MindSpace Clinic director Dr. Joe Flanders is working with teachers and staff at a Westmount boys school to bring mindfulness into the classroom. Flanders is currently completing a four-week program introducing grade 9 students at Selwyn House School (SHS) to mindfulness, a mental skill that helps calm and focus the mind. The Selwyn House program is a reflection of the increasing trend of mindfulness programs in schools, universities, and corporate environments, and reflects recent scientific literature indicating that mindfulness training can help children and teens reduce stress, improve concentration, and improve academic performance.
The Selwyn House program involves four 75-minute sessions led by Dr. Flanders. The material includes psychoeducation about the physiology behind stress and performance, techniques for decreasing hyperarousal and increasing underarousal, meditation exercises for improving focus and concentration, and exercises for identifying and setting goals. In the past two years, Flanders has led similar mindfulness programs at SHS adapted for grade 10 and grade 6 boys, respectively. The sessions for the younger boys focused on self-control, awareness of body cues, techniques for staying calm, and cultivating a non-judgmental attitude.
“As a Selwyn House alumnus, it’s really exciting to be working with Selwyn students,” Flanders said. “It’s great to see that SHS is keeping up with the scientific literature and implementing cutting-edge methods to help students focus, manage stress, and improve performance.” In 2012, a group at University of California Santa Barbara published a study demonstrating that students who followed a 2-week mindfulness training program showed better test scores and working memory capacity than a control group. A more recent study demonstrated that mindfulness helped undergraduate students improve learning and sustain attention.
Teaching mindfulness at SHS comes with challenges, though. “The classroom setting is not ideal,” Flanders reported. “The students are easily distracted by joking around and other social activity. My job is to convince them that the mindfulness program isn’t just one more academic lecture to process–that it’s a different way of being.” He added, “Once they get that, though, they love having tools to de-stress, and love the idea of training their brain.”
Flanders isn’t new to teaching mindfulness: he’s been teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to groups of adults for three years. “In some ways, it’s easier to work with kids because they’re less caught up in their minds, they have fewer ‘stories’ to disengage from,” he explained. That said, “High school students aren’t always as focused and motivated as adults are. They have a lot going on and are dealing with changes to their bodies, social dynamics, and academic pressures.”
Despite these challenges, Flanders and Selwyn House staff believe that mindfulness training can help SHS students mentally prepare for exam season and other academic challenges that they’ll face over time. “Learning to manage their attention is hugely important training for high school students,” Flanders confirmed. “It will help SHS students learn the value of ‘unplugging’ once in awhile, prevent stress-related health problems, and help them perform.” He added, “Attention span is a hot commodity on the job market, and this training can give kids that mental ‘edge’ once they reach that point.”