Mindfulness, meditation among suite of tools to re-engage students in Townsville high school

Mindfulness, meditation among suite of tools to re-engage students in Townsville high school
  • PublishedDecember 8, 2023

It’s a typical Thursday afternoon at Thuringowa State High School, in the outer Townsville suburbs.

A rambunctious cohort of year seven students, full of post-lunch energy, file into the classroom.

But it isn’t books or blackboards that take their attention, but quiet introspection of their minds and observations of their physical sensations.

For an entire year the group have been part of a trial to see how weekly mindfulness sessions will improve their learning, focus, communication and resilience.

Program coordinator Jasmine Healy-Pagan teaches strategies linking the body and mind. 

students and teachers on their hands and knees in a circle on the ground
The classes involve mindful movement that focuses on breathing and meditation.(ABC News: Baz Ruddick)

“What we are doing is mindful movement, full efficient breathing and also meditation. We are helping them develop their self-awareness, self-regulation and allowing them to focus,” Ms Healy- Pagan said.

She believes growing anxiety in young people, digital addiction and overwhelm are affecting the development and wellbeing of the youth.

“When we feel overwhelmed, we don’t feel calm, we don’t feel steady. When we are not well it is really hard to focus, to learn and generally just get through the day,” she said. 

A typical class begins with stretches and progresses on to light movement, breathing exercises, quiet meditation and finishes with a reflection.

As the session begins, Ms Healy-Pagan asks students why they think the exercises are worth doing.

two women stand in the school yard looking at the camera
Jasmine Healy-Pagan said students were struggling with digital addiction and poor mental health.(ABC News: Baz Ruddick)

“To keep me relaxed,” one student said.

The strategies are designed to help students navigate through life’s challenges in an efficient and positive way. 

She believes information overload is causing dysregulation of people’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

“For 75 per cent of people that struggle with mental health [it began] under the age of 25,” she said. 

“It is essential today, more than ever before, that we are proactive in the mental and emotional health of our next generation because they are struggling.”

A 2022 survey by Mission Australia found that almost 30 per cent of young people indicated high psychological distress and more than half have needed support with their mental health at some point in their life.

Ms Healy-Pagan said she was concerned young people experiencing mental health struggles were not reaching out for help.

‘Small targeted team’ making change

Tatum, 12, said he sometimes got overwhelmed at school and the mindfulness activities helped him feel calm.

“It’s been pretty good. It has made me relaxed and calm and not stressed. Not crazy,” he said.

He said his favourite part of the sessions was the “rock and roll” where students rock back and forth on their backs.

child lies on floor with facecloth over face
The program uses a variety of methods to relax students.(ABC News: Baz Ruddick)

Billie, 13, said she wanted to continue doing mindfulness techniques next year.

“It’s helped me a lot, especially when you are stressed,” she said.

“I feel much better. Less tense in the bones, the body and the mind.

“I like getting the opportunity to breathe and relax and feel less anxious about stuff.”

Teacher Bri Clancy looks after teacher and student wellbeing at the school.

She said a lot of work had been done to try to get students to self-regulate their emotions, but the school had never dedicated an entire class to it.

“We were previously engaged in some other trauma-informed practice strategies, but nothing that had a lot of depth behind it,” Ms Clancy said.

“What we have really enjoyed with the partnership with Youth RESET is that we have had physical people coming in weekly, not only meeting with staff but students.”

She said the program had made a significant difference in the students’ behaviour and engagement, which made classroom management easier.

a female student in the classroom
Year seven student Billie said she will keep using mindfulness techniques next year to relax her mind and body.(ABC News: Baz Ruddick)

“We have started with a small targeted group this year. We have been tracking [behaviour] both within the wellbeing class and some of their other classes and what we are finding is a much more settled start to the lessons,” she said.

“It was a very complex class. Lots of social complexities to the group. There were issues with the students being able to communicate respectfully and engage in the learning.

“They are [now] a lot more calm and they are communicating more effectively with their peers and some of that secondary behaviour has now been reduced.”

Ms Clancy said the school had a focus on being trauma-informed.

“We know we have students who may be facing barriers to their learning. A strong value of our educational philosophy is to remove those barriers, to be able to best support the students to become lifelong learners,” she said.

Ms Clancy said she believes more schools would benefit from a greater focus on wellbeing through programs like Youth RESET.

Mindfulness a part of ‘trauma-informed’ strategies

Lecturer in the school of education with James Cook University, Tanya Doyle, said trauma-informed practice was a supportive teaching approach focused on “working sensitively” with young people. 

“Trauma is something that lots of young people are grappling with. If [young people] have experienced trauma in the development stages of their life, they can have real difficulty learning how to regulate their emotions,” Ms Doyle said.

She said trauma could be linked to an individual event in the young person’s life or could be intergenerational.

“Trauma is also relative. What might be trauma to you might be different to me. Trauma is something we can think of on a continuum,” she said.

“Students who have experienced trauma need more resources and support to make sure they can self-regulate.”

She said the education system had begun to look at how schools could work more closely with allied health professionals to boost student and teacher wellbeing.

a woman smiling at the camera
Dr Tanya Doyle said there was growing evidence that trauma informed teaching practices could help improve student learning.(ABC News: Baz Ruddick)

“Trauma informed practice is something that is emerging as a policy concern in Queensland and lots of schools have been aware of the need to support students through trauma for a long time,” she said. 

Dr Doyle said there was evidence to suggest students who could recognise and regulate emotions were less likely to act out with aggressive behaviour or withdraw and disengage from learning.


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