Chocolate meditation and mindfulness in schools

An extra from Secrets of the strong-minded

A programme is teaching UK kids to live in the now, so they can be stronger later.

In 2010 schoolteachers Richard Burnett and Chris Cullen created the Mindfulness in Schools Project. Their nine-lesson ‘.b’ course is designed to make mindfulness relevant to schoolchildren – helping them to learn techniques to feel calmer and to combat the stress associated with exams, musical recitals, bullying or sport, as well as to enhance their concentration in class and on homework. A similar US-based organisation, called Mindful Schools, got underway the same year.

Amanda Bailey was an assistant principal at Altrincham Grammar School for Girls (AGGS) in the north-west of the UK when she noticed the first .b teacher-training course being run at Tonbridge School, in Kent. She’d always been interested in meditation – “I was lucky enough to grow up in a family of meditators,” she says – so despite scepticism from some of her colleagues, she enrolled. She started incorporating elements into her Year 11 chemistry classes and running voluntary drop-in sessions with sixth formers in 2011. “Then I ran three or four courses, and by the end of the year, I was turning students away.” In 2012, after positive reports from pupils, and with a now-converted headteacher, the .b course was put onto the curriculum.

Bailey has since moved to work full-time for the Bright Futures Educational Trust, which runs AGGS as well as six other schools. The .b programme is now on the curriculum of six of the schools in total, and Bailey is working on the seventh. All new teachers who join one of the Trust’s schools are asked to go on an eight-week adult mindfulness programme so that they understand what’s being taught and can apply mindfulness to support their teaching. “Some teachers take to it more than others,” Bailey says, noting that she’s never met any open resistance.

I visited a group of 14–16-year-olds from AGGS and Melland High School, a school for children with special educational needs that is also part of the Bright Futures Trust. A lot of the AGGS girls talked about how if they feel stressed waiting to go into an exam, or if there’s a question they don’t think they can answer, they use some of the techniques, such as ‘.bs’ (instantly sinking their attention to their feet, then anchoring it on their breathing) or ‘7–11s’ (breathing in for a count of seven and out for 11), and how these help to calm them down. Chloe, who’s 15, said: “When I go to bed, I think about a lot of things. I branch off and think about other things that happened ages ago. Mindfulness really helps me to relax and think [about] what I’m doing now.”

I asked Jill Cinan, the vice-principal at Melland, how the programme has helped. She looked over at Sarah*, who’s 14. “Can we talk about you and your anger?” she asked. “Yesterday, there was this boy,” Sarah said. “He’d threatened me. I was going to go up to him, but I stopped and did the .b and it helped really good.” Cinan asked what would have happened a few months ago. Sarah shrugged. “I would have punched him,” she said, matter-of-factly.  

Rebecca Stokwisz, Head of Religious Studies at AGGS, invited me to sit in on a class with Year 8s, aged between about 11 and 13. The girls were sat on plastic chairs arranged around the periphery of a classroom. Stokwisz sat down by a projector screen. In front of her, on the blue carpet, was a family-sized box of Maltesers. For these lucky girls their ‘taster class’ on mindfulness had a literal as well as metaphorical meaning.

“Has anyone heard of mindfulness?” Stokwisz asked. Six girls put their hands up. “You may have noticed there’s a box of Maltesers in the middle of the room,” she said. “Put your hand up if you noticed them.” Every hand went up. Stokwisz passed the box round. There was a lot of giggling, even a little sniggering, as she asked the girls to take a chocolate, raise their hand to eye level and really look at the Malteser. “I want you to stay in your own bubble and not talk to the person next to you but just hold it and notice any effect it’s having on you.” The sniggering got worse.

Stokwisz persevered, taking the girls through the mindfulness ‘chocolate meditation’. Over the next ten minutes or so, she asked the girls to look at the chocolate as if for the first time – to really notice all its visual qualities, examine every nook and cranny – then to smell the chocolate, and finally to let it touch their lips, and then their tongue, and to let it melt, all the while focusing on the sensory experience. As the exercise progressed, most girls seemed more engaged – by the end there was only one who looked like she’d much rather be doing something else.

Stokwisz asked the girls to talk to the person next to them about what they noticed, and room erupted into cacophonous chatter, stopping only when she asked for volunteers to describe what they felt. “When the Malteser got closer to my mouth, my heart got faster,” said one girl. “I don’t like chocolate,” confessed another sheepishly, still holding hers in her now very chocolaty fingers.

Stokwisz took the girls through an exercise designed to shift their attention to their hands – to get them to concentrate on the physical sensations in their palms, and gradually to shift their focus across their fingers. “Maybe you can sense a tingling, or the blood flowing,” she says. “Maybe you don’t feel anything, and that’s okay.” She’d put a quote from Milton on the screen: “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” “Does anyone have a mind that runs away with itself?” she asked. Every hand shot up.

At the end of the session Stokwisz asked what the girls felt and what they were thinking about. “I was thinking where I’ll sit at lunch and I need to buy ingredients for brownies and then I started thinking about homework and then I started getting stressed about exams,” said the girl who doesn’t like chocolate. “What a lot you thought about in that short time,” said Stokwisz. “With all that going on in our minds, no wonder we’re so tired.”

Altrincham Grammar School for Girls and Melland High School are a very long way from East Harlem in terms of background and privilege. But these children clearly have their own sources of stress. When Stokwisz asked her pupils about exams, the girls talked about headaches and bitten nails, butterflies in their tummies and sleepless nights. “Mindfulness helps you see the connection between your mind and your body,” she said, “and it gives you tools to help.”

This pupil’s name has been changed at the school’s request.