Mindfulness for children with a visual impairment or additional support needs

Mindfulness is fast becoming common practice in mainstream education. It can foster wellbeing, improve self-confidence and self-esteem, and provide coping mechanisms, which contribute to positive mental health and wellbeing.
Mindfulness is even more relevant for children with a visual impairment or additional support needs, and is proved to have a hugely beneficial and often life-changing impact.
This blog has been written by the Manager of our Children and Young People's Service, Fiona Berry, in consultation with Aine Murphy, Drama Teacher at The Royal Blind School in Edinburgh.

Introduction

As the Covid-19 pandemic hit, I was due to go on a training course at the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh.  The training was on mindfulness for young people with vision impairments.  There’s been a growing buzz about mindfulness for a number of years now and is increasingly growing in popularity for children and young people, with many schools starting to implement the practice.  With this in mind and as well as being someone who practices mindfulness and meditation myself, I decided to find out more.  Many of our children and young people at Henshaws have told us they think it could help, and so we decided to do the training and introduce the practice as part of our ‘I Can Do It‘ course.

Sadly, the training obviously got postponed due to the restrictions put in place but I still wanted to know more!  So, I got in touch with the school and asked if they would like to help us do a blog to explain mindfulness and give a few tips of how it could be practiced with children with sight loss and other disabilities at home.

I spoke to Aine Murphey, the Drama Teacher at the school.  The school had been working on body awareness and relaxation techniques with their students for several years, but after working with mindfulness trainer, Stan Godek, the school has created a more tailored and structured programme for their pupils. The programme has been the subject of a short film which you can watch here.

What is mindfulness?

Essentially, mindfulness is the ability to rest the mind “in the moment”, whether focused on a specific object or image (meditation) or on a task (an exercise or a movement).  We can create a sense of relaxation through concentration – emotional stillness rather than arousal or distraction. The school programme was introduced to help students cope with difficulties that can accompany visual impairment.

Image shows young girl with eyes closed, holding a lamb in her hands
Image shows a boy and a girl sat cross-legged on the living room floor, both are smiling.

Why is it relevant?

Often young people with exceptional healthcare needs have to get used to things ‘being done’ to them or around them. Mindfulness provides space around them and within them. Through mindfulness you can create an atmosphere of calm with a focus on the young person’s holistic being, not just their physical needs. This means taking time to focus on where they are emotionally, their levels of stress, anxiety and pain while building trust and communication.

Mindfulness activities can be adapted so they are accessible to these young people helping them manage their own stress responses, feel good and have fun, as well as relax and find space for learning. Mindfulness is the act of paying more attention to the present moment, to your own thoughts and feelings and your environment in order to improve your mental wellbeing.

Top tips for mindfulness:

  • Setting up for comfort– make sure the young person is in a position that they can relax, e.g. hoisted on to a bean bag or wedge.
  • Remove clutter – remember that clutter is not just visual; it is also sound, chat, computers and technology in the background, and people focusing on other jobs/things in the room.
  • All people should participate along with the young person (or leave the room).
  • Make sure the environment is safe – nothing within arms reach.
  • Create an atmosphere – dim the lights, use coloured/fairy lights, calm music, or have a smell with a diffuser/oil burner.
  • Calm music – make sure it is only used for mindfulness so that the young person learns to recognise it as the relax music.
  • As much as possible use the same person/voice using the same repetitive words each session (you may want to create your own simple script).
  • Try to run the session at the same time each day/week.
  • Timings of stillness and silence – start off with a few minutes and let the time expand each week.

Observations and evidence

  • Increased relaxation of tone.
  • Children becoming still and watchful.
  • Children are seen to respond to the atmosphere more quickly and deeply as the weeks go on.
  • Noticeable improvement in anxiety attacks, especially in times of transition.
  • Changed facial expressions, for example lots of smiling, being watchful, stilling of eye movement and facial tension.
  • Build-up of trust and relationships.
  • Reduced agitation at the end of the day, and other times of transition.

Further information

For a more detailed look at specific case studies linked to The Royal Blind School programme, to view videos of mindfulness with ASN, listen to ready to use audio files and ‘how to’ demonstrations, please follow this link to the Royal Blind School Learning Hub.

So, there we have it – thank you to Aine for helping us understand more about mindfulness.  The school also introduced materials to the mindfulness exercises, bringing different textures, sounds and smells such as fur, feathers, water, sand, peppermint oil, leaves (even jelly), as an aid to story-telling and as ‘sensory stations’ for pupils to quietly explore.

Why not try this too – TacPac are a great organisation with lots of ideas and resources to draw together touch and music to create a structured sensory communication between two people.  It is great for anyone who has sensory impairment, developmental delay, complex learning difficulties, tactile defensiveness, and limited or pre-verbal levels of communication.

Touchdown Dance

The Royal Blind School programme also involved Tai Chi, focussing on breathing and controlled movements, outside in the school grounds where possible.

We thought this was a great idea and so have worked with our friend Katy Dymoke at Touchdown Dance, a specialist vision impairment dance company to develop some mindful movement audio clips for children and young people (and grown ups!) to do at home.

Follow the top tips for mindfulness above, and get involved on the Henshaws YouTube channel or click the links below:

Mindful Movement 1: Wake Up, Shake Up

This is a session to wake up the body. You need a space to sit on a chair or stand up and stretch your arms out to the side, in front and over your head. Please wash your hands before as we touch our head and palm our eyes.

Mindful Movement 2: Movement with Ball

This is an audio described gentle movement session involving a small ball, or an object that is easy to pass between both hands – a small cushion or small soft toy will do. You can stand or sit to do this. You need a space free of furniture or leads so that you can reach around you with the ball in all directions. You can do this alone or with a family member, it’s good for exercise and relaxation.

Mindful Movement 3: Legs (coming soon!)

This is an audio described session about balance and weight transference over our feet. You need a space where you can stand for 15 minutes, it is a gentle session that will help you balance and feel good.

Mindful Movement 4: Legs in Movement (coming soon!)

This session is more active, so you need a space you can walk around in, a few steps in each direction (you can manage with a couple of steps in each direction). You will lift your legs, jump and do hops, to get your legs and your body active.

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Sarah
Sarah
Sarah is the Marketing Manager with responsibility for Community Services across Greater Manchester, and the Knowledge Village.