In February 2019, Damien Hinds, the British Secretary of Education, announced that students nationwide would be gradually introduced to issues around mental health, wellbeing, and happiness from the beginning of primary school. The aim is to combat recent increases in anxiety, depression, and other mental-emotional health issues among the nation’s children. What did they choose to use as a method to accomplish this? Mindfulness!
Mindfulness will be taught in over 370 schools nationwide from primary through high school levels. The goal is to teach emotional intelligence and social coping skills in addition to traditional cognitive skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic. Mindfulness is a set of skills used to help focus on the present moment and learn to control impulses, creating a pause, a moment to think before we respond to a situation. Mindfulness focuses on breathing exercises designed to teach children how to regulate and balance their emotional and mental wellbeing in an increasingly stressful and rapidly changing world.
The mindfulness program is part of a broad mental health initiative in England which was developed in response to a 2017 survey by Britain’s National Health Service which indicated that one in eight children in England between the ages of 5 and 19 exhibited symptoms of at least one mental disorder. England will conduct one of the most extensive mental health trials in the world focused on the effectiveness of mindfulness.
The trials are being conducted in schools due to the recognition that children spend a significant amount of time each day at school, and teachers play a critical role in identifying significant behavioral and emotional changes in their students. The trial will continue until 2021 and hopes to identify the techniques which benefit students and best support their mental health. Additional mental health resources will also be provided, including teams of trained mental health staff to work with and in schools. Another critical component of the trial is the introduction of a new assessment framework which puts the child at the center and includes those around the child like the parents, caretakers, and other important individuals in the child’s life. The goal is to get everyone involved and working together in the best interests of the child’s mental health and happiness.
There are many mindfulness programs around the United States, but nothing on the level of what is being rolled out in England. In 2015 the U.S. government passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which aimed to broaden the measures established in the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2011. ESSA is the primary federal law for covering public school education spanning Kindergarten through 12th grade. Part of ESSA requires all schools to submit a plan which must include at least one indicator of success based on school climate, safety, enrichment, and environment. The requirements in this Act have been interpreted by schools to include drug and violence prevention programs, health and physical education, anti-bullying programs, trauma-informed training programs, and social and emotional learning programs. Mindfulness is a natural fit as a program to promote overall mental wellbeing, decrease stress and anxiety, and improve student behavior and attention in the classroom.
Federal grant monies, under Title IV, Part A of ESSA, (also known as the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants), are available to support the development of these programs. Title IV contains two large block grant programs plus discretionary grant and assistance programs aimed at supporting students’ needs, improving family engagement, and modernizing the American school system. In 2018 Congress authorized $1.1 billion for Title IV grants. The states are responsible for applying for and then administering the grant funds. The awards give states considerable latitude to decide which programs to fund and support at the local level.
Research on mindfulness has shown it to be an effective school-based program which can assist schools in meeting the ESSA requirements to offer programs to provide students with a well-rounded education and improve school conditions for learning. Mindfulness has been shown to improve student’s overall readiness to learn by providing them with a set of tools to help them cope with stress and anxiety. Schools could utilize Title IV funding to train teachers in mindfulness-based techniques, purchase learning aides, including yoga mats and mindfulness apps or activity cards.
These are all positive steps toward the recognition of the mental health of our children as a key element of not only social-emotional development but also of cognitive development. Schools in the United States need to catch-up with their counterparts in the United Kingdom in teaching mindfulness-based skills to put the focus on prevention instead of reacting to already established mental health disorders. Mindfulness provides a set of skills children may use throughout their lives to be happier and healthier life-long learners and active participants in society.
- $1.1 Billion Federal Block Grant Makes Ed-Tech Training Higher Priority Than Software, Devices. By Michelle Molnar, March 26, 2018; EdWeek Market Brief.
- Children to be taught mindfulness as mental health trials launch in 370 English schools. By Sabrina Barr, February 2019; Independent.
- Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). National Association of Secondary School Principals (2019).
- Funding Yoga, Mindfulness and SEL Using ESSA and Title IV Grants. By Bethany Butzer and Lisa Flynn, August 29, 2018; Yoga 4 Classrooms.
- Schools in England Introduce a New Subject: Mindfulness. By Iliana Magra, February 2019. The New York Times.
- ‘It stops the scary stuff’: pupils thrive with mindfulness lessons. By Rob Walker, February 2018. The Guardian.
- Global Trend: Mindfulness in Schools: Is the U.S. falling behind? By Maureen Healy, February 2019. Psychology Today.