Training mental muscles to ease stress
In today’s frenetic world, even children sometimes long for peace and quiet.
Nathaniel Thomas tried to skip a tennis lesson three weeks ago because he wanted to learn how to meditate.
The six-year-old didn’t inform anyone ahead of time; he just wandered into the mindfulness club at Somersfield Academy and sat down.
“I’ve always wanted to try meditation,” he told the surprised teacher Blake Stephenson.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that helps people calm themselves and focus.
Eventually, Nathaniel was taken off to tennis, but he was back the next week with his schedule rearranged.
There are seven students in the group and it’s growing each week.
“I wanted to do mindfulness so that I could have some calmness,” Nathaniel told Lifestyle.
The club’s facilitator, Kim Rego, completely understood.
“When you just sit you often realise how wonderful it [sitting] is,” she said. “It is something we don’t do often in today’s world.
“It is amazing to just stop, sometimes. That’s why Nathaniel was interested. He’d probably seen someone just stop, and he was like, ‘I want some of that’.”
Ms Rego has offered mindfulness programmes in several schools over the last year. She got interested while volunteering at Victor Scott Primary School and started the first group there.
“I saw a documentary, Room to Breathe, about a school in California that uses mindfulness to help at-risk students,” she said.
“These kids were a mess and it really helped them. Mindfulness just resonated with me. I thought, if that could help those students, maybe mindfulness could help Victor Scott students.”
She was thrilled when her 18-year-old son Alex’s Massachusetts boarding school introduced mindfulness as part of the curriculum.
“I thought, ‘Wow, mindfulness keeps being thrown at me’,” she said.
She eventually took a six-week online training course through an American organisation, Mindful Schools.
“Other programmes for kids are about virtues — like being nice or kind or having manners,” she said. “That’s great, but mindfulness just gets to a deeper level.”
Studies done by Carnegie Mellon University reported that mindfulness strategies might change stress pathways in the brain, for the better. Companies such as Aetna and Nike, have picked up mindfulness to help their employees; Time magazine recently featured mindfulness on one of its covers.
“It is really about paying attention to your attention,” said Ms Rego.
During the mindfulness class, a student picked up a bell and rang it once. Everyone listened intently to the fading sound and then put up their hand when they could no longer hear the ring. The point was to get students to focus their attention on the sound.
“While you’re listening, you might get distracted by another sound, but you have to try and come back to the bell,” explained Aidan Wells, 9.
In another exercise, students stood and clenched various parts of their body in sequence, then let them go. The idea was to help release tension. In yet another exercise they lay on the floor breathing deeply, focusing on different parts of the body.
It’s led some children to feel their heart beating, for the first time.
“Attention is a really big thing,” Ms Rego told students. “How you experience the world, everything you do, is all about where you place your attention, and the quality of your attention. Imagine if we were able to choose what you pay attention to.”
She believes that mindfulness is a way of training your mental muscle.
“We have so much technology in our lives and everyone is so busy that we can lose the ability to pay attention well,” she said.
After only a few weeks of mindfulness, students were utilising the exercises in surprising ways.
Xavier Lee, 9, said he was able to qualify for the school cross-country team, using lessons learnt in the class.
“I was coming up to the finish line and I remembered what we said about taking deep breaths,” he said. “That allowed me to keep going and qualify.”
Another boy also said he’d qualified for cross-country using the mindfulness deep-breathing techniques.
Imojen Judd, 8, used mindfulness during a stressful car ride to school.
“There was traffic, and everyone in the car was frustrated,” he said. “I did some mindful breathing and it helped.”
Ms Rego said trying to describe mindfulness was a bit like trying to describe the taste of chocolate.
“You have to experience it to fully appreciate it,” she said. “In today’s world we spend a lot of time thinking, and not a lot of time sensing. This teaches you to do that.”
Teachers at Somersfield have also taken mindfulness training with Ms Rego. Mr Stephenson was one of those teachers.
“What I like about it is that it just helps me to relax,” he said. “But it takes practice. You’d think it would be easy.”
He was so impressed by mindfulness that he set up the club at the school. It’s open to all primary school students at Somersfield.
• Contact Ms Rego at firstname.lastname@example.org or 246-0002.
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