind down at the end of class. It’s all part of a mindfulness practice the school has integrated into its wellbeing programme and local curriculum.

The school has been using mindfulness programme Pause Breathe Smile over the last two years. Deputy principal Erica Harvison sees mindfulness as a tool for helping their learners consider their emotions and deal with conflict – and she has noticed positive benefits to the school’s culture.

“When there’s an issue, instead of an explosive reaction, it stops them in their tracks and gives them a moment,” says Erica.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is purposefully engaging attention in the present moment, in what is happening within and around us. There is a growing body of international research that suggests that mindful awareness practices can benefit physical and mental health, as well as support emotional regulation and metacognition (thinking about your thinking).

As such, many schools, like St Mark’s, have chosen to incorporate mindfulness practices into their teaching and learning programmes as part of an integrated whole-school approach to supporting learner wellbeing. This includes recognising and responding to the diverse strengths and needs of the learners and their school communities.

It’s important to note that mindfulness practices are one of many strategies schools and kura might decide to utilise to support learner wellbeing. There is no silver bullet or single programme that will work for every student and every school.

Tools and resources

There are several resources available to schools to support social and emotional wellbeing and building positive school cultures. For example, Sparklers(external link), developed to help support the wellbeing of young people following the Christchurch earthquakes, is now a widely used wellbeing resource across New Zealand.

The Ministry of Education offers a range of resources to support schools to build safe, positive and relationally based environments that promote and respond to learner wellbeing. These include the Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L) School-Wide framework(external link), PB4L Restorative Practices(external link), and initiatives on the horizon, such as the implementation of new Wellbeing Curriculum Leads(external link) and guidance.

Pause Breathe Smile

Pause Breathe Smile is a mindfulness programme available to schools. Originally developed by Grant Rix at the Mental Health Foundation, the programme was first launched in 2013 and has since been expanded to reach more than 300 schools and 60,000 students across Aotearoa. Now, thanks to funding support from Southern Cross, the Pause Breathe Smile programme will be available free to all primary and intermediate schools.

The programme essentially provides professional development for teachers to work through a series of eight lessons with their students, focusing on things like simple mindful breathing, eating and movement. Schools are then able to lay a foundation that they can use to integrate mindfulness into their wider school programme.

Despite its clear structure, there is room for schools to make the programme their own.

“Mindfulness needs to be responsive to what’s happening,” says Grant, now the mindfulness director at the Pause Breathe Smile Trust.

“Many schools don’t see it as the ‘be all, end all’. Instead, it’s something that can ignite interest in mindfulness and wellbeing.”

Pause Breathe Smile aligns with the health and physical education curriculum, as well as aspects of the social sciences and science curriculum, and New Zealand Curriculum key competencies: thinking; managing self; relating to others; and participating and contributing.

It connects with and affirms te ao Māori values and perspectives by integrating the principles of the hauora model Te Whare Tapa Whā. Breath and body-based practices are used for exploring the interplay between physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, relationships with others, and interconnectedness with the natural world.

Expanding the programme

After receiving funding from Southern Cross, the Pause Breathe Smile Trust will now be able to offer the programme, at no cost, to all primary and intermediate schools that are taking a schoolwide approach. Schools that are having their whole staff trained together will be given priority.

Southern Cross chose to support Pause Breathe Smile after looking for a way to make an impact in the youth and health areas. Additionally, they wanted to find something that their own staff (around 3,200 of them) could connect with. Pause Breathe Smile ticked all the boxes.

“It also had the clinical efficacy and proven track record we were hoping for,” notes Greg Gent, Southern Cross Chair. “We want to see a change in the schools the programme is in,” he says.

Grant Rix sees a range of benefits to this support from Southern Cross. Removal of the cost barrier and increased capacity will, at the most basic level, give more schools, teachers and children access to this programme.

“It’s also an opportunity to engage with schools more and get an understanding of how they are going with it,” Grant says. He also hopes this will continue the discussion around mindfulness in New Zealand and its role in supporting learner wellbeing.

For more information, see the Pause Breathe Smile.(external link)


Taking a whole-school approach to wellbeing

Tokomaru School’s focus on mindfulness, as part of its schoolwide wellbeing programme, has had a positive impact on its school culture.

It’s a wet, cold day in rural Manawatū and the Tokomaru School playground is deserted. Even the hardiest kids are spending their morning break inside. It’s also a Friday near the end of term 3, so one might expect the classrooms to be full of noisy students and tired teachers. At this school, however, the words that spring to mind to describe the atmosphere are calm, quiet and relaxed.

Jacqui Frost, team leader at the Year 1–8 school, lights up as she talks about the school’s efforts to improve student wellbeing. Jacqui has helped introduce a schoolwide programme that has changed students’ attitudes and sees all children and teachers practising mindfulness every day.

Jacqui’s initial aim was to make the school’s learner pathway more practical and accessible for all their children.

“Lots of schools have learner pathways, which is telling kids where we want them to be. I wanted to show them how to get there because often we miss that part out,” she says.

A different approach

At that point she was teaching a class with children from Years 2–4 and was dealing with some difficult behaviours. Based on her own research into growth mindset and mindfulness, she decided to try doing things a little differently.

The programme that developed was about focusing on growing their kids’ mana and helping them become more confident and relaxed along the way: “For us, these soft skills, these life skills, are what ground you.”

Following the success of the programme in her own class, Jacqui was supported by her principal, Sonia Mudgway, to expand what they were doing to the whole school. Since then, Jacqui and the other teachers at Tokomaru have trialled a whole lot of things, “some of them good, some of them not so good”.

One thing that is working is the Pause Breathe Smile mindfulness programme, which is now part of the school’s wellbeing programme. Jacqui speaks glowingly of the way her colleagues gave Pause Breathe Smile a go. What really mattered in terms of getting her fellow teachers on board was that they could simply pick up the programme resources and use them every day.

“You can’t expect all teachers to be experts in mindfulness and this took that pressure off,” Jacqui says.

There are signs that the school’s approach to wellbeing is working.

“We still have some issues, every school does, but we tracked our playground behaviour incidents and they’ve just dropped right down,” says Jacqui.

Powerful impact on seniors

The schoolwide programme has also had an especially powerful impact on the senior students – those readying themselves for heading off to high school. Jacqui and the other teachers had noticed that these children had more and more anxiety-driven issues, particularly when it came time to think about the transition into Year 9. For one very anxious student, Jacqui reported that their programme “helped him to realise that what he felt was normal and that everyone feels this way”.

Jacqui is clearly proud of the impact the programme has had on the school – including her colleagues. She’s quick to point out that she has “grown so much with it as well.” Another teacher at the school noted that the mindfulness focus had helped her, offering improved sleep patterns as a specific example.

A group of ākonga all mentioned how the mindfulness part of the programme helps them to start their day calmly and gets them ready for what’s ahead. They also commented on how they use these skills outside of school, especially when trying to relax or when dealing with things that require patience, like annoying siblings!

“You have an opportunity every week to have a conversation with a child that is ‘hey, we want to grow you as a person and we care about you’,” says Jacqui.

Supporting social and emotional wellbeing

Resources to support students’ social and emotional wellbeing and positive school culture.  

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 12:05 am, 19 November 2020

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