power of the mind

Children, parents and teachers need a new set of tools to deal with the many pressures of modern life
By Anél Lewis

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Growing up is no longer child’s play. With the increased pressure to perform in the classroom and on the sports field, there’s often little time for children to develop a healthy sense of self-worth that will enable them to deal with the various challenges they encounter. Technology has also introduced a new dimension, and cyberbullying is yet another challenge our children confront almost on a daily basis. It’s not surprising that organisations such as WISE (Wellbeing in Schools and Education in South Africa), an NGO working in schools and youth centres in the Western Cape, report that children as young as five say they are feeling hopeless, angry and overwhelmed.
 
These emotions have a detrimental impact on a child’s sense of self, and a child with a poor self-image will struggle to make wise decisions or to perform in any aspect of their life, explains Carol Surya, the co-founder of WISE. “In underprivileged communities especially, we are seeing signs of abuse and cases of children as young as nine falling pregnant. Children who have self-worth are more likely to make sound decisions. But children in challenging circumstances tend to resort to negative behaviour – such as bullying, violence or substance abuse – to cope.”
 
Surya partnered with Biodanza facilitator, sculptor and entrepreneur Carmen Clews in 2017 to develop the pilot study and training programme for WISE in the Western Cape. Biodanza used dance music and movement to deepen self-awareness. “The suicide rate for South African children aged 10–14 years has more than doubled in the past 15 years, and yet we continue to place importance on teaching maths and English in schools, when children would surely benefit from resources that can equip them with self-esteem, self-sufficiency and self-love, which can contribute to their overall wellbeing,” says Surya. WISE focuses on teaching mindfulness as a means of coping with stress, anxiety and other difficulties.
 
Teach the teacher
It’s not just children who are buckling under the pressures of modern life. Surya has found that teachers are also battling to deal with daily stress and this impacts on their ability to teach and interact with children. WISE is committed to ensuring that those who are involved in a child’s development – parents, educators and anyone else who plays a role – are also emotionally, mentally and spiritually healthy. WISE’s programmes, therefore, include tools and programmes for children as well as the people involved in ensuring their happiness. “It’s important to give educators the tools to improve their wellbeing first, so that they can go on to train their children,” says Surya. “Self-love first.”
 
Feedback from the programme has been overwhelmingly positive, she adds. Educators have reported noticeable changes to their own stress levels and a positive difference in children’s behaviour. “They reported decreased absenteeism of both learner and teacher, reduced high-risk behaviour by learners and reduced incidents of aggression in the classroom,” says Surya. “Expressive, confident children believe in themselves and speak out about their feelings, making them far less likely to fall victim to abuse.”
 
Signs of negative self-talk
Surya says low self-esteem will manifest in various ways, such as a noticeable change in behaviour, nail-biting and bad dreams. A child may suddenly refuse to talk, or refer to themselves in a negative or disparaging way. “We have worked with five year olds who say they want to be dead,” says Surya, illustrating just how destructive this self-talk can be. But, Surya says, it is possible to teach children mindfulness to equip them with the tools they need to face challenges in a more positive manner.
 
The WISE programme can be introduced to children from the age of five, but its books can be a source of guidance for parents from when their children are born. Surya holds regular parenting workshops about the tools needed for developing self-esteem and wellbeing in children. “My advice for parents is to acknowledge that they are doing the best that they can with the tools that they have,” concludes Surya.
 
Four tools to help
The four tools in the WISE programme are designed with a psychology-based approach to empower children to become happier, more confident and more expressive, says Surya.
 
  1. The Inner Magic board game has been designed to enhance emotional intelligence and improve self-esteem. It is suitable for children aged 5–13 and encourages them to express their emotions in a positive manner.
  2. The Magic Mat introduces children to meditation and yoga as sources of calm and relaxation. These techniques help children develop compassion and self-awareness, while also helping them to focus better.
  3. Planting Seeds for Life For teachers, Surya has developed the lesson plan book to teach children essential life skills. There are 25 lesson plans or themes that deal with a range of topics, including bullying and the importance of healthy choices. Using valuable techniques such as visualisation, the lessons are suitable for children from the age of 10.
  4. Parent Magic is a manual for adults wanting to raise mindful children. It is based on the philosophy that “children are born capable” and that parents and teachers have to provide the best opportunity for children to thrive.
 
At home
 
  • recharge with your child: Before starting homework or eating supper, lie down on your backs with your feet up on a chair, close your eyes and play calming music or reflect on the day. To come out of it, bring your knees towards your chest, roll over and wait a few seconds before slowly sitting up.
  • take a moment: Stop what you and the children are doing to breathe deeply and slowly.
  • tune in: Encourage your children to get used to a daily practice where you tune into your inner world. Gently focus your attention on your breath (following the cool air in and the warmer air out through your nostrils). Another great way is to put a hand on your heart and one on your belly, close your eyes and focus on your heartbeat.
  • imagine a calm place: Encourage your children to create a beautiful, safe place in their imagination. Once picturing all the colours, sights, sounds and smells in this place, they can imagine being in it themselves, and use this visualisation to feel calm and peaceful.
 
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