STANDFIRST: Increasing numbers of Northland schools are turning to mindfulness programmes to help students 'keep calm and carry on'. Reporter Jenny Ling reports on the simple technique that's having such positive results.
Every day for 20 minutes, just after morning break, a sense of serene calm washes over the students and staff of Okaihau Primary School.
Sitting in a circle or sometimes just seated at their desks, the children at the little rural school in the Far North turn inwards, reflect and watch their breath.
Under the guidance of teacher Maxine Cates, a student gently taps a mediation bowl to bring her classmates' wandering minds back to full awareness.
They are practicing mindfulness, the process of paying attention to what is happening in the present moment.
For 11-year-old Jackie it's like "sitting down and taking a breath and forgetting about what's happened at lunchtime, you know, if there was any chaotic stuff".
It helps Mafi, 11, "to think of the here and now and really calms us down before we do our work".
For Okaihau Primary School Principal Tim Couling, mindfulness is about being "fully present" and has helped his kids bucketloads since it was introduced to the school two years ago.
Students can calm themselves, articulate their needs better and are less stressed and anxious, he said, and there have been less behavioural incidents.
"It's given children the strategies to be able to calm down and stop them going into the red zone... when kids get really angry and they lose the logical part of the brain.
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"It's building that emotional resilience which is exceptionally important. Particularly in today's world where everything is instant and with the impact of social media."
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Introducing a mindfulness programme into the school came about when staff were searching for ways to support a new student with autism in 2017.
Couling was open to the idea and soon every member of staff from the principal, teachers, support staff and even the caretaker, had taken part in the two-day Pause, Breathe, Smile training course.
The Mindfulness Education Group deliver the Pause, Breathe, Smile training to teachers and health professionals working with children throughout New Zealand.
Both teachers and students at Okaihau Primary School have been practicing mindfulness, an ancient technique which originated in Eastern meditation, ever since.
Not only did the autistic boy learn how to articulate what he needed to calm down, the other 170 students have also learned to pause, breathe and smile instead of reacting blindly to life's events.
Along with mindful breathing, the school incorporates mindful movements like walking and eating into their day and encourages students to talk about their feelings.
The response from students has been "really good", Couling said.
"It's giving our students some really important life skills. And if nothing else if they can, in times of stress, bring themselves back to a place of calm, then it's a big tick for us and a big tick for them."
The Pause, Breathe, Smile programme was created by Grant Rix and the Mental Health Foundation in 2013.
Grant and his wife Natasha Rix took over the programme in 2016 when they founded the Mindfulness Education Group, the only locally developed, evidence-based mindfulness in schools programme in the country.
To date over 1900 teachers from more than 350 schools nationwide have been trained in the technique, which has reached more than 58,000 children.
This includes 13 Northland schools which have had one or more teachers who have taken part in the training.
Mindfulness Education Group training and programmes director Grant Rix said mindfulness is a "wellbeing strategy that can change the way we interact with ourselves and the world".
"The aim of mindfulness is to cultivate the qualities of curiosity, openness, acceptance and love at the same time as we are learning to better regulate our ability to focus," he said.
Results from three published research studies conducted by Auckland University and AUT University show that Pause, Breathe, Smile leads to significant increases in student wellbeing, giving children skills that will help them to thrive now and into the future.
"Children taught using the Pause, Breathe, Smile programme show improvements in focus and attention for better learning outcomes," Rix said.
"They are calmer, their self-awareness is enhanced, and they demonstrate pro-social behaviours. The evidence also showed a decrease in teacher stress."
Even psychologist and author Nigel Latta is impressed by the programme, endorsing it during his TVNZ series The Curious Mind last year.
Latta said if mindfulness was taught in every school in New Zealand, it would make a vast difference to mental health in the country.
"I have seen kids using the Pause Breathe Smile Programme first-hand, and it was amazing," he said at the time. "It gave me hope that maybe we really could do something to turn the tide."
Rix said he is seeing a growing demand for schools wanting to support the wellbeing of their students.
The latest data shows New Zealand ranking near the bottom regarding overall childhood wellbeing and our adolescent suicide rate is the highest among developed nations, he said.
"Antidepressant medication being prescribed to children under 13 years in New Zealand, has increased 79.4 per cent since 2006. These figures follow worldwide trends as well as anecdotal feedback we receive from schools who note that prevalence rates of anxiety and behavioural problems they encounter daily have been increasing rapidly over the past decade."
The programme is having a positive effect on teacher wellbeing too.
"We have a strong focus on supporting teacher wellbeing," Rix said.
"Our research results show reductions in teacher stress and our most recent evaluation of Pause, Breathe, Smile as a post-EQ recovery initiative in Canterbury showed meaningful increases in positive states of wellbeing as measured by the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale."
And it's not only helping teachers and students – youngsters are passing their new-found skills onto their parents.
Okaihau student Georgia, 9, said the mindfulness sessions calm her down when she's angry or sad "and it helps my mum when she's really stressed out".
Though the Ministry of Education doesn't collect data on what classes and programmes schools choose to support their local curriculum, spokesperson Ellen MacGregor-Reid said: "we are aware that many schools do run mindfulness programmes".
Through The New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa schools are tasked with helping students to develop competencies for mental wellness, and to build resilience by strengthening their own identity and their feelings of self-worth, she said.
"Programmes targeting resilience and mental health, such as mindfulness programmes, can help schools meet these curriculum requirements but also help students to maintain and enhance their personal wellbeing and mental health."
Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said wellbeing programmes such as Pause, Breathe, Smile "create school cultures that care about pupils".
They provide the tools for growing positive mental wellbeing including emotional intelligence, coping mechanisms, conflict resolution and understanding hauora [health and wellbeing].
"We know that children flourish when all these aspects of their lives are in sync," Robinson said.
"Building resilience is critical for dealing with the tough stuff when it comes along, something that happens to us all. Positive mental health is to be celebrated and these programmes encourage that."