Education Central Article

Pause, Breathe, Smile: Training teachers to bring mindfulness into the classroom

GRANT RIX shares the journey of a ‘mindfulness in schools’ programme that is making a difference to the wellbeing and learning outcomes of Kiwi kids.

Sometimes my brain is like a snow globe when you shake it up. It’s stormy and I can’t see anything properly. Now I know how to let it settle down, so I can see the different snowflakes, and understand what’s happening in my mind.

Um… it’s like when you are going to do something and you get all stressed out, ‘cause you’ve got to do all these jobs, and you’ve got so much to do that you get so stressed and you just want to… like, you don’t feel good so just do Pause, Breathe, Smile…then your body calms down and you can do it, all your things…without worrying about anything.


Mindfulness is, in simple terms, the practice of giving our full attention to what is immediately happening, within and around us, with an attitude of kindness and interest.

Among adults, learning mindfulness has proved beneficial in reducing stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression while boosting a sense of life satisfaction. A meta-analysis by Charlotte Zenner and colleagues in 2014 summarising the international research for children and young people found that when taught in schools mindfulness boosts cognitive performance and increases resilience to stress.

This study reinforced and endorsed my work in developing Pause, Breathe, Smile (PBS), an eight-week mindfulness in schools programme designed for New Zealand school children in years 2 to 8.

When I first developed PBS in 2013 I was interested in what we could do here in Aotearoa, both by way of creating a programme that aligns with The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC), and by ensuring that whatever we brought into the classroom had its own evidence base.

When preparing to pilot PBS in 2013 I made contact with Dr Ross Bernay from the School of Education at AUT University, who I knew had a personal and professional interest in mindfulness, to see if he would be interested in supporting the research. Thankfully he agreed.

“Grant asked me to review the programme he had created and I was so impressed by the clear structure, coherence between lessons and alignment with the NZC that I was excited to be a part of the research,” says Bernay.

The results of the 2013 pilot, which involved five primary schools, showed that PBS:

  • increased calmness
  • improved focus and attention
  • enhanced self-awareness
  • helped with conflict resolution and the development of positive relationships
  • reduced stress for teachers.

Buoyed by these promising findings, our small research team grew to include Dr Daniel Devcich and Esther Graham, both from the University of Auckland. We conducted two further studies of PBS in 2014 in primary and intermediate school settings and, along with replicating many of the findings of the 2013 pilot, we found that participation in PBS led to statistically significant increases in wellbeing.

From research to roll-out

Kay Stevens, the principal of Riversdale School in Southland, has been implementing PBS since 2014.

“We have seen children develop calmness and a widening vocabulary to name feelings, sensations and thoughts. It has developed curiosity and deepened focus and attention for our children.”

Stevens also mentions the clear links with The New Zealand Curriculum.

“All of PBS meets the Health area in the NZC. It also meets the wellbeing indicators as developed by the Ministry of Education as a guide to schools, fits with the key competencies, and is relevant to learning areas in a number of other subjects as well,” she says.

Over the past three years approximately 70 schools have now participated in the programme. In the interests of making PBS sustainable, we have been focusing on ways to get more educators involved so that they can take a lead building a more mindful culture within their school communities, using PBS as a foundation. This led to the launch of a professional learning pathway in 2016.

The professional learning pathway begins with an online course called the Foundations of Mindfulness, which is designed as a comprehensive introduction to mindfulness and to help participants establish a personal practice for relieving stress and boosting wellbeing.

The beauty of Foundations of Mindfulness is that it can be treated as a stand-alone course for those whose sole interest is to establish a personal practice, while also fulfilling the prerequisite for those interested in learning to teach PBS in the classroom.

Having completed the Foundations of Mindfulness course, participants move onto the PBS curriculum training, which can be learnt all at once via a four-day block course, online at a more sedate pace, or can be offered as a bespoke training for schools.

Viv Mallabar and Kat Liu-Asomua from Ormiston Junior College in Auckland were among those who participated in the professional learning pathway during 2016.

“We visited and spoke to schools who were involved with PBS and had such good feedback that we decided to have two teachers trained so that we could embed within our school culture the principles of PBS,” says Mallabar.

Liu-Asomua adds that the training was “unquestionably high quality… PBS was the only programme we could find that had local research, an Aotearoa/New Zealand context, and experienced practitioners and trainers”.

“This course is a must” says Mallabar, “Students and teachers develop an awareness of personal, others, and environmental wellbeing by this simple but powerful practice.”

Participants have also experienced personal benefits from the professional learning pathway. Jo Emerson, principal of Longburn School in Palmerston North, says she has noticed the benefits of “decluttering years of a brain used to busyness and filling it with calmness”.

“Following the training I have taken a different approach both at work and at home in terms of embedding small mindful practices throughout my day,” Kat Liu-Asomua says.

“I have also begun using the lessons and language at home. My kids have loved it and we have all begun to benefit and incorporate the language of PBS into our interactions.”