Children are under increasing pressure. Investing in their mental wellbeing could could help them now and in the future
Children are taking 10 minutes out from the hurly burly school day to reflect on their thoughts and their feelings. Some ground themselves by thinking about their feet on the floor, while others concentrate on their breathing.
This is mindfulness, the lessons quickly growing in popularity as an antidote to the stress of being a young person in the 21st century, be it pressure to perform in exams, social media, or the obsession with body image that is reported to even affect primary age children.
Children are learning about their brains and how to deal with unruly thoughts to control emotions such as anger and fear. It is no longer head, shoulders, knees and toes, but amygdala, hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex.
The most recent NHS survey of young peoples mental health in 2017 shows one-in-eight five- to 19-year-olds in England has a diagnosable mental health condition. Hospital admissions for anorexia alone more than doubled in the eight years to 2017/18.
Stress is a known barrier to learning and a growing number of schools are targeting the emotional health of pupils through schemes such as meditation, mindfulness and the provision of mental health first aiders and buddies.
The Mental Health Foundation charity wants emotional wellbeing to be at the heart of the school curriculum, and has chosen body image as the key theme of this years Mental Health Awareness Week. Dr Antonis Kousoulis, its assistant director, said its survey last year found 47% of people aged 18-24 had experienced stress over their body image to the extent of being overwhelmed or unable to cope. Social media has certainly played a part, he says. Historically, it was the mirror that was the main driver of perception of our image and how we thought others perceived us. Nowadays, young people are exposed almost on a 24/7 basis to manipulated and heavily edited images, whether thats in advertising or photos of their friends.
Over the past five years there has been a proliferation of mindfulness organisations and companies selling lesson plans and staff training to schools. But does it work?
Secondary school teacher Richard Burnett, who founded the Mindfulness in Schools Project 10 years ago, warns against quick fix approaches. We are a charity started by teachers who wanted to teach children how best to manage their thoughts and feelings and deal with the rollercoaster of being a young person, he says.
It has two training courses for teachers one aimed at secondary students and another for younger classes. Its about training your attention to notice what is going on. If you are aware of that, you can choose how to respond, for example to manage the amygdala, the part of the brain that detects fear and prepares a response, he says.
Emotional disorders are on the rise, and we should instil something in our children and young people about coping with stress, advises Lee Hudson, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Healths mental health lead. But should it be mindfulness? There is evidence that the process can bring benefits to adults, he says. [But] the evidence for its effectiveness with children is not yet sufficiently robust and we need more research. However, some schools are rolling it out and children seem to enjoy it and it unlikely to cause harm.