Establishing healthy development through studying the mind

How do we establish and encourage healthy social and emotional development in children today? Our young people are under stress as never before, with worries stretching from doing well at school, making friends or pleasing their parents, to serious issues such as cyberbullying and the effects of climate change. Even Brexit is causing anxiety among British children about the opportunities they may not have to work and study abroad when older.

One valuable project focuses on helping young people to understand the way their own minds work – and how they can learn to manage stress, from quite an early age. It comes from the excellent MindUP educational programme developed by The Hawn Foundation and the brainchild of actor and philanthropist Goldie Hawn.

Ms Hawn had become concerned by statistics about the increases in school violence and bullying, youth depression and suicide, and she was worried about what she calls “the persistent failure of the education system to help children cope and flourish”. She wanted to help those children suffering from high levels of stress and who were completely lacking the skills to navigate in a complex world.

She enlisted experts from psychologists to neuroscientists to create an evidence-based resource for schools which could build self-esteem and resilience in youngsters. The result was the MindUP 15-step programme, which will be the subject of a talk by Ms Hawn in London this month for the Pure Land Foundation at China Exchange, a programme of events designed to enrich lives through creativity, spirituality and self-expression.

The MindUP programme is global in its reach, serving nearly one million children in the US, Canada, UK, Serbia, Mexico, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

And most importantly, it works. Scientists from the University of British Columbia reported in 2011 that 82 per cent of students reported feeling more optimistic and positive, and 81 per cent felt the programme taught them how to be happier. A further 58 per cent reported that it had encouraged them to be more altruistic and to help others.

While the programme uses mindfulness and “brain breaks” – moments of meditation – as part of its core stages, brain anatomy is also taught. One US teacher, Mylene Prano, has reported that her pupils are now commenting on fairy tales from a neuroscientific, rather than pantomime perspective.

“When I read them a story,” she says, “they now tell me if the characters are using their prefrontal cortex or their amygdala.” Among the testimonials on the Hawn Foundation website is one from a small boy who draws comfort from the fact that the boy who was bullying him was “not using his prefrontal cortex to make good decisions”.

In this way, MindUp engages all of our childrens’ brains – the anatomical elements as well as the spiritual, making a difference which will last for life.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation

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Goldie Hawn is building healthy self-esteem through education