Children's wellbeing is all in the mind

Mindfulness teachers Shakti Burke and Bobbi Allan.
Mindfulness teachers Shakti Burke and Bobbi Allan.

Mindfulness teachers Bobbi Allan and Shakti Burke believe you're never too young to start learning about your brain and exercising your mind. Children are encouraged to give all their other organs a workout, so why not the brain?

Bobbi and Shakti are keen supporters of 'Mindfulness in Education' and are bringing an expert on the subject to Lismore at the end of the month so parents and teachers can learn about this simple yet effective technique for helping children to think and learn more clearly.

At Richmond River High School last year, several teachers began using mindfulness techniques in their classes and it was such a success it's being rolled out across all Year 7 classes this year. When The Echo went to interview students about mindfulness last year, they overwhelming talked about how it had helped reduce stress and improved concentration at school, and many spoke about how it had spilled over to make their home lives happier. They said it had given them the tools to stop, breathe, and calmly think about how to behave and what consequences their actions would have.

"I've been teaching mindfulness for a long time now and when I started teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction I happened to get a few teachers and counsellors along and they were saying how well it would work in schools," Bobbi explained. "I had thought for ages it would be excellent in schools but to hear teachers say it really got me thinking."

Shakti and Bobbi are launching the Northern Rivers Mindfulness in Education project with a visit by Janet Etty-Leal, who has taught mindfulness in Victorian schools for 10 years and is the author of Meditation Capsules: a mindfulness programme for children.

Shakti has been teaching mindfulness and happiness techniques to primary-aged children for three years, first as a volunteer at a Kyogle primary school and more recently as a consultant. She aims to provide focusing techniques that encourage kids to respond, rather than react. She says that while the younger kids can often be restless at first, they very quickly come to love the simple awareness exercises.

"Children clearly enjoy the opportunity to simply stop. The younger ones in particular take readily to the focusing practice. It seems to come quite naturally and many of them want to continue long beyond the standard three minutes. The older age groups do well too, and report on the relief it gives them from their busy lives. For the middle age group I use special techniques to keep them engaged. Best of all, for everyone, it is a chance to have a break from the academic curriculum - they are just being rather than doing. They don't have to achieve anything."

Mindfulness is becoming more mainstream in today's education systems. Bobbi and Shakti recently joined 80 teachers and early childhood educators in Brisbane for training in the Hawn Foundation's MindUP Curriculum, led by the Foundation's US and UK directors of education.

Bobbi said the curriculum is age-specific for children pre-kindergarten through to Year 8, giving them cognitive tools to manage emotions and behaviours, reduce stress, sharpen concentration, and increase empathy and optimism.

"Research results on the MindUP programs, which are in over 1000 schools in the US, Canada and the UK, are impressive," Bobbi explained. "The children in the programs gained 24% in positive social behaviours, 15% in maths achievement, 20% in self-reported social-emotional competencies and skills, and a 24% decline in aggressive behaviours - compared with control groups who didn't participate in the program. Many children even learned to control their bodies' production of cortisol - the stress hormone.

"In Brisbane we learned that the core of the MindUP program is mindful awareness, solidly supported by information about neuroscience," Bobbi said. "Yes, even kindergarten children are learning words like amygdala and pre-frontal cortex! When children know how their brains work they can better understand and control their behaviour."

Janet Etty-Leal will give her public talk to teachers, parents, friends and anyone who works with children at Lismore City Hall on Friday, February 24, at 7.15pm. Paul Hurley from Richmond River High School will also speak about the value and effectiveness of mindful in his students. Entry is $20/10. This will be the official launch of the Northern Rivers Mindfulness in Education program for 2012.

On Saturday, February 25, Janet will teach half-day workshops for primary and secondary teachers. For more information and to register for workshops visit www.mindful

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