Getting stressed about mindfulness
Mindfulness is the skill of thinking you are doing something when you are doing nothing.
The Ladybird book of mindfulness
It is a myth that children today are uniquely stressed. My parents were children during the war when children lived through every day for six years in fear of losing a parent. There is no comparison with the prosperous and peaceful lives lived by children today.
I know that head teachers who talk about the ‘unique stress’ faced by children today are simply exaggerating to make a point. But they contribute to a wider trend which Amanda Foreman describes as the ‘medicalisation of life… an entire industry dedicated to turning the human condition into a chronic disease.’
20% of pupils in England are classified as having Special Educational Needs. The largest categories are “moderate learning difficulty” (24.2%), behaviour, emotional and social difficulties (22.7%) and speech, language and communications needs (16.3%). And this is linked to the philosophy of differentiation which became such a feature of British schools after 2000 – identifying the specific characteristics of each child (sex, ethnicity, ability etc) and teaching them accordingly (an impossible task).
According to the Mental Health Foundation ‘20% of children have a mental health problem in any given year, and about 10% at any one time. Children of single-parent families are twice as likely to have a mental health problem as children of two parent families.’
It is also a myth that exams place modern children under unique pressure. With the abolition of modules and January exams in 2014 and the reining-back of resits, teenagers today face no more exams than those of the past. The proportion gaining places at university has risen from 10% in 1980 to 40% today. With the abolition of norm-referenced grading in 1987 (which limited the proportion of students able to get each grade), grade inflation has ensured that most children do well. Today it is easier to pass exams, easier to get into university, easier to get jobs.
The tendency to claim that school children are uniquely stressed is accompanied by similar claims about adults. The number of work-related cases of stress in the UK in 2014 was 444,000 according to the Health and Safety Executive, up from 428,000 two years earlier. This epidemic has been accompanied by the growth of a vast stress-management industry which promotes the use of mindfulness, breathing techniques, massage, meditation and Zumba classes. The NHS prescribed 53 million packs of antidepressants last year. This despite the fact that work hours have never been shorter, working conditions better, holidays longer, living standards higher than at any point in the past.
The medicalisation of stress is acting to increase the number of patients suffering from it. It creates an attitude of learned helplessness and encourages pupils to think that school is damaging their health and makes adults think work is bad for them when the opposite is true. Stress is an emotion which enables us to cope with the many challenges of school, work and life. It is a valuable part of our make-up.
Schools are increasingly offering mindfulness lessons. Mindfulness (a form of meditation) has been shown to reduce stress, a bit like smoking used to do. Books explaining mindfulness are pouring out – like Calm by Michael Acton Smith. In her review in The Times 24 March 2015 Janice Turner wrote:
Although I feel unkind saying so, Calm is a beautifully designed little book of the bleeding obvious, the emperor’s new yoga trousers. Must we pay £9.99 to be told to go for a walk, take a nap, stare at the sea, have a bath, read a novel, hug someone, plant some seeds or look out of the window? Or to know the importance of a good night’s sleep and eating a family meal? Or that good ideas often come to us on train journeys? Don’t most people — those of us who are not driven, hyperactive internet entrepreneurs — do these pleasant, everyday things anyway? It feels as if our own lives are being repackaged and sold back to us at a premium.
Mindfulness is no doubt a good thing, but as with everything else schools are asked to do (sex ed, citizenship, character development, British values and so on) before any school agrees to teach it they must answer the question ‘what subject or activity will be cut to make room for these lessons?’ It is always easy to add activities, much harder to subtract.
In December 2015 the headmaster of Ampleforth made the point that mindfulness is only a temporary solution to stress. “It doesn’t really ask them to find their true personality or to have core values that will guide them through all the problems they will face in their lifetime”. He said that taking children to see more disadvantaged areas of their community or doing volunteer work is a more effective way of teaching them to cope with stress because it helps them gain perspective.
He said: “Then they can see that maybe their own situation is not as bad as they thought it was.”
As the headmaster of Ampleforth knows all too well, in the past most children achieved the same effects as those claimed by the mindfulness gurus by attending chapel and through prayer. Anything which places one’s own busy life in some sort of context is a good thing but – quite apart from prayer – there are other ways of reducing stress. Like sport – taking children out of the classroom and making them focus on a team game or physical activity.
Or how about removing the things that cause stress in the first place? Like inadequate time between lessons, or having too much homework. And what about limiting computer use – because access to vast amounts of information induces stress. Social networking is a main cause of stress for teenagers – too many contacts in a day, too much focus on the way you present yourselves to other teenagers. Computer use should be limited to a few hours a day.
And limiting access to smart phones…for the same reasons. Social networks, bbm, texting etc all add up to stress. Pupils should not be allowed access to smart phones during school hours.
And making your children have adequate sleep – too many children are tired because they have been playing with their computers or smart phones when they should have been asleep. So children should be told that they are required to plug their computer and smart phone in sockets in their parents’ bedroom at night.
Or working harder at family cohesion. Parents staying together for the sake of their children. Sacrificing their own happiness if necessary. Parents requiring that children eat one family meal together at a set time each day with no family member touching their phone during that meal. Parents demanding good behaviour of their children.
Mindfulness. A good alternative to smoking – but mind the opportunity cost and don’t use it as a sticking plaster.