Homework, extra tuition, exam preparation, after-school sporting activities and music lessons are just some of the things that students cram into their daily schedules. Add to that constant pressure from peers and the unending demands of social media, and the result is a rather chaotic day. In the midst of all this, young people are seeking a calm space where they can just “be”. For many, mindfulness is proving to be the answer they seek.
The opposite of multitasking, mindfulness requires you to focus on one thing at a time. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, writer and meditation teacher, explains: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally.”
The concept seems far removed from fun-loving, naughty children and social-media-loving tweens and teenagers. Nonetheless, it is becoming an increasingly popular philosophy among young people, with a handful of schools in the UAE creating dedicated mindfulness rooms and introducing mindfulness sessions under the watchful guidance of counsellors.
Greenfield Community School in Dubai has introduced a mindfulness room and a dedicated programme in which children from primary and secondary school engage in mindfulness. Andy Wood, principal at Greenfield Community School, explains how one of the school’s teachers, Rola Ghadban, conceptualised the room and the classes, which encourage children to perform relaxation and breathing exercises, among other things.
“This is an opportunity to slow down and think; to take your shoes off and feel the carpet, to relax and breathe and collect one’s thoughts. Those teenagers need a calm place in a crazy, busy, noisy world,” Wood says.
The school started with a mindfulness room in the primary section last year and has now rolled it out into its secondary school. Most importantly, students have “taken ownership of the programme”, Wood explains.
“It has added a calmness to the school, though the difference can’t be measured in mathematics scores. How do you quantify happiness and contentedness? These are incredibly important qualities of character. We are aware of the need to [create] a balanced experience at school, and include time for physical and spiritual and mental health.”
“This is one of these really important things to do. You can count your sports scores and the number of victories or your exam results. It’s difficult to measure well-being. I would encourage schools to explore different options to support student well-being.”
Dr Christine Kritzas, counselling psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia, a mental-health clinic in Dubai, confirms that teaching mindfulness to children and adolescents is a growing trend in the region.
“I believe a reason for mindfulness becoming a buzzword in the UAE has a great deal to do with the fast-paced, transient nature of this region,” she says. “As a result, individuals are desperate and hungry to find coping strategies that will bring some stillness and peace of mind, amidst the excitement and chaos that this interesting yet challenging region provides.”
The idea that mindfulness can only be achieved when you are in a quiet room is misguided, however. Once you master the technique, you can be mindful in any environment – while taking a walk, doing yoga, meditating or even going to the mall. And it should not only be used in reaction to specific problems that a child might be facing; it can also be used in a preventive, proactive way by well-adjusted children, Kritzas explains. She uses mindfulness in combination with cognitive behavioural therapy and narrative therapy because it complements other therapeutic frameworks.
With stress affecting many children and teenagers in the UAE, research suggests that mindfulness alleviates symptoms of depression and anxiety in children, and can improve attention spans in the classroom. Nonetheless, it is important to note that it is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
“Parents often think of mindfulness as a silver bullet, but it isn’t,” Kritzas says. “Parents must also provide a nurturing and mindful environment at home.”
For Haneen Jarrar, a counsellor and head of Camali Clinic’s School Readiness Programme, mindfulness is about being in the present moment while being aware of your emotions, and clearing your mind of any thoughts about the future or the past.
“Mindfulness is not intuitive as our brain is wired to make us feel anxious,” she says. “You have to actively and purposefully train your brain not to go into an anxious state, but focus on the present.
“People are just starting to realise how effective and simple it is, and that’s why it has become so popular. It is a skill that can be taught very early on, and that’s why they have started teaching it in schools. A lot of schools are replacing detentions with mindfulness. Mindfulness can help children with anxiety because when you are mindful, you can’t worry about what will happen in the future,” Jarrar concludes.
Joanne Jewell, a child and adolescent family counsellor, runs workshops on mindfulness in the UAE for parents as well as children. She agrees that children in the UAE are under an increasing amount of pressure. “We are all looking for ways to alleviate stress, and people are seeing the result of stress when they are bringing up a family,” the mother of three says.
“Social media and the internet have created an environment where people are multitasking all the time. I think we are becoming more aware of the negativity of doing that. People are looking for a way to combat that. Mindfulness is free and easy to do, and you can do it anywhere. People feel the benefit very quickly. They feel calmer and more able to understand their own emotions. It improves children and adult’s self awareness and they find they are sleeping better.
“In Dubai, I think children don’t get enough time to be outside and play and just be. We are teaching them how to be, rather than do.”