Please take a second to read my article from the ISA Journal.
Mental Health and Wellbeing, ‘Playing the Long Game’.
By Clare Eddison, Head of the Dharma School.
The Dharma Primary School is the only school in Europe with a Buddhist ethos. (I hasten to add that, globally, there are other ‘Buddhist’ schools or schools with a Buddhist ethos – in the USA, Australia as well as in Thailand.) In 2017, the school won the inaugural ISA Award in Excellence & Innovation in Pupils’ Mental Health and Well-being.
Perhaps this was an acknowledgement that for the last 25 years our school has been at the forefront of championing the development of mindfulness, kindness and self-esteem in pupils. Enshrined in our ethos and aims, we strive to create an environment in which positive relationships are developed throughout the school and where self-esteem is promoted in clear and consistent ways.
I want to outline how we, with our unique ethos, support pupils’ mental health and well-being. We first have to establish indicators of good mental health and positive well-being in pupils. I would suggest that these indicators are both through our direct experience of them and what we know about each pupil indirectly. It is in how they appear to us in both body and mind, from what they say and in the extent and manner with which they engage. Does each pupil thrive at school, make good progress in their learning and interact well with their peers?
Conversely, we need to look at the factors that impinge on pupils’ mental health and lead to a diminishing of well-being.
Although the culture of a school can and does dramatically affect pupils, all children and young people experience powerful anxiety, confusion, distress and rage at points. Living in a family, making relationships with peers and making mental connections in order to learn are emotional matters. Experiences of disappointment and frustration, at ordinary levels, are as important as achievement and satisfaction. We can call this ‘positive stress’ and it is an important part of healthy development.
As school leaders, we aim to keep distressing feelings in the tolerable range for pupils and for most of the time. Stressful events (eg. death of a loved one) do occur, and may affect the brain negatively, but for most children there are the internal and external conditions that allow the heart and mind to recover. At the extreme end it is thought that, in response to prolonged exposure to deprivation or threat (so-called ‘toxic stress’), the neurological development of a child’s brain becomes distorted such that the ‘survival’ mechanisms of the brain and body are more dominant than the ‘learning’ mechanisms. This results in wide-ranging impairments in arousal, cognitive, emotional and social functioning, (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015)
Whilst this is uncommon, toxic stress can a huge effect on mental health and well-being. But an awareness of the complex neurological responses to events and the brain’s ability to change in response to repeated stimulation (neuroplasticity) can only help us as educators. Although it is a complex field, involving both genetics and environmental factors, it indicates broadly that we can put in interventions and strategies when children are presenting with distressed behaviours and they, like all of us, have a good chance of regaining a sense of well-being. It gives us, in effect, hope that things can get better. If we develop expertise in this area, and in a trauma-sensitive approach to both behaviour and educational needs, we can have a positive and lasting impact on children.
Staff should be trained to look at the bigger context for each child, including their possible predispositions and vulnerabilities. This enables a much more compassionate perspective on the many relationships within a school and in particular, the staff member’s relationship to poor behaviour from some pupils.
We need to ensure that the school environment is as kindly, welcoming and safe as possible. A positive safeguarding culture, in which children have a received sense of safety, is the bedrock of a happy school. Children know they can talk to staff, and those staff convey their concerns appropriately and professionally. Children sometimes can’t verbalise ‘I feel safe’ but they can say what is happening which may be making them feel unsafe. As school leaders, we have all been trained to spot concerns and patterns, but it is in the strength of the team you lead and their expertise in safeguarding that we must trust. A level of vigilance and informal but frequent risk assessment can tell you if the safeguarding message has clearly been received by all staff. The culture you have in a school is backed up by a range of policies and practices congruent with this safeguarding policy.
At the Dharma school, we have behaviour and anti-bullying policies and practices that dovetail with our safeguarding policy and explicitly reference our ethos. It is the intention that our children are supported towards the habits of self-discipline and self-regulation and are helped to understand the consequences of their actions should they fall down. There is a fine line between pointing out behaviour and shaming a child and we are explicit about where that line is drawn.
As well as using restorative practice between children as a way of improving behaviour, we regularly work in partnership with parents. Our parents are mostly sympathetic to our ethos; our more inquiry-led approach to behaviour and poor progress is a journey that the school makes with the parents and pupil.
All members of the community commit to the five precepts. These are regularly reinforced and discussed in assemblies and in class. The precepts are not rules but working principles and we strongly discourage a sense of guilt if children don’t match up to them. Rather, it is case of using them as an invitation to learn from mistakes and grow.
The Five Precepts for our School and Community
I will not intentionally harm people, animals and plants, and any part of our school environment, caring for them in a way I would like to be cared for myself and looking after the school in a way I would like my own belongings to be looked after.
I will not take things that belong to others, trying to remember to ask before borrowing, and to share when appropriate.
I will try to be caring towards my friends and be respectful at all times even to those who are not my friends.
I will try to say things that are honest and truthful and be careful in regard to my speech and voice.
I will try to keep my body fit and healthy and my mind calm and clear by following that which brings goodness and happiness.
There are many things that we can do on a whole-school level to ‘future-proof’ our children and build resilience in the journey of growing up. I use ‘future-proof’ in this context to talk about the strategies, habits and dispositions we can nurture so that our children can continue to be successful in their future when, as it will, their situation changes. Our approach at the Dharma School, which is universally applicable, is the systematic, consistent and gentle development of a relationship with one’s own mind and body.
