Pause, breathe, smile at school
All is calm and quiet in the classroom on a wet Tuesday afternoon as Whangamata¯ teacher Laura van Leeuwen gently taps a meditation bowl to bring the years 2 to 4 students back to awareness.
The six to nine year olds have been asked to close their eyes and think about something in their life that they are grateful for.
“Shelter, water, food and peace,” shares one. “I am grateful to have a life,” shares another. A third chooses to pass. “I am grateful to be at school,” says a fourth.
Mindfulness is the lesson being taught to these students of Netherton School in the small township near Paeroa, and among those observing is Waihi Central School teacher Nikki Shanley.
They have come to see how RTLB teacher Laura teaches mindfulness — defined in this context as paying attention to what is immediately occurring with kindness and interest — and how it positively influences students.
“Straight back, soft belly,” Laura reminds the youngsters, and they pay attention to her words.
With a diagram of the human body on display, she prompts the children to recall the nerve that connects the heart with the brain.
“The vagus nerve,” a youngster responds.
Says Laura: “When the vagus nerve is healthy, our heart is strong and our breathing is healthy,” and she is still holding their attention.
“When we're showing kindness and gratitude, because our brain and heart share messages to each other through this nerve, our mind and heart are connected. If you are thinking ‘I'm so tired, I've got no friends' what is your heart going to feel?” she asks the class.
Two volunteers are called upon, and they demonstrate how to use iceblock sticks in unison to slowly trace each other's movements. Everyone has a go, and the energy rises.
When Laura asks for two more volunteers to demonstrate an exercise of passing pinecones to each other, hands shoot to the sky and the class teacher must step in.
Exercises include ‘mindful eating' — where students pause, smell, feel and savour a marshmallow — and ‘mindful walking' where every step is accompanied by a single breath in and out. When the noise begins to rise, Laura taps the meditation bowl and counts down from five to bring attention back to the room.
Waihi Central School's Nikki Shanley is among those eager to trial mindfulness in the classroom, taught with the hope of positively shifting the emotional landscape of Kiwi children and young people.
Called Pause, Breathe, Smile, it is the only locally developed, scientifically-informed mindfulness in schools programme, created in 2013 by Grant Rix and the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.
Goals include calmness and emotional regulation, focus, attention and curiosity, kindness to self and others and a positive sense of connection from students to themselves and others.
“Learning to be quiet and go slow . . . ” says Laura to the students, as they roll a marshmallow on their tongues and eat it mindfully.
Student Dahla Povey is among older students leading young ones through the lessons on this day.
“Last year I wouldn't be able to get to sleep and I worried about little things that shouldn't be worried about. But once Laura came to our school, it really helped me go to sleep,” she says.
Talia Goodson says the practise is helping unlikely students become friends.
“Each time we meet up we share things about our day, and we're not best friends but we're really comfortable with each other.
“Whenever I'm nervous I used to get really worried and get a sore stomach, but I've learnt to chill out and take a few breaths,” she says. Year 5 student Blake Leach agrees.
“It helped me sleep better, and I don't stress about work if I have heaps to do.”
Teacher Nikki Shanley says she saw the potential for the programme with her students and wanted to see it in action.