Interview with the Head
WILLIAM GOLDSMITH FROM ST GEORGE’S SCHOOL, WINDSOR CASTLE
As emotional intelligence is recognised as a key prerequisite for employment, what can schools and parents do to prepare their children for the jobs of the future?
The staff at St George’s School in Windsor are proactive on this subject and have recently introduced the Mind Up programme that they plan to integrate right through the school.
We catch up with the headmaster William Goldsmith to hear more and learn why this particular program stood out for him…
Why do you think children’s mental health has become such a key topic for schools to address?
The worrying statistics of the mental health of young people speak for themselves, and in the last five years, schools have woken up to the need to put emotional wellbeing right at the heart of everything they do. Implementing a whole school cultural focus on emotional wellbeing, character and resilience is about ensuring young people can cope with the demands placed upon them, build up strategies to thrive in a world of growing expectations (societal, social media etc.) and, fundamentally, know themselves and be comfortable with who they are. Our children are growing up in a rapidly changing landscape with great opportunities, but also a world we couldn’t possibly comprehend: children are taking in over 100,000 new pieces of content each year via social media, constant news feeds and the internet. Their brains are in danger of being flooded, and it is so important to learn – from a very young age – to take time out. There is more and more evidence to show that being mentally healthy has a huge impact on learning and through understanding of how the brain works and affects our behaviour, we can employ techniques to control our reactions and achieve calmness. We also know that many mental health issues can start at a young age and if not responded to, can lead to more serious problems later on. Schools, particularly primary schools have a significant part to play in identifying children’s needs by responding to and teaching them strategies which can prevent escalation. Talking, having the opportunity to talk and learning how to express our feelings are key features of this support and are lessons for life.
How did you find MindUP and what made it stand out for you as the best framework for St George’s?
Through visiting other schools, we had been looking at different approaches to mindfulness and how it could improve the mental health and wellbeing of our school community. As well as seeing MindUP in action, one of our parents also brought it to our attention after completing a parent MindUP course. It was important to us that any new scheme embraced the Mental Health and Wellbeing of our pupils, staff and parents. MindUP’s whole school approach met this need.
MindUp, the brainchild of Goldie Hawn, was launched in 2003, almost a decade before many schools began to get on board with emotional wellbeing. We like its approach as it is firmly focused on whole school implementation bringing benefits to the whole community.
We have been involved with MindUP for just over a year. We initially implemented it to our Pre-Prep and following the success of this, we have now rolled it out across the whole school. Whilst this is a long-term programme to fully embed across the school, it has become part and parcel of our everyday life and culture. We are already seeing positive effects for many pupils.
We understand that the framework is made up of 15 lessons for children aged 3 to 14. Can you explain how this works?
MindUP combines learning about the brain through a series of lessons with the regular practising of mindfulness. The lessons, which can be applied across the entire curriculum, build awareness of self, emotions and the ability to self-regulate. Every good school will promote the notion of growth mindset, empathy, kindness and compassion (all key skills for the future), and MindUP is firmly rooted in the development of these.
For our Prep School launch day, in September, pupils were off timetable and were taught the first three lessons, which focus on the brain. Pupils and staff became familiar with the amygdala, hippocampus and the prefrontal Cortex (terms I doubt many adults were aware of until recently; I know I wasn’t. Our Pre-Prep children use this language daily). We learnt the effect of each of these areas on our behaviour and began to think about some strategies for controlling our responses. It has been wonderful to see some of our pupils using these when facing either anxiety or a rush of temper. The whole school has two ‘brain breaks’ every day, when a chime is rung and they are talked through two minutes of focus on their breathing. Many children are now confident enough to run the ‘brain break’ for the whole class; these occasions have been inspiring to watch.
We are on a journey with MindUP, a process that will take some years to firmly embed within the school. We want to create opportunities for children to use the breathing exercises from the ‘brain breaks’ outside facilitated sessions.
Is MindUP just school based or are the children’s families involved too?
It is important that all members of our community are involved; this has certainly been the case in the Pre-Prep. We look forward, through hosting information sessions, to greater involvement with our parents in the Prep School.
We have a number of pupils and families who are already using the techniques learnt, to achieve calmness and avoid anxious thoughts. One of the most noticeable uses of MindUP in school has been where the reactions of children have caused a misunderstanding between them and their peers. Through talking about the amygdala, breathing calmly and allowing messages to reach the hippocampus, they have been enabled to make more considered choices. We are excited to see how this grows over the course of this year and beyond.
As the daily lives of us all becomes so frenetic, to have some time out to simply pause, be in the moment and concentrate on nothing more than breathing, allows us to slow down. The pace of life will not reduce for our young people, so having ways to allow for much needed pauses during the day is so important to gain clarity of mind. I for one am starting to schedule these in my day, so I take anything from 30 seconds to five minutes to stop, focus on my breathing and re-energise before my next appointment.
We will be looking at ways to introduce opportunities for mindful practice, seminars and workshops for our parents, wider families, and of course, staff.
Tapping into your personal experience of using MindUP, is there a specific tool or exercise that you can tell our readers about; one that you would encourage other families to employ that would make a significant difference in day to day family life?
If you are looking to start using MindUP, my recommendation would be to set aside a regular time each day, without distractions, to focus on your breathing and allow your mind some stillness for a couple of minutes. It may feel a little odd at first, but the more you do it, the more you will feel the benefits. Our lives are busy and it is easy to forget that sometimes we just need to stop.
Beyond mindful practice, family life is so important. After busy days for everyone, it is vital to put phones and other distractions away, and find valuable time for one another to discuss what has happened during the day. I find focusing on five positive, happy memories from the day is a great positive boost, no matter how ‘stressful’ a day might have been.
One of the greatest influencers in my professional life is Dick Moore, retired Prep School Head and Mental Health campaigner. Amongst his top ten tips in ensuring emotional wellbeing, Dick encourages families to consider the following:
- Don’t expect to be perfect. We all fail
- Top academic grades are not essential for happiness
- Accept your emotions
- Believe that time changes things
Above all else, children need ‘down time’, and home provides the perfect opportunity for this. Finding time to stop, understand our emotions and build up authenticity will allow children to ‘bend in the wind rather than snap in the hurricane’.