For years I have been an advocate for relaxation and using calming, natural methods in the classroom.
Let me give you some background.
When I was 7 years old I had a teacher I loved, Mrs Duffy. She was the most incredible teacher. But her method for teaching us our timetables left me scarred for life. We would all learn the same timetable and then we would have to all stand on our chairs and recite the timetable for that week. Not only in front of the whole class, but, if you got one wrong she moved on and you had to stay on your chair until you got them all right. This often meant staying in at playtime. I was mortified. As a very shy child (at school at least), and one who already found timetables almost impossible, I grew worse and worse as time went on.
When I was older and sitting my GCSE’s I remember looking round the gym filled with rows of table and seeing the panic on my friends faces.
There was a girl in the year above me at school who had to wear cotton gloves to sit her exams. She got so stressed that her hands sweat so much she couldn’t hold a pen. She was quite possibly the most intelligent girl in the year. Later she went to study at an Obxridge University and was a lovely, kind, genuine and very hard working young woman. Unfortunately she also felt so much pressure to achieve that she could barely function during exams.
Let’s be honest, very few people enjoy exams and tests, but should we be allowing our students to get into such a state?
More importantly, in order to understand why these situations occur we need to understand the science of stress and how we can combat that with some simple mindfulness techniques.
The Science of Stress
When I visit schools, whether I am talking to teachers or students, I always start by explaining why it is important to stay calm. Many people think that it is just about feeling happier but there is so much more to it than that.
When we get stressed or feel scared our body has a physical reaction to the situation. The first response team is our heart rate and our breathing. Both our heart rate and our breathing speed up when we feel scared or worried. This change is received by a tiny gland in our heads called the amygdala. This then sends a range of messages to our body:
- directing more blood to the heart
- sending more blood to our muscles, particularly in our arms and legs
- redirecting blood away from the prefrontal cortex (the front and newest part of our brain)
During stressful times our body focuses all its attention on our fight, flight and freeze essentials. These responses were really helpful when the things that scared us were sabre tooth tigers and the scary caveman from over the hill. They helped us to run faster and fight. They are much less helpful when we are scared because we have an exam or an interview.
Worse than that, they actually hinder us, a lot!
When our body redirects blood away from the prefrontal cortex it is sabotaging our ability to succeed in an exam or interview. Why? Well this is this newest part of our brain. The part that deals with memory, problem solving, decision making, planning… all the things we need to be at their best during stressful times.
This is the reason that when we feel stressed we get stuck in a thought loop and don’t make any progress.
By creating stress and anxiety for the children in our class, whether it is for the weekly timetables test or for GCSEs, we may think we are helping them focus and giving them some urgency. In actual fact we are shutting down all the functions we need to be nurturing.
Of course, even with the most nurturing approach possible, some children will naturally worry and get themselves into this state.
The Science of Mindfulness
How does a mindful approach help with this issue?
Well, mindfulness teaches us to live in the moment. Not to worry about what will happen and what has already happened. This in itself can be helpful. We can only do what we are doing right now. We can’t change what has already been and we can’t accurately predict what will be, we might as well just be our best self right now.
That’s all very well but we need some practical strategies. Some tools to help us combat these emotions when they are triggered by situations out of our control.
Mindful breathing is perhaps the greatest weapon we have in the fight against academic anxiety.
If our breath becoming more rapid sends a signal to the brain to trigger our stress responses, our breathing slowing and becoming more controlled tells our brain not to worry, we are safe. This then almost instantly stops all those initial responses to stress and anxiety.
Using any mindful breathing technique will help you instantly calm your body. Re-activating the brain functions necessary for exams, interviews and all those other stressful situations we encounter at school.
Learning to live more mindfully, whether it is being more aware of your emotions, meditating daily, paying closer attention to the world around you, eating mindfully or breathing mindfully, will help you to live more in the present. It will also allow you to feel more calm and in control of the world we are living in. Through mindfulness you learn to focus on the positives. When you do, the world becomes a more positive place to live. You attract more positive people and situations and everything feels more manageable.
Research has shown that people who live mindfully are more resilient. They also heal quicker, their brain function and attention span improve, and physical changes can even occur in the brain. They also feel more secure and more optimistic about the future.
Are these not all things we would wish for our students?
Imagine a class full of resilient, focused, quick thinking, calm children all sitting ready to learn and then take their exams, wouldn't that be amazing? CLICK TO TWEET
Well, it can happen.
Many schools have been trialling this approach for many years now. Their results are improving year on year. Exclusion rates have fallen. Drop out rates in FE and HE settings has fallen, and the students enjoy their time in education much more.
If you don’t already practice some form of mindfulness in your school I cannot recommend this approach enough. Let’s end this period of stress and anxiety in schools. Create an education system where teachers and students can thrive and really embrace the opportunities they have. Enable students to leave our care with a hunger for knowledge, a love of learning and the skills they need to combat stress and anxiety for the rest of their lives.
Kate Beddow is the creator of Calmer Classrooms with Mojo a whole school mindfulness and relaxation programme which is delivered in schools around the world. She works closely with teachers and provides them with resources to help them create a calm and focused environment for their students to learn.
Kate is also the mindfulness trainer for Become the Force, a real life Jedi training school, and was a contributing author to “Women of Spirit” a book featuring amazing stories of real life women overcoming adversity.