By Kevin Knibbs
In a high-achieving academic setting, it is important that pupils have resources to draw upon to cope with setbacks, says headmaster Kevin Knibbs
Photo: Helen Booker photography
Tell a group of teenage boys they are going to sit in a classroom and ‘learn to focus on their breathing’ and you might expect to receive looks of wry derision.
However, if you can show them something that will help them to cope with the personal pressures of being a 21st century teenager, as well as achieve top performance academically, on the sports field and in the performing arts – then you’ll catch and keep their attention.
To date, more than 800 of our Year 10 pupils have followed a course of mindfulness lessons which does this and their reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
There is a tendency for advocates and critics alike to shroud mindfulness with an exotic and mystical aura. Our experience suggests that this misses the point – its effectiveness, in common with most of the best ideas, lies in its simplicity.
Mindfulness offers practitioners tried and tested methods of consciously shifting their attention away from rumination and worry, allowing them to focus and concentrate upon doing their best.
Of course it is not for everyone but the majority of our pupils embrace these ideas because they work for them; the techniques are straightforward, comforting and can be adopted unobtrusively when the need arises.
Designed specifically for teenagers by the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP), the lessons provide a toolkit of resources for young people to choose from: some select a 7/11 (breathe in for the count of seven and out for the count of eleven) or a FOFBOC (feet on floor, bum on chair), whereby they place their feet on the floor, close their eyes and focus for a couple of minutes on their breathing.
Beditation is also a popular choice because it provides welcome assistance in achieving restful sleep.
Our boys now routinely use mindfulness practices to calm themselves at examination time, to prepare for musical or dramatic performances, or to relax before a crucial penalty kick on the football or rugby pitch, Jonny Wilkinson-style.
The breathing exercises also encourage them to consider stressful situations carefully rather than reacting impulsively – whether this is in their school or personal lives.
In a high-achieving academic setting, it is particularly important that they have resources to draw upon to cope with occasional setbacks and to retain a balanced perspective on success and failure.
No one can be in any doubt that today’s children are growing up in an ever more fast moving, globally competitive and technologically complex society; it is increasingly hard for teenagers to avoid 24/7 scrutiny and to switch off, literally and metaphorically.
Our schools have, perhaps more than ever against this backdrop, a moral and social responsibility to promote pupils’ well-being and to enhance their resilience in practical, accessible ways.
A willingness to devote resources and curriculum time to the study of mindfulness is one way to address this need.
Moreover, at Hampton, we found at an early stage that our pupils were not the only ones who would benefit from mindfulness lessons and now offer similar training to all staff members.
Nicky Morgan, the returning Secretary of State for Education, has reiterated her commitment to reducing teacher workload, but it remains an inconvenient truth for government that too many leave the profession too soon, feeling overwhelmed by regulatory and bureaucratic burdens and unable to cope.
Children are not the only ones in school communities whose well-being needs to be nurtured and invested in. As such, The Oxygen Mask Principle – look after yourself before you can look after others, will be one of the keynote messages to emerge from our forthcoming conference.
Experts from MiSP have examined the effect of mindfulness sessions on staff health and well-being, finding that controlled studies indicate that they can help to reduce teacher anxiety and promote better coping skills, motivation and classroom performance.
It is neither a panacea nor will it single-handedly eliminate teacher stress and burnout, but from personal experience I would commend mindfulness techniques to fellow heads seeking ways of dealing with the challenges of school leadership with equanimity.
The last word is best left to one of my colleagues, a teacher in the early years of her career:
“Teaching brings with it so many responsibilities, but I have found that using mindfulness allows me to give my best in every lesson because my mind isn’t distracted with other thoughts and issues. I believe I am now a more creative, confident and consistent teacher as a result.”
Kevin Knibbs, headmaster of Hampton School