Top Tips: Getting students to have a go

How do I get the students to do their ‘Home /’Have a Go’ practice?

Many would say that this is the greatest challenge of teaching mindfulness in schools and youth-based contexts! Whether it’s practising in class or in their own time, a little like teaching mindfulness to adults, we may struggle to get children and young people to actually engage with the practice.

The Dream

  1. Your class calmly files into the classroom, settles immediately into their practice positions and, with beatific smiles, close their eyes and silently follow your guidance.
  2. At home / outside the class, in the same way, they meet together to practise in preparation for the next session. They do this every day, and in complete compliance with the guidance on their ‘Home Practice’/’Have a Go’ sheets distributed at the end of each session.

The Reality

  1. They pile into the session straight from a PE lesson, yelling, tripping each other up, and determined to continue in this way until the end of the session.
  2. When asked how the Home Practice/Have a Go has gone since the last session, there is finally silence, blank expressions and a single cough in the corner of the room.

Remaining invitational

Most young people learning mindfulness in youth-based contexts are ‘conscripts’, i.e. they are part of a timetabled lesson; they are there because they have to be.

We then present them with a ‘suggestion’ of what they might like to do to keep practising until we see them next. We reassure them that these lessons aren’t like other lessons, and that we won’t be checking up to see if they have ‘done their homework’. But we vigorously invite and encourage them to have a go.

Why do we ask them to practise outside lesson time at all?

The available evidence is limited and patchy at best, but it seems that during typical adult mindfulness courses such as MBCT and MBSR, participants complete about 60% of assigned formal home practice (where it is recorded and reported). There is seemingly a small to moderate association between participants’ home practice and positive outcomes[1].

If 60% of home practice was being done by a Paws b or .b student, that would be a result indeed! With teens in particular, we might count ourselves lucky if 30% admitted to doing any practice at all. (Having said that, the percentage may be much higher, but it’s just not cool to be seen to comply in front of your friends!)

What we do know and trust, however, are results from MiSP’s class impact reports. These involve students completing an online survey at the end of their course, and a summary of their responses returned to the teacher to use as evidence of impact. With over 4,660 young people having responded to the .b survey, and 8,066 to the Paws b survey, the consistent message is that using the practices outside of lesson times helps them to respond to difficulties such as exam or work stress, or issues with sleep, but also to feel more connected to their friends, family, feelings and surroundings.

If we really want to help support them with their weekly home practice, here are a few suggestions based on feedback we receive from .b and Paws b teachers ‘on the ground’:

1. Use available animations and recordings

.b students generally seem to respond well to the animations and guided practices they can access through the website. Gentle reminders and nudges through school email addresses, WhatsApp groups etc. can really help them to remember it’s there.

It’s also a good idea to ‘mix it up a bit’ and encourage them to try the guided practice while using the video, the downloaded audio recordings and, where appropriate, begin to guide themselves.

Paws b encourages the children to guide themselves through the shorter Paws b practices, but encouraging them to use them through the school week either through formally leading them as a group, or encouraging them to lead each other as they practise together, which leads on to…

2. Get them to own the practicebecoming ‘teacher’

The more the students can begin to ‘own’ the practices, the more they are likely to want to do them. A good way to do this is to give them opportunities to teach others – their friends, younger peers, parents/carers and teachers. In some schools, students take assemblies or speak at other school events, sharing their own understanding and experience of mindfulness with their peers and adults; after several weeks of a .b/Paws b course, some schools set up extra-curricula clubs where students (with a Paws b or .b teacher present) will lead younger peers in practices.

3. Incentivise them! Offer awards and rewards…

If keeping track of home practice helps, print out our Home Practice Record for students to fill in – like a sticker chart!

And some students love a challenge! A great example of how this can be harnessed is to provide formal awards or rewards for completing set challenges. In The King’s School in Devon, for example, the M&Ms’ (Mindfulness and Meditation) challenges include the 100 day challenge (complete 50 x 10 minute mindfulness practices in 100 days) and the 30 day challenge (10 x 10 minute practises in 30 days). This has proved extremely popular, with over 30 students having now completed the 100 day challenge.

They also have a team of student mindfulness leaders speaking at information events, conferences, in PSHE lessons, as well as having a student ‘mindfulness mentor’ scheme. These mentors meet once a fortnight at lunchtimes, training to guide staff and students in one minute pocket mindfulness techniques. Each student mindfulness mentor has a MiSP t-shirt paid for by their PTA! You can read more about their journey here.

It is also not unheard of for teachers to offer ‘treats’ if students can prove they have tried the home practice, either through completing their home practice worksheets, or showing their understanding of the practice through leading others in it.

Or to let them do a mindful eating practice (usually chocolate!) if they complete their home practice record!

Remember to check your intentions

At the end of the day, when teaching young people mindfulness, we need to keep checking in with our intentions. In the context of MiSP’s curricula, we are simply giving young people a ‘taste’ of mindfulness; to help them understand how the mind works, and teach them practices or exercises that help them respond more skilfully in trickier moments, as well as noticing and really soaking up the good moments in life that might otherwise go unnoticed.

We are not intending to put additional pressure on them, or to create a competition, or to accelerate their practice in a way that is not comfortable for them.

We are ‘planting seeds’, some of which will begin to grow quickly; others may not emerge until months or even years later; some, indeed, may never appear at all. What is greatly reassuring is that, once taught, these simple practices can’t be unlearned. They stay there in the ‘soil’, waiting to emerge when least expected or when most needed.

[1] Parsons CE, Crane C, Parsons LJ, Fjorback LO, Kuyken W. Home practice in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: A systematic review and meta-analysis of participants’ mindfulness practice and its association with outcomes. Behav Res Ther. 2017;95:29–41. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2017.05.004

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