In an accessible, technological and high-pressure world, it’s becoming increasingly clear that existing learning models just won’t cut the mustard. Schools are responding with new ways of thinking—with mindfulness at the heart of it all

In a note released by the Legislative Council last year, its Research Office looked at Hong Kong’s students, and the findings weren’t pretty. Students in Primary 4 and above spend at least 55 hours a week on school, private tutoring and homework.

Between the competing claims of study, extracurricular activities and digital devices, students are getting at least one hour less sleep per night than international standards recommend, and Legco warned that this may adversely affect physical and mental health.

According to Ian Clayton, head of the international stream at the French International School (FIS), it’s a problem in urban centres globally. “There’s a lot happening outside schools everywhere in terms of technology, pressure and competitiveness. It seems to be harder to get into universities, and the job market is changing irrevocably.”

With so much to contend with, how can your child possibly find their way? For clinical psychologist Dr Jacqueline Wolf, who is on the child development team at Central Health Partners, it’s about mindfulness.

Being present

“It’s essential to everything I’m doing,” she says. “Mindfulness is a skill to bring your attention to the present. We’re so well-connected and we have this access to everything at once that we’ve lost the ability to do one thing at a time, as well as to bring attention to our emotions and our experiences.”

Hong Kong schools are also beginning to recognise the value of mindfulness-based programmes. “What we’re seeing in schools is an acceptance that social and emotional learning is an important part of the curriculum from day one,” says Wolf.

At the Canadian International School (CDNIS), for example, roughly 20 teachers are trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), an eight-week programme that uses mindfulness meditation, yoga and body scanning to reduce stress and increase well-being. Shelly Chutke is one of them.

The benefits of mindfulness

“There’s evidence that, with mindfulness practices, classroom management is better, behaviours are better, academic success is better and kids are able to manage their emotions better,” says Chutke, who is one of two guidance counsellors for pre-reception to Grade 3 at CDNIS, which also has seven counsellors for the upper school, and two school psychologists.

Alongside MBSR, Chutke uses MindUP— the neuroscience-based children’s mental fitness programme promoted by the Goldie Hawn Foundation—plus “Paws b” and “.b” (pronounced “dot-be”), applying them to different situations based on individual needs.

While the lower school focuses on regulating children’s emotions, the upper school concentrates on reducing stress, says Scott Atherton, school counsellor for the upper school at CDNIS. “And there is no one size fits all.”

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The point is that students have a whole box of tools at their disposal. “It’s not just about mindfulness; our students need to have other tools to use throughout the day to deal with whatever comes their way,” says Jaime Wilde, the school’s psychologist.

It’s an approach echoed by Toby Newton, head of school (secondary) at International College Hong Kong (ICHK). “Mindfulness needs to be part of a much more considered package of initiatives that really direct the students how to look after themselves as living creatures, so they can be at their best in their daily cerebral performance,” he says.

To promote student well-being—and in turn assist with cerebral performance—ICHK uses tools like MindUP in the junior school and Dr Martin Seligman’s PERMA model, based on positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement, in the senior school.

“For us, PERMA means providing learning opportunities that resonate with students and n which they participate through choice,” says Newton. “We believe students are more likely to experience PERMA and be in the right mindset to practise mindfulness if they enjoy school, enjoy each other’s company and feel personally enabled to grow.”

Another option in the toolbox is 5+1, an ICHK-developed learning model that combines the ideas of five thinkers in education and developmental psychology for an individual, whole-student approach.

Yoga and shinrin yoku—forest bathing—are also part of the mix at ICHK, “to encourage students to remember they’re not just a brain on a stick, and they have a wider life to lead.”

More than academics

Given Hong Kong’s focus on academics, there are parents who might baulk at this approach. “But academics, performance and well-being are so interlinked,” says Justin McLaughlin, nurse and counsellor at Kellett School, the British International School in Hong Kong. “If your well-being is not in a good place, your academics are going to suffer and vice versa.”

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McLaughlin was instrumental in creating Positively Kellett, a programme based on Geelong Grammar School’s Positive Psychology-based Positive Education model. “Typically psychology has looked at the problems people have,” says McLaughlin. With Positive Psychology, the focus is on “highlighting what’s good so that we can diminish what’s bad.”

Mindfulness is a key part of the Positive Education package, and Kellett introduces students to the idea in different ways at different ages.

Students in Primary 3 and Primary 6, for example, take part in a programme called Mindfulness Matters, says McLaughlin, who also had a hand in creating a resilience retreat for Year 11 students to help them cope with the stress of doing their GCSEs. “It’s the first year we’ve done it, but we’ve seen significant improvements since then. We’re going to run it every year,” he says.

Like Kellett, FIS—which uses models such as MindUP, Growth Mindset and MBSR—also runs retreats as part of its student welfare efforts, which it says are organic and change with student needs.

“Over the last two years, we’ve run two digital detox retreat weekends with volunteer teachers and volunteer students willing to ‘disconnect to reconnect,’” says Clayton. “Students set their own targets beforehand and reflected on the outcomes of the retreat. They felt it was a fantastic experience.”

What we’re seeing in schools is an acceptance that social and emotional learning is an important part of the curriculum from day one.
Jacqueline Wolf

Mindfulness for parents

In February this year, FIS also hosted a stress management workshop with Dr Nancy Heath, a professor in the department of educational and counselling psychology at Canada’s McGill University—for parents as well as students. For parents, the workshop was geared to helping them understand the merits of mindfulness, and of balancing their children’s academic achievements with their well-being.

“As a parent, I would say the most important thing is to address your own anxiety,” says ICHK’s Newton. “I’m anxious for my daughter, but I have to remind myself that it’s a complex world, and the kind of person who will be able to deal with its challenges is someone who understands themselves, who is at ease with themselves and who has agency over their own life.”

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