Primary is primary

/ December 6, 2016

communityI have, almost unavoidably, been reading some post-US election articles and opinion pieces recently. They are strange and unnerving times we live in, in this ‘post-truth’ world. You cannot believe what you are being told as facts, even on the news, but you can trust your experience. A degree of scepticism has always been necessary, but recently my healthy scepticism has become a more important and indispensable tool. It is even more important now to trust in your own experience, to have that confidence and take a chance on something your gut tells you might lead to somewhere beautiful and true.

Also, in the recent course of my work, I had a fruitful and interesting conversation with Michael Bready, who runs Youth Mindfulness. He trains teachers in teaching mindfulness to young people and has a strong connection, as we do here at the school, with the Wake Up Schools movement.

Both of these musings link with educating our children here at The Dharma Primary School. I was reminded of one of the strengths of our approach in my conversation with Michael. That is, the focus our school has on sangha (community). We have an interconnected matrix of care in the people who work here; the trustees, the parents and carers, the staff and the children themselves. It is a matrix of love and care in the cold and wet of the winter time.

Mindfulness in Education is now a hot topic but, in the process, the delicate art of holding and the interconnectedness that community brings risks being lost. I have written about sangha in a previous Head’s Up – it is a cornerstone of our school’s ethos and of great service to our children.

There is a plethora of articles out there about well-being in school and how to achieve it. What I think gets left out is the essential interconnectedness of all the people associated with a school. I believe that our state schools are now underfunded and undernourished; the staff are straining to hold it all together. These are not the conditions for healthy development of children. According to an NASWUT (teachers’ union) survey, half the teachers polled had visited their doctor with work-related physical or mental health issues, more than three quarters of them had reported anxiety, and 86% had suffered sleeplessness. Mindfulness has the potential to tackle such issues, but I believe it will not work if we do not acknowledge the essential link between inner and outer experience and inner and outer conditions.

lotus-school-preceptsMindfulness does have real potential to contribute to the healthy development of children and to support the adults involved in the school. Yet mindfulness needs to be rooted in an environment where it can flourish. Our school specialises in this holistic approach; it is the school’s ethos and why the school was originally set up.

New brain scanning technologies have revealed that not only does the activity of the brain change from moment to moment but that the actual architecture of the brain itself can change. New synaptic connections can form among brain cells and new brain cells can develop. This is why mindfulness training can cause such profound changes in the brain. Stress can affect the brain function in many negative ways and mindfulness training has been shown to counter this.

What we want is an environment in which we build resilience to these negative experiences early on in a child’s life and schooling. There is some mindfulness research with primary age children showing ‘significant decreases in both test anxiety and ADHD behaviours and also an increase in the ability to pay attention’ (Napoli, Krech & Holley, 2005). Also there is other research in this age group which shows improvements in executive functioning (e.g. the ability to problem-solve, plan, initiate, control and monitor one’s own actions, be mentally flexible, multi-task and employ verbal reasoning).

At our school, because we have a 360 degree, interconnected approach to mindfulness which we have not abstracted from other aspects of Buddhism, we are set up to give children the best start in schooling. There is a depth to our ethos in which we strive to honour the wellbeing of all, in service to our children. This in turn informs the culture and practices of our school to include, for example: outdoor ‘nature’ learning, songs with positive messages, mindfulness practices of many sorts, the Building Learning Power framework, a compassionate approach to behaviour, small class sizes, attentive staff and, crucially, an understanding that play is really independent learning by another name!

To return to the beginning, I trust my own ‘gut feelings’ and have confidence, as the headteacher, that what we offer is the best primary school experience. Leading it is a beautiful and nourishing privilege.

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