Mindfulness and the Reluctant Learner – Peter Whitfield

Pete is Operational Manager KS2 – 4 at Plas Derwen, Flintshire Pupil Referral Unit, in North Wales. He has 20 years’ experience in education and four years’ experience teaching mindfulness. In his words, his job is ‘to maintain a smooth and happy ship, happy pupils learn better’. Pete’s experience is inspiring and his words of advice and encouragement helpful for all of us delivering mindfulness curricula to young people.

What was Pete’s route to teaching mindfulness?

  • .b foundations course
  • Teach Paws. b
  • Teach .b
  • School Mindfulness Lead
  • MBSR
  • The Present

What were the challenges he was facing from experience of other approaches?

Most of the young people Pete works with have been exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ‘I was cynical at first, new programmes often work in the mainstream, our pupils generally need a more therapeutic approach.’

Why mindfulness?

Pete recognises that mindfulness wasn’t developed as a behavioural intervention, at the same time ‘. . .it was the first thing I’d come across that enabled children to look inside themselves and get a better understanding of themselves. The potential to help worry and anxiety that lead to so called ‘acting out’ behaviour was massive. It was this combination of individual restraint and self-calming that first interested me because, in the long term, if you look at external constraints they don’t work.’

What’s worked well?

  • Small group work
  • Short sessions. Mixture of science facts and practices
  • Explaining its uses in the ‘real world’
  • .b and 7/11 breathing

What are Pete’s tips for teachers?

  • Mindfulness isn’t necessarily a quiet activity, it’s all about being in the moment, sometimes newer teachers get caught up in this. A noisy classroom isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. Trust me I work in a PRU!’
  • … you have to know your pupils, short practices as a way of grounding . . . work beautifully well.
  • Mindful movement, the younger pupils really love. Walking like a centurion, walking like a samurai, generally lots of giggling but it does the job.’
  • ‘Attention spans aren’t always the greatest with BESD pupils so short punchy lessons.’
  • I always like to start with science, boys like to know it’s real. I also try to root it firmly in their own world. Sport’s a good one, boxing is a beautiful one to use examples with boys ‘What do you do if you’re in a boxing ring and your mind starts to wander? What happens when you’re not in the moment? That always sparks a lively debate.’
  • ‘…some of the resources won’t land with everybody . . . sometimes you might have to pick a different story or read the story.’
  • ‘There are lots of different, important messages of mindfulness, the two that stick out for me, thoughts aren’t real and everything changes.’
  • Enabling young people to realise that thoughts have little or no substance can have a massive effect on them and sometimes understanding that everything is transient also has a massive effect.’

What’s it like to teach the curricula? What to keep in mind?

Pete thought he would start in small mainstream classroom to get the hang of it ‘I ended up in a lively BESD class. First session, one of the livelier pupils had a chair on his head and there was a fair bit of noise. At the end of the session even the most disinterested pupil had taken it in and I also managed to get a few practices in there so it’s a really good example of ‘you never know what they’re taking in’ so don’t be discouraged by a tough crowd.’

So far, I’ve found it easier to deliver the curriculum to KS2 pupils as a group, because they’re not hung up on trying to look cool in front of their friends.’

The benefits for well being and the opportunities to offer the learning go beyond specific classes ‘. . . mindfulness has a lovely crossover effect in some of the other areas I work in.’

Like many of us, Pete experiences imposter syndrome, his advice ‘. . . at the end of the day you can only project the best version of yourself.’

The onset of Covid and the closure of the centres prevented the roll out Pete had in mind. While mindfulness isn’t embedded yet, he is optimistic. With the new campus opening he is aiming to create a mindfulness environment’ spanning all key stages for vulnerable learners on the one site, where everyone can participate in mindfulness practice as appropriate.

What’s next for Pete?

  • Embed mindfulness into the culture of the new build
  • Further partnership work with the Learning Disability Service
  • Continue to improve his own practice and get the message out there!

Our huge thanks to Pete for all his work and for offering inspiration to others.

You can watch Pete’s talk from the conference here.