Even at a young age, children are exposed to large amounts of information which puts pressure on their prefrontal neural connections.

Stress is fast becoming the common denominator that all of us suffer, but now it’s affecting our children, too, writes Marchelle Abrahams.

While the modern world would have you believe the concept of mindfulness was hatched in our lifetime, scribes and yogis have been practising it for centuries.

Ancient tribes like the Yaqui Native Americans believed the core of our being is perception, and the magic of our being is awareness - mindfulness stripped down to the basics.

Fast forward to the 21st century - the power of mindfulness is being used to deal with stress in our ever-changing world. It’s hard dealing with it as an adult. What happens if you’re a child?

In May 2016, the South African Journal Of Childhood Education published a study on mindful awareness in early childhood education. What they found is that children are exposed to large amounts of information which puts pressure on their pre-frontal neural connections, the part of the brain that regulates stress.

The study was the first to focus on mindful awareness and mindfulness practices in early childhood. But unlike adults, a different technique was needed for ages 3-10.

MindUP

Introduced to US schools by the Hawn Foundation in 2011, MindUP is based on four strategic pillars: neuroscience, mindful awareness, positive psychology and socio-emotional learning.

The brains behind the foundation is Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn.


The brains behind the foundation is Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn, who has in recent years reinvented herself as a “mindfulness campaigner”. Picture: AFP


“I see children as bundles of pure potential and wanted to create a programme that helped children to grow, learn and lead a very different kind of world,” says Hawn, who went in search of the best researchers, neuroscientists and educators and created the MindUP programme.

At its basic level, mindfulness helps children to develop social and emotional intelligence, resulting in self-awareness, less stress, and overall happiness and empathy. There are other benefits, such as:

* Helping children achieve and maintain attention;

* Children respond more thoughtfully and mindfully rather than being reactive when under pressure;

* Developing a classroom climate that is infused with optimism and hope;

* Creating a stronger, more vibrant school ethos.

A group of South African schools have implemented a similar form of the MindUP programme by integrating Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset concept into the curriculum.

Dweck coined the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence. Both concepts are based on the belief that the brain is far more malleable than we think.


TSSA works with schools to help facilitate whole staff Thinking School strategic planning. Pictures: Supplied


Thinking Schools South Africa (TSSA) is a non-profit organisation committed to empowering children to “become resourceful, creative, collaborative and problem-solvers”.

The NPO is a strong advocate of Dweck’s Growth Mindset and forms part of the Global Thinking Schools’ movement accredited by Exeter University.

“We implement global best-practice in critical and creative thinking, as well as change management and support whereby schools become Thinking Communities in which leadership, teachers, students and parents become mindful and focused on the thinking skills needed for success at school and in life,” says TSSA chief executive Jane McIntyre.

McIntyre says this goes beyond teaching strategies to developing a growth mindset culture in the classroom.

“All this change is brought about by simply changing the way we approach daily teaching and learning, so teachers achieve better results, both in academic results and in student motivation, ownership and a proactive attitude to life’s challenges.”

TSSA conducted research into its affiliated schools in 2017. They found that 86.8 percent of Teacher Planning increased to include problem-solving and thinking skills, while 83 percent of classrooms reported greatly improved teaching and learning.

Stellenbosch University’s Professor Mark Thomlinson and Dr Stephan Rabie further backed up their findings by releasing the first executive summary of longitudinal qualitative research into the impact of the Thinking Schools approach, focusing on Thinking Maps, in a South African environment.

The study concluded that “teachers perceive their learners to engage in higher levels of thinking, to be more organised, display improved communication and problem-solving skills, and act with greater confidence in the classroom”.


Learners are encouraged to think for themselves and be willing participants in class activities.

However, Thinking Maps doesn’t come without its challenges. Thomlinson and Rabie found that there were a few hiccups in the implementation of the programme in the current CAPS curriculum.

Most study participants proposed that Thinking Maps should be implemented in the lower grades, with one claiming “the sooner you can start, and the younger they are, the more beneficial”.