Breathing bells and mind jars: Mindfulness comes to school

Studies show stress-reducing techniques can be beneficial to students of all ages


When the bell rings in St Patrick’s Junior School, the students don’t clamber to be first in line. They don’t fight the urge to talk to their best friend two places ahead in the queue or glue their finger to their lip in an effort to impress their teacher.

Instead, they breathe. The bell that rings out is a “breathing bell” and when it sounds, the students and teachers alike stop what they are doing.

It is just one example of how the school has been trying to tackle issues such as anxiety and behavioural issues through mindfulness.

Cian Cadogan, who has been using the techniques of “living in the moment” with his senior infants in St Patrick’s Junior School on Gardiners Hill in Cork for three years, has seen the benefits first-hand.

Children who may have struggled with anxiety or emotional outbursts are now using come of the calming techniques by themselves. “We’ve seen a huge difference in terms of conflict resolution in the yard from when they begin in junior infants,” says Cadogan.

He believes mindfulness comes has come its own in helping children who are unfamiliar with the emotions they are feeling.

“I had spent a year telling a student to calm down before, but I’d never shown her how,” he says.

Now, he uses visualisation and stories to familiarise the students with emotions such as anxiety, anger and worry because “the imagination is where you are going to catch them”.

He adds: “Mindfulness doesn’t just improve the children’s emotional regulation and resilience,” he says. “We noticed a huge improvement in their cognitive abilities, concentration and focus. You can’t argue with it: it’s plain to see”.

Mental health

Schools face a much wider range of pressures than ever before. One in three children will have experienced a mental health problem by the time he or she reaches 13 years of age, research by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland shows.

There is a growing awareness that schools can play a vital role in promoting positive mental health and coping skills.

The introduction of “wellbeing” at junior cycle level in secondary schools is part of this change. However, many primary schools have been exploring a range of mindful activities on their own for several years now.

Anita Fennelly first introduced mindfulness to her sixth-class students in Heath National School in Laois three years ago. She feels it has given them new coping skills.

“Some might need it, some might not, but the beauty is that it is a life skill that they can call upon should they ever need it,” she says.

Along with “vision boards, mind jars, calm boxes, a wishing tree, a wall of gratitude and positive affirmations”, the students have also brought their research on the benefits of mindful activities to the annual science fair at held at the RDS.

Fennelly has noticed an improved focus in her class along with a more positive atmosphere.

“Sixth class can be a time when insecurities develop, but practising mindfulness has helped them to understand that all thoughts are not facts and to not let their negative thoughts consume them,” she says.

Her students are also enthusiastic. “I love the activities. They help me to stop stressing and to stay positive all through the day,” says 11-year-old Katie Lin Roe.

Not everyone is sold on the merits of mindfulness, however. Ruth Whippman, the US-based author of The Pursuit of Happiness – And Why It Is Making Us Anxious, argues that mindfulness is just a cost-saving measure to paper over much deeper problems.

“It is, of course, easier and cheaper to blame the individual for thinking the wrong thoughts than it is to tackle the thorny causes of his unhappiness,” she says.

“So we may give inner-city schoolchildren mindfulness classes rather than engage with education inequality.”

School culture

While mindfulness may not be the absolute fix for our children’s mental health issues, it can at least help give them the skills from a young age to develop their resilience, say many educators.

Alan White, a Cork-based secondary school teacher and author or Changes: 30-day Mental Wellbeing Challenge, has been practising activities that promote wellbeing for the past five years. He was motivated to get involved when he saw the struggles of students in the classroom.

White says the promotion of mental wellbeing needs to be part of the school culture to be most effective.

Although he would like to see the promotion of mental wellbeing introduced in all Irish schools, he feels it should not be too prescriptive.

“Little and often is the best way to approach it, I believe,” says the Bishopstown Community School teacher.

Many teachers agree that implementation is key if these techniques are to be successful.

At St Patrick’s in Cork, teachers across the school are involved since principal Anne O’Connell introduced it three years ago.

Cian Cadogan feels consistency is also important when it comes to practising mindful techniques. “You can’t predict when a child is going to be stressed and anxious, they are exposed to so much more than we ever were,” he says.

Parents have been involved in the promotion of wellbeing via adult yoga classes run by the home-school liaison officer and are made aware of the breathing techniques used in the school.

Cadogan feels a similar approach to other curricular areas should be adopted. “It needs to be spiralled the whole way, from primary right the way up through secondary,” he says.

The school’s approach to mental health, he says, is just as important as their approach to academic subjects.

“I cannot see how a school can promote themselves as developing the holistic needs of a child if they do not include mental health. It’s absolutely critical. It’s your job as a teacher to make sure that, no matter what is going on outside, their eight hours in school are the safest and happiest they can be,” he says.

Five ways to practise mindful awareness with your child

1. Talk to your child. Try not to ask leading questions, just inquire about how they are feeling that day. Maybe get them to jot down their feelings like a shopping list.

2. Practise a “mindful” check-in. This will enable them to tune in to how are they are feeling.

3. Practise the “pause-notice-breathe” technique.

4. Create a worry box. This is a great resource for your child to write down anything that is happening for them that day. They have the option of discussing it with you, and it can help to declutter the mind.

5. Create a relaxing space. Keep it simple: cushions, blanket and a worry box and calm box. Your child will gain something from using this space, and knowing that you created it for them can reduce their anxiety.

In conversation with Ann-Marie Ireland, director of ChillOut Ireland, which runs mindfulness workshops for primary and post-primary teachers and students throughout Ireland (