The teaching of mindfulness to children has exploded in recent years. At the Dharma School, we have been explicitly teaching mindfulness since we opened 25 years ago, becoming refined in teaching it in a nuanced and age-appropriate way (we have children from 3-11 years). We use a combination of techniques from several different Buddhist traditions, all with a common core. The wider principle is to teach the disposition of becoming open to present experience, in other words not just the skill, but the inclination to use it.
We teach not only sitting meditation but walking and eating meditation too. Taking eating meditation as an example, children practise at snack-time and at lunch and usually only for a short (and therefore effective) period of time. Put simply, mindfulness of eating is ‘just eating’, rather than thinking about other things or talking whilst eating. Mindfulness in all its forms can be framed as becoming very interested in what is happening in the present moment, with an attitude of kind curiosity. This serves as a gateway to an expanded, less self-oriented way of perceiving and being. We can use the senses of taste, touch, sight, hearing and smell to ground us in what is happening right now. Similarly, mindful walking is ‘just walking’ and mindful breathing is ‘just breathing’. Children can and do develop the habit of switching to a more mindful state and are able to use it in times of stress or worry, to zoom out of the sense of tightness that those emotions create and allow happier states of mind to arise. We can creatively and skilfully help children to regularly access this state of mind. For instance, they can become ‘noticing experts’, in a similar way to a scientist.
Development of positive emotions is also future-proofing the mind. Recent research reports that gratitude is key to well-being, (for instance, Allen, 2018.) Gently but consistently making a sense of gratitude part of our everyday conversation in, for instance, class circle time, may very well have long term benefits.
Inclining the mind to happiness and kindness is something to be practised and there are beautiful, ancient techniques (for instance, ‘loving kindness’ meditation) that can be adjusted to be age-appropriate. As another example, contemplations of interconnectedness, and impermanence, again delivered sensitively and appropriately, can stimulate reflection. For example, together with our pupils, we contemplate how our food got to our plate, how our body uses food and how much waste we generate. In turn, children’s awareness of their own agency in the world is expanded and deepened.
Our bodies can be future-proofed through all sorts of physical exercise, competitive and otherwise. As a former Cambridge hockey player, I know first-hand how team sports develop the learning dispositions of collaboration and independent achievement; the interplay of teamwork and individual performance. Team sports can be taught in an inclusive, compassionate yet still competitive way.
As I have had less time (and energy) for regular Saturday matches, I have turned to the mindful activities of yoga and t’ai chi. These are both practices that develop core strength and the relationship between mind and body. They act directly on the body and so a child learns that by doing these movements, they will feel an entirely resulting sense of well-being, joy and relaxation without even thinking about it.
Caring for the well-being of the minds of young people also means being a gatekeeper in terms of the school’s practice around electronic devices. We have co-created a policy with our parents such that adults on site do not use their mobile phones when children are present. Just as staff cycling to school models the importance of exercise, we are modelling who and what is important – the children and the present moment. Quite a lot of research now shows the addictive and brain-changing effects of high use of screens, the internet and gaming (see below).
The antithesis of playing computer games is being outside, playing and connecting with nature. Through Forest School throughout the year, our pupils are given regular access to natural spaces as part of the curriculum. Forest School allows for a different context and the possibility of change in patterns of achievement and behaviour.
Play is a sure-fire method of future-proofing. Yes, play! Even older children need to play much more than we realise. Play is one way children explore, try to make sense of and communicate their emotional life. The ability to play also affects neurological development, improving imagination, resilience and well-being. After installing a mud kitchen for the EYFS children a couple of years ago, we felt that the older children might want that opportunity too and how right we were!
Finally, an exhortation to the wonders of a good staff team: a school such as ours requires a high staff-pupil ratio and well-qualified staff who are truly behind the ethos. Our staff are sympathetic to and interested in developing their own practice of mindfulness. Those teaching mindfulness have a strong sense of what it feels like and often have a practice themselves. We offer regular staff mindfulness sessions, including at inset, and opportunities to go on courses to deepen their experience. As the Head, I hope I can be accommodating and sensitive to their work-life balance, balancing that with my need for staff to participate fully in the life of the school. I hope that by picking up my daughter from her school every Friday, I am modelling that balance and, of course, this always brings me joy!
- Child Welfare Information Gateway (2015).Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Brain Development.
- Summer Allen, (2018). The Science of Gratitude, ggsc.berkeley.edu
- Thich Nhat Hanh and Katherine Weare (2017) Happy Teachers Change the World,
- Guy Claxton and Becky Carlzon (2019). Powering Up Children, The Learning Power Approach to Primary Teaching.
- Sampasa-Kanyinga, H. & Lewis, R.F., (2015). Frequent Use of Social Networking Sites is Associated with Poor Psychological Functioning Among Children and Adolescents. Journal of Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking.
- Sigman, A., (2017). Screen Dependency Disorders: a new challenge for child neurology. Journal of the International Child Neurology Association
- Swing et al., (2010). Television and Video Game Exposure and the Development of Attention Problems. Pediatrics Online.
- Simonato et al., (2018). Prospective associations between toddler televiewing and subsequent lifestyle habits in adolescence. Preventative Medicine Vol. 110.