Switching off in schools could be the key to success
3 June 2019 at 8:39 am
Nicola Bone is leading a silent revolution in schools across Queensland, setting young people up for a more focused and anxiety-free school day through meditation and mindfulness training. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
When Bone, a high school teacher for over a decade, started to see a serious rise in mental health issues and disengagement among her students, she wanted to find a solution.
She was studying a master of public health at the time and uncovered a gap in the research and science on how to engage the brains of teenagers in classrooms.
From this, she developed the Sound Off For Schools program, which is grounded in emerging research and practices of mind, brain and education science. It guides school kids and teachers through mindfulness practices to give them the skills to develop resilience, compassion, and gratitude in the classroom.
Bone travels to schools to deliver the program, which has now been written into school curriculums, and she is looking to expand nationwide.
In this week’s Changemaker, Bone talks about navigating the world of social enterprise, why mindfulness isn’t something only adults should do, and why having a strong sense of purpose in your organisation is vital.
What inspired you to start the program?
Over the 12 years, I was a high school teacher, I began to witness a significant increase in the number of young people suffering from mental illness. My intention was to try and get these kids engaged because they were showing up and signing in but weren’t present or absorbing information, simply because they weren’t able to.
I went on a bit of a hunt at the time for resources around ways to [understand] the neurobiology of a teenager’s brain, [to get them to come back] online in a classroom and there really wasn’t a lot for kids aged 12 to the end of high school. I also found that Australia was a clear leader in mental health research but not in practice. The findings from all the research weren’t translating into systems or institutions. So I developed a pilot program to get kids engaged through mindfulness and meditation, and the school I was in at the time allowed me to run the program for a cohort of students.
Did you have trouble convincing people this was going to be effective?
There’s a real perception out there that any kind of mindfulness or meditation practice is taking away from really important teaching time. But in a 50-minute lesson, I was witnessing and experiencing between six and 10 one-minute behaviour management issues where I was having to stop teaching anyway and get these kids back online.
So I just pitched it as: “Can I use six minutes at the start of the lesson to avoid any of that disruption?” And the way that the kids engaged in it was phenomenal, and not just the ones that were at risk, a lot of them took away what they needed from the experience and the strategy.
Mindfulness is something that’s taken off with adults but why is it important to teach kids?
In the education space, it’s a combination of positive psychology neuroscience and how you teach kids. It’s about priming young people to learn. When they arrive at school in the morning, they may have come from a calm home environment or they could have come in straight off the gaming console or mobile phone. It takes a real shift in the brain to sit and get the executive function online and ready to use critical thinking and decision making.
I think it’s pretty well known that Australia’s literacy and numeracy rates are a real concern, and so bringing this kind of mindfulness and meditation is simply another way to try and tackle this issue of young people in general, and improve their social and emotional health.
What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the kids and teachers that go through the program?
The feedback from the students themselves is often a sense of surprise at what mindfulness is and how effective it is in shifting their mood. A lot of them are not knowingly very anxious and tense in their physical bodies. When you give them time and guidance to relax and just become aware of their bodies and then eventually [to gain] self-awareness, which turns into cognitive awareness so they know what their cognitive habits are, they are able to emotionally regulate.
The programs for teachers are almost more important because it empowers them to continue to do the work in the classroom every day. This is important because it’s a practice and something you should be doing every day. When we come in and run stuff with kids, we are trying to give them tools that can be taken away and used without us there, guiding them. The programs for teachers are really powerful and give them confidence, training them up, knowing how to deliver something like that. Many teachers might not do it because they don’t have the confidence to deliver it or think it isn’t for them. But if they have the experience themselves, then they are able to deliver it in their own classrooms, they can see a dramatic shift in the students’ behaviour, it tends to become just part of the daily routine.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
It’s incredibly rewarding. When I’m out, running a session with students, that is when I’m at my best. I have had the opportunity to get some teachers on board, which has been a really rewarding experience to empower them and let them know that they can also engage young people in this practice that’s normally just seen and left for adults.
You are a business with purpose, how have you been able to balance impact with the growth of your business?
Operating in the social enterprise space has been one big learning curve, especially when it comes to education. Schools are such noisy, busy places and the program is just another thing for them to either worry about or consider. So we have found a bit of a sweet spot to deliver a program that has impact and outcome but is also affordable for schools and has just developed certain ways for them to slide it into schools.
What advice would you have for someone wanting to start a social enterprise?
It’s so important to have a really clear purpose and then constantly revise that. Anytime you’re at a crossroads of a big decision, ask yourself the questions: “Does this add to my purpose?” “Am I making a decision that in five years time, will bring me closer to where I want to be in measuring my impact on the world?”