We're all under pressure, and as if there weren't enough stresses on our tamariki and rangatahi before, the events of the past two or so years have brought many new ones. What's more, because the pandemic and its ripple effects have affected everybody, both young and old, parents and teachers can find themselves struggling to support youngsters in their care.
The good news is that in an initiative delivered by the Pause Breathe Smile (PBS) Trust, supported and fully funded by Southern Cross Group, teachers are being trained to teach mindfulness practices in Aotearoa New Zealand schools and kura, with results already looking overwhelmingly positive and pointing towards continuing positive outcomes in future.
By July 2022 PBS had reached more than 88,000 children aged five to 12, and 6,500+ educators in 320+ schools. By the end of 2022, PBS will have reached 100,000 young New Zealanders.
PBS itself is a simple yet effective programme originally created at the Mental Health Foundation. It weaves together principles essential for hauroa – holistic health and well-being. Through PBS, teachers are able to help children learn certain mindfulness practices including mindful breathing exercises, mindful eating, mindful movements, mindful walking, and a happy heart practice, all designed to encourage kindness.
Overall, the aim is to provide tamariki and rangatahi with tools to help them recognise the connection between themselves and the wider environment, increasing desirable behaviours and reducing undesirable behaviour and characteristics.
Significantly, teachers report more children flourishing and fewer languishing after learning and applying PBS techniques, and many are reported to be more cheerful, supportive, focused and self-motivated with an obviously increased sense of well-being.
Teachers have also noticed more perseverance, enthusiasm, contentment and hope in their students – saying children were noticeably less apprehensive, disinterested, anxious and pessimistic.
PBS has been so effective that in many cases, teachers have reported using it themselves, while parents have noticed their children practising the mindfulness techniques involved, at home - and even teaching younger or older siblings and wider whānau members how to focus on living in the moment.
Dr Matthew Clark, chief medical officer for Southern Cross Healthcare, says that the organisation has always been committed to maintaining New Zealanders' mental health as well as their physical health.
"Pause Breathe Smile is an amazing initiative and we're very proud to be supporting it. Obviously when there's something new you hope that it does what it says on the label, and PBS outcomes have been monitored from the beginning so there's no doubt it's making children calmer."
He says that the introduction of PBS couldn't have come at a better time.
"The roll-out had to be paused when the pandemic arrived, but it was quickly pivoted so that teachers could train online at home in readiness for a return to school, which was great because there's no doubt children were noticing the general anxiety that was all around."
Clark says he especially likes the way that PBS isn't taught as a separate subject but can be aligned with the normal school curriculum so students can apply it successfully in various situations.
"The results we're seeing in the independent survey by Mindquip speak for themselves."
PBS founder Grant Rix had been working on the development of PBS for 10 years and the efficacy of the programme had already been established through prior research before the latest results were reported.
"So, we knew it worked and that the need was there, but the results of the most recent research into its impact in schools still blew us away," he says.
"PBS is fully strength-based, so we're not tackling issues head-on – it's all about empowerment rather than focusing on problems so that children feel equipped to cope with what's happening now and then with what's coming in future.
"Increased mindfulness is enabling them to defuse negative situations and find better ways to deal with stress."
Rix said that previous research found that teachers were noticing boys, in particular, were more open about their feelings after being taught mindfulness and wellbeing skills through the PBS programme.
He says he hopes learning resilience at a young age will eventually flow through and help bring about a reduction in New Zealand's concerning teenage mental health statistics and youth suicide rates.
"I really like this comment from a student teacher from Cobden School in Greymouth who said: 'Participating in the Pause Breathe Smile programme was an incredible experience and the mindfulness techniques we learned were truly invaluable.'
"'As an educator, I loved how easy it was to follow the lesson plans and how I didn't need to be an expert in mindfulness myself to lead the class. For the students, it was a chance for them to focus on connecting with themselves again (as well as others) and it was amazing to see and hear some of the stories they had to share thanks to a safe space being created by this programme. I can't wait to continue using this in the future.'"
Dr Reuben Rusk, founder of Mindquip, which helps organisations achieve their best potential, has monitored the programme independently from the outset. Mindquip commenced surveying teachers in February 2021, soon after PBS's introduction in schools and kura.
Baseline responses numbered 2,153 at the outset, with more than 1,500 responses received to date following the programme's implementation. It should be noted that Covid lockdowns meant the survey had to be paused at times.
Rusk confirms that the programme seems to be having a positive impact on tamariki and their teachers.
"Mindfulness has been extensively researched, and the benefits are robust, so I'm not surprised that it looks like PBS is making such a difference in schools."
He says it was a challenge to devise questionnaires with specific questions that were designed to help teachers remember what they'd noticed amongst classes with large numbers of students.
"We were concerned that we might miss important changes, but it was remarkable how consistently positive the results turned out to be across almost all the indicators."
Matthew Clark of Southern Cross has the final word, "When you're pint-sized, problems can seem much bigger, so teaching our tamariki to manage their emotions and reactions in a positive way helps them in so many areas. They enjoy their learning, they stay well, and they can be a calmer, more balanced class and family member."
For more information, visit pausebreathesmile.nz