“My Magical Garden”: A mindfulness intervention for teachers working with children experiencing challenges around anxiety, stress and self-regulation – exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, school closures and ‘curriculum catch-up’.

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In this article Katrina Diamond, a Senior Lecturer in Education and Childhood at UWE, writes about an evidence-based mindfulness intervention, with primary aged children, based on the book “My Magical Garden” by Jacqui Gray and Terri Allen (2008).

The number of adults, and children, with mental health issues, stress, anxiety and fatigue is stark (Baker, 2021, Pitchforth et al., 2019).

Having experienced a serious illness five years ago I became very aware of mindfulness and meditation practices and the benefits of these holistic practices for health and wellbeing- not least the de-activation of the stress response (Selye, 1946; Neylan, 1998; McLaughlin et al., 2015)

Mindfulness has a growing evidence base (Kabat-Zinn, 2017; Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group, 2015) for utilisation in educational settings (Hyland 2014; Vickery and Dorjee, 2016; Schonert-Reichl et al., 2015) as a means of managing stressful elements of school life. The lack of opportunity for creativity in the school curriculum currently and a lack of time for wellbeing and pastoral care, exacerbated by the unprecedented impact on education from a global pandemic, has placed children under increasing pressure, in an educational environment dominated by an instrumental curriculum in a neo-liberal landscape (Graham et al., 2011; Ball, 2016; Keddie, 2016).

The study involved researching an evidence-based mindfulness intervention in the form of a book entitled “My Magical Garden” (Gray and Allen, 2008).

I was lucky enough to meet the author of the book – Jacqui Gray – at a networking event and have been inviting her to my classes to introduce My Magical Garden to as many people as possible, ever since. Jacqui is passionate about her work with children and young people and her strapline is “every child has the right to confidence”. I agree, and with so many of our children currently lacking this due to many factors-not least the enforced isolation throughout the pandemic- it is more important than ever (Loades et al., 2020; Urbina- Garcia, 2021; Irwin et al., 2022)

Jacqui and I undertook a 6-month trial with a primary school in Essex during and after lockdown- using the Magical Garden as a means of reintegrating the children back into school when the pressures of the curriculum were dominating

The focus was on supporting children through two lockdowns, resulting from the pandemic, who were struggling with self- regulation and demonstrating behaviour that frequently resulted in exclusions from the classroom. The study also sought to support teachers and learners by offering a practical intervention that would help to manage the interrelationships between teacher- learner relationships and self-regulation by developing those relationships through support for learners with managing their own behaviour in the classroom and wider school environment generally (Cadima et al., 2016).

The book employs a combination of mindfulness and guided visualisation techniques, encouraging the children to use their imaginations to build their garden, choosing the people, animals, natural features and objects they wish to take in with them and then exploring “the magic that happens” as a result (Gray and Allen, 2008).

This article looks into the psychological and physiological processes involved in the acts of mindfulness and guided imagery and seeks to show the importance of children’s self-efficacy, (Bandura, 1977, 1986) introducing them to their own internal, self-regulation toolkit, that they can use whenever the world is too difficult for them.

The link between mindfulness and guided visualisation, self- regulation and the stress response is physiological and involves the stimulation of the vagal nerve (Tracey, 2002). The vagal nerve runs between the brain stem and the abdomen and reaches out to all of our major organs along the way. It is instrumental in the regulation of the autonomic nervous system, in particular, in keeping us in the parasympathetic, “rest and digest” nervous system and a more optimal learning state, than the sympathetic or “fight, flight or freeze” system responsible for the stress response in times of danger (Kelye, 1956; Tracey, 2002). When this is activated, the stress signals impair prefrontal cortex functioning, where all of our self-regulatory and inhibitory skills reside, as in that moment, survival is all that matters. The vagal nerve does this through the release of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is the “love” hormone, playing a key role in childbirth but also possessing powerful anti- stress effects (Moberg and Petersson, 2022; Porges, 1998). The higher our vagal tone, the more oxytocin we release, the more empathetic we are, the greater our self-regulation and the more socially competent we become (Erath and Tu, 2015). The vagus nerve is like a muscle- regular daily exercising of this through deep breathing, guided visualisation and meditation, and connections with loved ones and peers, will increase vagal tone (Gerritson and Band, 2018). Importantly, in terms of schooling, high quality interactions between the teacher and the learner, particularly socially disadvantaged learners, promote the development of higher cognitive and self-regulatory skills, which calls into question the efficacy and impact of digital or virtual lessons, employed throughout the pandemic, in the development of vagal tone (Kok et al., 2013; Cadima et al., 2015; Urbina- Garcia, 2020).

The intervention took place over six-months in 2021 during the Covid-19 pandemic and enforced school closures. The intervention was conducted online with a trauma-informed primary school in Essex involving 31, Year 4 learners- 15 girls and 16 boys- the pastoral and wellbeing lead teacher, their classroom teacher and a group of parents. A second year 4 group not receiving the intervention acted as a control group. Initial workshops with the children, teaching and pastoral team and parents, were delivered by the author of “My Magical Garden” training them on the techniques used in the delivery of the intervention. The teachers and parents then reproduced the techniques with the children, regularly over a 6-month period and increasingly as a means of reintegrating the children into the school environment after the second lockdown.

Research methods to ascertain the impact of the intervention involved interviews with the pastoral lead and the class teacher, over 6 months, using a list of questions that explored the use and success of “My Magical Garden” and aligned with the school’s objectives. The final focus group engaged all the children in the class receiving the intervention, in a remote, one hour, zoom question and answer session, to ascertain their feelings around their use of “My Magical Garden”.

Thematic analysis (Clarke and Braun, 2017) elicited key themes across the research questions and focus groups and concluded that children, parents and teachers felt that “My Magical Garden” is a tool that helps to reduce anxiety, promote self-regulation, increase productivity and provide a safe place for children away from the pressures of school and the curriculum. “My Magical Garden” enabled the children to engage actively with their own imagination and creativity to navigate their school and home lives. From the teachers’ perspectives, the development of positive relationships, help with behavioural issues experienced within the group, and the resulting zero exclusion rate, proved to be invaluable. 

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Katrina Diamond is currently a senior lecturer in Education and Early Childhood at UWE.

She has been involved in Education for 20 years, after an initial career travelling the world, with a background primarily in 14-19 education and adult learning, but focusing on Early Childhood more recently.

Her interests include positive psychology and its role in education and the field of psychoneuroimmunology and the mind-body connection.

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