FAMILY MATTERS: Children mindful of being in the ‘here and now’

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TUNE in, turn on – but don’t drop out. Star reporter Rachael Clegg speaks to two Sheffield clinical psychologists about the importance of mindfulness in primary school children.

“Gently close the eyes and as you close the eyes take a couple of nice big deep breaths,” says former Buddhist monk Andrew Puddicombe.

He’s speaking for a BBC video on Mindfulness, a psychological technique based on Buddhist principles.

Mindfulness invites us to focus on the present moment and let our worries and anxieties slip away.

The practice is known for its effectiveness with depression and anxiety in adults but recently, clinical psychologists at the University of Sheffield have found that the practice has huge benefits for children too.

Dr Lisa-Marie Berry is one of the psychologists and has been studying the effects of mindfulness in a Sheffield primary school as part of her research with colleague Dr Georgina Rowse.

The psychologists tested children at Broomhill Infant School twice each week over a three-week period during which children participated in five 15-minute mindfulness awareness sessions in their classrooms.

The mindfulness sessions consisted of using a combination of imagination exercises, physical group exercises and co-operative games to help raise children’s awareness of the ‘here and now’.

The ‘here and now’ includes an awareness of their ongoing experience, their senses and the environment around them, in order to help them cope better with their thoughts and emotions.

One example of a mindfulness exercise uses a snow globe. The snow globe is used as a metaphor for the children’s thoughts and feelings. They are encouraged to watch the flakes settle to the bottom of the globe and allow their thoughts and feelings to do the same.

“The results showed that even such a brief activity had an enormous effect on the children, and that was just the pilot study.”

But there were other tasks, some livelier than others, such as an action-based experiment for which they walked around the room and concentrated on their movements.

There were static tasks too - for one ‘test’ children were asked to focus on their peers by saying ‘hello’ to them and observing details such as their peers’ eye colour.

Lisa-Marie said: “The study demonstrates the potential benefits of introducing mindfulness activities within the classroom as an integrated part of the curriculum.

“The tasks helped the children focus on the moment and apply this to interacting with their peers.”

The children also took part in a meditative task in which they were asked to think about the way their feet felt on the ground. “We also invited children to be mindful of the sounds in the room by putting their ‘listening’ ears on.”

The origins of mindfulness are in Buddhism and the practice - Lisa believes - was brought over to the West during the sixties.

Already, mindfulness has been shown to help depression and anxiety in adults. Tests at the Northern Arizona University (NAU) showed that it also strengthened the immune system.

One of the reasons mindfulness is so effective is that it plummets us into the present.

“So many of us worry about the past and the future,” says Lisa-Marie, “especially in these hard economic times and some people experience real difficulties with these thoughts.”

“But children find living in the present moment much easier than adults.”

Mindfulness also helps with concentration and attainment, according to fellow researcher Dr Georgina Rowse.

“It’s been found to improve behaviour as well,” she said.

And by extension, the practice of mindfulness can potentially help children with attention deficit syndrome (ADHD), by training the brain to resist impulsiveness.

A total of 55 children took part in the project at Broomhill Infant School.

Class teacher Miss Sarah Smith said: “The children really enjoyed participating in the sessions. As a result of the project we feel that they further developed their listening and concentration skills.

“It was an interesting project for staff to be involved in and some of the techniques can be applied in class.”

Lisa-Marie and Georgina hope to be able to continue their collaboration with Broomhill Infant School to integrate mindfulness sessions into the school week and that research will continue into the potential of mindfulness in primary schools across the region.