When Janet Etty-Leal started teaching meditation in Victorian schools more than 12 years ago, she knew its benefits firsthand. “It’s a life path for me. I’ve been practicing meditation and yoga for well over three decades. The two go hand in hand; and the meditation practice has been an anchor I’ve long been grateful for,” says the author of Meditation Capsules: A Mindfulness Program for Children.
As a mother and former school teacher, Etty-Leal also knew meditation—particularly mindfulness meditation—could help kids. “I felt it was such an important skill to learn. It’s about helping children cultivate the art of being present, and making kind, conscious choices for the Self, others and the planet.”
But convincing schools mindfulness was worthy of curriculum time wasn’t easy all those years ago. Originally, Etty-Leal could only teach meditation under the guise of stress management, usually for older kids. Now, times have changed. As more schools take on wellness coordinators, Etty-Leal says getting mindfulness on the curriculum is becoming easier. She is the meditation consultant for Melbourne’s Geelong Grammar, has worked with one government primary school for seven years and has taught mindfulness meditation to countless hundreds of children.
“The most important thing is awakening children to their potential, and helping them realise they can stand comfortably in their own skin,” she says.
Of course, getting kids to sit still takes some strategy. Etty-Leal uses books and games for younger children, draws on rituals like taking off shoes (“it helps children be present”) and always makes sure the offer to meditate is an invitation, not a demand. “It’s incredibly important children perceive it as a blessing, not a chore.”
As schools continue to open up to meditation, the options for delivery are also evolving. Businesswoman and keen mindfulness meditator, Jane Martino, is co-founder of Smiling Mind, a smartphone app and website that offers short mindfulness meditations for kids of all ages.
The free program developed in part from Martino’s desire to share a technique that has helped her personally. “Meditation has helped me evolve personally and as a parent. It was an exciting prospect to think what would have happened if I’d had the gift of meditation as a young person,” she says.
Given mindfulness’ ability to decrease stress, increase resilience and evoke the relaxation response, Martino is convinced meditation has a role to play in our schools. “It’s a form of attention training: we know it will assist our young people, who are bombarded with all kinds of distractions and stresses.”
In 2012, Martino joined researchers, psychologists and business owners to develop programs for 7-11 year olds, 12-15 year olds, 16-22 year olds, and adults. With Smiling Mind already being piloted in 20 schools, and a free teacher’s manual available on the website, the program’s goals for meditation are lofty. “Our big vision is to have mindfulness on the Australian curriculum by 2020,” says Martino. “We see it as an essential ingredient in the future of education.”