The statistics paint a bleak picture – two million children in South Africa are orphaned or vulnerable; one in three children is hurt by their parent or caregiver; one in five has experienced sexual abuse; and the suicide rate for South African children aged 10 to 14 has more than doubled in the past 15 years.
With the unique set of problems that South African children face, both at school and at home, they need emotional support. Too often we see vulnerable children in difficult circumstances resort to negative coping behaviours such as violence, bullying, alcohol and drug abuse, and even suicide. That’s why a number of programmes in South Africa and abroad have started teaching children the practice of mindfulness as part of the school curriculum.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the act of paying attention to the present moment, acknowledging and accepting your thoughts and bodily sensations without judgment.
Research has shown that students who practice mindfulness exercises often improve their attention, performance, behaviour, mood and ability to self-regulate. It helps learners slow down and make more rational choices, even when they feel emotionally triggered.
Teaching mindfulness helps students develop their emotional intelligence, inspiring nonviolent communication, forgiveness, and gratitude. It can also help combat the rise in anxiety, depression and other mental-emotional challenges. In addition, expressive, confident children believe in themselves and speak out about their feelings, making them far less likely to fall victim to abuse.
Mindfulness around the world
Mindfulness is becoming common practice in international schools, and studies are reporting reduced stress in children and enhanced mental performance as a result. More than 5,000 teachers in the United Kingdom have been trained in teaching mindfulness, and a mindfulness curriculum was rolled out in many United States schools in 2017.
The government in New Delhi, India launched the “Happiness Curriculum” last July, which focuses on daily mindfulness practice or meditation, moral teachings, mental exercises and activities with the aim of teaching students to be good human beings. Devised by the Dalai Lama, the new initiative covers 800,000 students from pre-kindergarten to teenagers at 1,000 schools.
Wising up to mindfulness in South Africa
A newly-developed nongovernmental organisation called Wellbeing in Schools & Education (Wise) aims to address the need for emotional support and development by offering practical and empowering training to educators and caregivers in underprivileged schools and communities.
The Wise training programme has been implemented with educators from a few previously disadvantaged schools along the Garden Route and in the Cape Flats. With more funding, Wise aims to roll out the programme nationally.
Mindfulness for the masses
When they first visited schools, Wise founders Carmen Clews and Carol Surya noticed the aggressive way in which children were communicating and a high incidence of bullying. They also witnessed the high levels of stress among educators, which can lead them to lash out at children and has a negative impact on the learning environment. Thus, the Wise programme was developed to aid teachers and caregivers to deal with their own stress first so that they are better able to help the children in their care.
Wise conducted a pilot study in a few schools that included rolling out a staff personal wellbeing programme as well as a children’s wellbeing programme. The results were positive, with educators reporting significant reductions in their own stress levels, alongside positive differences in children’s behaviour. They reported decreased absenteeism of both children and teachers, reduced high-risk behaviour by children and fewer incidents of aggression in the classroom.
Tips to start practising mindfulness as a family
Have you tried practising mindfulness? It can be highly beneficial for the whole family, helping you manage your emotions, reduce your stress, and increase your happiness. Here are some easy ways to make your family more mindful:
- Set some time aside for a still moment every day as a family, practising mindful breathing. Having a designated mindfulness time helps make it a go-to habit (before bedtime often works well).
- Choose a mindfulness corner, an area of the house that is uncluttered and comfortable.
- Practice mindfulness around the table by having everyone mention something that they are grateful for in their lives. You can also try taking the time to really taste what you’re eating – ask everyone to spend a few minutes in silence noticing the taste, textures, and temperature of the foods.
- Share your mindful experiences with your family; for example, if you used mindfulness to calm your mind in frustrating traffic, tell them about it.
- Go for a mindful walk outside, listening in silence to sounds you don’t usually pay attention to – like leaves rustling, birds singing, or the sound of your own breath.
- Try a full ‘body scan’, lying down and bringing awareness to each part of the body, working from the feet all the way up to the top of the head.
These are just a few ideas to get you started – we’d love to hear about your own experiences, as well as what you think about students practising mindfulness at school. Leave a reply to let us know!