Let’s face it: children today are commonly educated in competitive environments that demand technology know-how. Sure, children may need to understand new-and-improved electronic ‘fandangles’ to broaden future opportunities, but are they also taught sufficient life skills to understand themselves and navigate the world around them? With increased awareness surrounding the latter, wellbeing frameworks culminating movement and mindfulness may be officially introduced into school curriculums from 2020.
“It is imperative that wellbeing programs be implemented within schools, given the current climate of education, pressures in schools and rising mental health concerns,” says founder of non-profit organisation Yoga Tools for Schools Inc. (YTFS), Jasmine Healy-Pagan.
According to Mindframe, 14 per cent of Australians aged between four and 17 have behavioural or mental health concerns. Furthermore, research indicates that 75 per cent of mental health issues emerge before the age of 25. Therefore, holistic education for early intervention – hopefully prevention – is paramount, and an important notion close to the heart of founder of Life Skills Group, Nikki Bonus.
“There is growing need for children to learn tools for resilience, self-awareness, self-regulation and positive relationships. After a challenging childhood, I found these through yoga, mindfulness and personal development. Unfortunately, my brother did not follow the same path, and eventually took his own life. This motivated me to research and develop programs for early intervention,” says Bonus.
Less Stress, More Mindfulness
According to Youth Beyond Blue, approximately one in 35 Australians aged 4-17 experience a depressive disorder. Furthermore, one in 14 among this demographic experienced an anxiety disorder in 2015. Such concerns may be triggered by high-pressure exams like National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) beginning in year three; which can drastically decrease productivity and performance.
“Science has proven and educators have experienced that when students are anxious, frustrated or stressed, it is nearly impossible for them to focus, learn or be ‘test-ready’. Yoga and mindfulness provide effective solutions for calming the nervous system and enhancing emotional intelligence,” says Healy-Pagan.
A 2009 study by MGN College of Education (India) supported yoga’s potential in this regard, revealing students performed better in mathematics, science and social studies following a seven-week yoga module involving postures, breathing, meditation and value-orientation program. Of course, stress-reduction tools can enhance performance beyond academics.
“Our students report that they also use mindfulness and breathing techniques to help them with sport, performing in front of others and getting to sleep. Every lesson, students practice a mindful minute of balloon breathing. They imagine they have a balloon in their belly; inflating upon inhale, deflating upon exhale,” explains Bonus.
“Our programs focus on recognising and dealing with emotions as they arise, helping students detect early signs of stress and anxiety. Sitting in their mindful bodies, students check their ‘internal weather’. They may feel happy, so the weather is warm and sunny. It may be partly cloudy or they may feel a storm brewing. We discuss how feelings – like the weather – are always changing.”
Harnessing children’s imaginations makes for a memorable experience. Innovative Yoganauts, founded by exercise scientist Paul Karantonis, engages children with symbolic superhero themes: Airon (breath and vitality), Goru (strength and balance), Zazen (happiness and serenity) and Kaizen (willpower and transformation). Before long, students’ mats magically become imagination and recharge stations.
“Yoganauts serve brain-food in intriguing ways. We periodise the tempo and weave in superpowers of being mighty, strong and focussed, non-competitively challenging oneself and working on invisible willpower to create a showcase of movement and mindfulness,” explains Karantonis.
Social skills and cohesion
Upholding its translation to ‘union’ and philosophy of ahimsa (non-violence), yoga organically instils kindness – thank heavens for that! A 2015 study by ABC’s Behind the News revealed prominent issues Australian kids worry about include friends, bullying, and being different. Alarmingly, two thirds reportedly experienced bullying; concerning results that may be reduced particularly through partner-orientated exercises promoting playfulness, trust, and peer support.
“Our programs foster social cohesion by providing an environment for students to work together in pairs or groups. We create awareness around what values we need to call on in these situations. There is opportunity for discussion and reflection, and students are encouraged to show compassion and empathy,” says Bonus.
Disruptive behaviour can also create social disconnection – but may also be effectively addressed by wellbeing frameworks. A 2003 American study involving kindergarten to year 8 children resulted in decreased ‘bad’ behaviour following participation in a weekly one-hour yoga curriculum. Children diagnosed with hyperactivity and behavioural problems have recently resorted to overstimulation of controversial gadgets like fidget-spinners, which can catapult curious minds into chaos. As Karantonis has witnessed; perhaps what they really need is encouragement, empowerment and space to engage in more self-directed stillness.
“One student had recently been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and he was one of the most engaged and attentive. For that period, we had been transformative for him,” reflects Karantonis.
“Many in another group we worked with had suffered previous trauma. The first week presented aggressive behavioural challenges. By week three, the most aggressive students chose to sit down on our recharge station and take a meditative-style break. We never force this. It is rewarding to see children select this themselves. We had provided a new platform for them to explore what may be beneficial for them in ways they understand.”
Lead by example
Of course, success of school-based programs doesn’t solely rely on supporting students, but educators and parents too. To achieve the greatest impact, teachers require relevant training, time and resources to ideally integrate mindfulness in their overall approach to teaching, beyond designated yoga sessions. For this reason, companies such as Life Skills Group and YTFS consider their professional development programs as crucial as those for primary and secondary children.
“YTFS’ initial focus has been to support, inspire and empower educators first. When teachers use Yoga Tools for personal wellbeing, they have tools to manage their energy amidst increasing demands of teaching, and model and share these experiences with others,” says Healy-Pagan.
Ever heard the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’? This in mind, Bonus believes a whole-school approach is essential in delivering wellbeing programs. “We try to educate not only teachers, but also provide opportunities for parents and families to be involved. Mindfulness takes practice; you need to have an understanding and lead by example. The best way to educate students is for adults in their lives to exemplify these behaviours.”
A 2016 study conducted across Western Australian schools by Mindful Meditation Australia reiterated the importance of community engagement. The report revealed many “felt that simply using the term ‘mindfulness’ would put a lot of parents off, as they had a poor understanding of the term and deeply established attitudes toward meditation.”
Raising awareness within homes means children may more likely utilise tools beyond classrooms, plugging into constructive apps like Smiling Mind. For educators and parents to get more on board, a game-changer may be contemplating how early introduction to such eye-opening education may have helped shape their own formative years and beyond.
Become a member of YTFS at www.yogatoolsforschools.com.au/get-involved to spread more yoga love around schools!