Learning to live in the moment

A few boys twitch and are reluctant to close their eyes. It’s not easy to get those aged 10 to 12 to keep still, let alone stop their minds from racing.

But it doesn’t take long before the soothing words of meditation teacher Janet Etty-Leal have lulled this class of grade 5 and 6 students into a different mental space.

Lying in a circle, they are practising a form of meditation known as mindfulness that has become core curriculum at Yarraman Oaks Primary School. This school in Noble Park is one of a growing number that have embraced the technique to improve focus and stress management.

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Principal Bill Liston was so taken with mindfulness after attending sessions by Ms Etty-Leal at a principals’ conference four years ago that he asked her to train his staff so they could run weekly sessions for all students.

“It is a lifetime strategy to help them cope with the day-to-day relationships with other children, with the pressure to achieve these days,” he says. “It allows them to get things into perspective, and to do things in a calmer manner.”

Sometimes the meditation sessions run at the start of school or after a…

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break to help students to concentrate. Teachers also run shorter meditation sessions called “capsules” to break up two-hour classes.

Once regarded as alternative, or New Age, meditation has become mainstream. Ms Etty-Leal has run mindfulness programs at more than 40 Victorian schools in recent years. She has also trained school principals, careers teachers and counsellors and Education Department staff, as well as running programs for healthcare professionals and for many companies, including Australia Post and Tattersall’s.

Her recent book, Meditation Capsules, a mindfulness program for children, brings together the techniques she has taught in schools. It adds to a growing body of international literature and research on mindfulness.

Dr Craig Hassed, deputy head of Monash University’s department of general practice, has been teaching mindfulness techniques to trainee doctors and GPs since 1991.

Research shows that it reduces stress and improves work performance.

He also provides mindfulness training to staff and students at many Melbourne secondary schools, but particularly independent schools such as Carey Baptist Grammar, Melbourne Grammar, Geelong Grammar and St Michael’s Grammar.

Each week he flies to Canberra to run training sessions for staff at the Australian National University.

Put simply, mindfulness involves sitting or lying down, closing your eyes, and focusing the mind on breathing and on different parts of the body (for example, the weight of your clothes, the pressure of your shoes). This can be for as little as a minute or for five minutes or longer. Thoughts that come and go are observed and acknowledged, but are not reacted to or judged. “You watch the train [of thought] go by but you don’t get on the train,” Dr Hassed says.

Most people need to learn to live in the moment, he says, and to do so they must recognise which thoughts are worth giving attention to. “We must gently unhook attention from the tendency to ruminate and worry.” Reacting to a negative thought or feeling amplifies it. “A mindful perspective would note, ‘That’s an interesting observation’. If the person cultivates a different non-judgmental attitude to a negative thought, it starts to recede by itself,” he says.

Research has shown that this technique can improve focus, which is why doctors, who have heavy workloads, have found it so useful. More recently, schools such as Methodist Ladies College have used it to help students focus during VCE study and exams.

Dr Hassed says Ms Etty-Leal has adapted mindfulness techniques for children so that the practice is taught through play, games and activities. “Shehas a special way with children.”

Ms Etty-Leal says mindfulness is essential for primary-age children, particularly with the increasing incidence of syndromes such as attention deficit disorder. “If children are unable to settle and manage emotions such as anxiety, then they are not learning.”

Children face many distractions, she says, such as mobile phones and digital technology, which makes it difficult to think deeply. “Neural pathways can become scrambled and less effective, which disrupts learning. When moments of sustained focus, silence and stillness become rare experiences, some children even find them uncomfortable, associating them with negative feelings such as boredom and disconnection.”

Ms Etty-Leal runs sessions at many secondary schools, including an eight-week annual program at Geelong Grammar. She has also undertaken training at Geelong Grammar in positive psychology, developed by US psychologist Martin Seligman, which she finds complementary to her mindfulness program.

More than a decade ago Ms Etty-Leal was a high school art teacher who dealt with a bout of depression by learning to meditate. She went on to complete meditation training with Ian Gawler, a cancer survivor who runs healing retreats, and established her own consultancy in 1999.

Over the years she has refined her techniques using images, props, quotes, poetry, music and stories to keep students aged from four to 18 interested. “There has to be some novelty. You want to imbue the meditation class with a sense of fun and joy. You have to really engage them.”

South Australian psychologist Carmel Wauchope plans to use Ms Etty-Leal’s meditation capsules as a base for her PhD research on the effect of mindfulness on adolescent anxiety and depression. She says at least 200 high school students will be tested before, during and after completing a meditation course based on Ms Elly-Leal’s program.

Ms Wauchope trains her clients in mindfulness in her practice, Astute Education. “I’m amazed by the results, particularly with young people with drug and alcohol issues. They say that meditation is better than using drugs because of the kind of space it puts them in, away from stressors. It is exceptionally useful for a range of situations.”

Ms Wauchope decided to undertake the study after learning of the positive findings of a study at the University of South Australia.

In 2008, Michael Proeve, who was then working at the university as a senior psychology lecturer, was involved in a study of master’s psychology students who had taken an eight-week mindfulness program. “The trainee therapists found it had a stress-management effect and that they were more ‘present’ and attentive with their clients,” he says.

Psychiatrist Kaveh Monshat is testing the benefits of mindfulness as part of his PhD research. He is working with Dr Hassed to devise an online program called Mindful Awareness Education and Training (MATE), which will be offered through the website reachout.com later this year.

He has already asked 13 young people aged 16 to 26 to critique a demonstration website. Half of those had previously been diagnosed with a mental illness.

Those interviewed believed young people would prefer an online mindfulness program as it is private and takes less time than face-to-face contact.

Mindfulness has long been used by psychologists but has gained momentum in the past five years following studies by Oxford University researcher John Teasdale and others, which showed its use halved the relapse rate in people with recurrent depression. It is also used to treat eating disorders.

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