Education Health & Wellness

Mindfulness in schools make for happier confident children

Children who are stressed can’t learn well

Many children in South Africa are born into harsh conditions such as poverty, domestic violence and poor-quality schooling, leaving them with a difficult start in life.  With over 2 million orphaned and vulnerable (OVC) children in South Africa, immediate intervention and action is needed to provide children with healthy coping mechanisms and tools to empower themselves.  Newly formed NGO WISE (Wellbeing in Schools & Education) aims to address this need by offering educators and caregivers in underprivileged schools and communities, practical and empowering training. The wellness-based programme provides unique materials that teach children essential life skills (e.g. emotional intelligence, non-violent communication, forgiveness, gratitude and mindfulness).   In doing so, WISE helps empower children to become expressive, confident and happy.

Mindfulness is becoming common practice in international schools with studies reporting reduced stress in children and enhanced mental performance. Over 5000 UK teachers have been trained in teaching mindfulness, and  2017 saw the roll-out of a mindfulness curriculum across many US schools. With the unique set of challenges that South African children are faced with, both at school and home, it makes sense that local SA schools can also benefit from a mindfulness approach. Too often we see vulnerable children in challenging circumstances resort to negative coping behaviours –  like violence, bullying, alcohol and drug abuse and even suicide  – in response to their situations. “The suicide rate for South African children aged 10-14 years old has more than doubled in the past 15 years, and yet we continue to place importance on teaching Maths and English in schools, when children would surely benefit from resources that can equip them with self-esteem, self-sufficiency and self-love that can contribute to their overall well-being,” says psychologist and co-founder of WISE Carol Surya.

Surya, who has been involved in ‘stress-management’ training for over 20 years and is the author of two parenting books (Great Kids and Parent Magic), partnered up with Biodanza facilitator, sculptor and entrepreneur, Carmen Clews in 2017 to develop the pilot study and training programme for WISE in the Western Cape. Over a period of twelve years Clews and Surya had been independently developing their own materials for children’s well-being (Surya’s Inner Magic Self-esteem children’s game and Clews’ The Magic Mat and Planting Seeds for Life book), when they saw the opportunity to combine their skills and materials to introduce a holistic training programme aimed at parents, educators and caregivers.  “Unfortunately, there is a desperate shortage of professionals, resources and wellness materials to assist children (especially those who have been neglected or otherwise marginalized).  Our unique tools are professionally designed to develop wholehearted children and communities,” says Surya.

Helping caregivers address their own stress levels

The WISE philosophy is based on the principal of unlocking children’s potential (“inner magic”), and they believe that it’s the responsibility of adults and caregivers to provide children with the best chance to thrive.  In recognising the role adults play in teaching children how to deal with overwhelming feelings or managing challenges, Surya and Clews realised that too few adults are themselves healthy or well-adjusted.

When first visiting local schools, Clews and Surya noticed the aggressive way in which children were communicating and high incidents of bullying. Furthermore, they witnessed the high stress levels of educators (who themselves also struggle with many daily challenges) which in some cases leads to teachers lashing out/hitting the children. This is counterproductive to the positive and important learning work that needs to be taking place in a classroom.  Research shows that children who are stressed, can’t learn well.  The classroom needs to be a safe space for children, especially for those who don’t feel safe at home.  The WISE programme has been developed to specifically aid teachers and caregivers in dealing with their stress first so that they are better able to help learners cope with their own challenges; learn how to manage their feelings and realize their own brilliant potential. “Having experienced how hard it is for adults to make significant and sustainable changes in their own lives, I was careful in designing the WISE Personal Wellbeing programme to support the caregivers through a powerful process of personal change,” says Surya.

Reduced aggressive behaviour in schools

The response to the pilot study has been overwhelmingly positive. Delegates completed both the Staff Personal Wellbeing programme (an in-depth experiential training, homework and follow up over eight weeks), as well as the Children’s Wellbeing programme (teaching and implementation of practical tools) to use with the children like the InnerMagic children’s self-esteem board game and the MagicMat children’s story book and animation.  These educators reported significant reductions in their own stress levels, alongside noticing a significant positive difference in children’s’ behaviour. They reported decreased absenteeism of both learner and teacher, reduced high-risk behaviour by learners and reduced incidents of aggression in the classroom.  

With such positive results in educators and classrooms, and once parents are also included in the WISE programme, decreases in domestic violence and even child abuse rates are likely within these communities. Expressive, confident children believe in themselves and speak out about their feelings, making them far less likely to fall victim to abuse.   “The WISE programme has influenced my understanding of children, helping me to help them deal with issues they can’t deal with. I have empathy and understanding toward them,” said one of the participants.

The WISE training programme has been implemented with educators from a few previously disadvantaged schools in the Garden Route plus NGO’s including Knysna FAMSA; Bodisa; Knysna Drug and Alcohol Centre, The Department of Health (Garden Route) and Sinemethemba Child and Youth Centre.  Depending on the funds raised, Clews and Surya aim to roll-out the programme nationally.  

Mindfulness tips to practice at home

Surya offers the following tips for parents and caregivers to practice mindfulness with children at home:

  • Recharge” together – before starting homework or eating supper, lie down on your backs with your feet up on a chair and close your eyes ‘recharging’ for a few minutes. You could play calming music or chat about the best part of your day. To come out of it, bring your knees towards your chest; roll over and wait a few seconds before slowly sitting up.
  • Take a breather – stop what you or the kids are doing and just take a few moments to breathe deeply and slowly. Conscious breathing is an immediate way to trigger the parasympathetic part of our nervous system – which brings about a feeling of calm.
  • ‘Time-in’ – get your kids and yourself used to a daily practice of ‘time-in’, where you tune into your inner-world. You can do this by gently focusing your attention on your breath (following the cool air in and the warmer air out through your nostrils). Another great way is to simply put one hand on your heart and one on your belly, close your eyes and become aware of your heartbeat.
  • Imagine a safe natural place – encourage your children to create a beautiful safe place in their imagination. Once picturing all the colours, sights, sounds and smells in this place, they can imagine being in this place themselves and using this visualisation to feel calm and peaceful. It’s great to get them to invite a “magical” helper or friend to this place, who can inspire and motivate them with any challenges.

For more information on WISE please click here.

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