International School Ho Chi Minh City has been developing a mindfulness program for their students, staff, and parents for the past three years, Elijah Ferrian gets to the bottom of this progressive look at education. Photos by Vinh Dao.

Mindfulness is defined as a mental state achieved by focussing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

International School Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC) is teaching this practice to it’s students in order to empower them to really take charge of not only their education, but their future.

“The idea emerged from the research that was started in 2013 for the re-missioning of ISHCMC,” head of school, Adrian Watts says. “The idea was that mindfulness would be introduced and an become an integral part of the empowerment of students. It also emerged from [conducting] teacher surveys and committee work regarding improving the wellbeing of ISHCMC staff and students From the beginning, this was a whole school initiative that was designed to underpin the move towards becoming a Positive Education school.”

Positive education, or Pos Ed, is a model of education for both traditional skills and for happiness. The high prevalence worldwide of depression among young people, the small rise in life satisfaction, and the synergy between learning and positive emotion all argue that the skills for happiness should be taught in school.

Alicia McKeogh, resident Lower Primary music teacher and the Leader of the Mindfulness program at ISHCMC, has been absolutely ecstatic about the program since its inception.

“I am a music teacher, and this new position is my dream job,” Alicia says. “I give as much as I can to develop mindfulness programs. The teachers were trained first, then the students and parents as well, to help to learn how to peer teach these concepts. It’s about positive education, a flow mentality and mindfulness. Pos Ed swirls around the spine of mindfulness, and the flow and passion of teachers and students is facilitating a lot of this. ISHCMC is changing education from the inside out. We are holding wellness and wellbeing in equal standing with academic achievement. We’re developing complete people here, not just great students.”

The Positive Education programme invites students to take a unique survey that outlines a list of 24 personal character strengths. Traits like appreciation of beauty, honesty and humour. They recently held an afternoon where the secondary students designed a T-shirt listing their top five signature character strengths. Then they were tasked with finding another student with the same exact five character traits as their own. Students were surprised when they found it impossible to find another person that was exactly like them.

The idea behind this and other activities is that if a student is not aware of and using these strengths, then there’s something wrong. If students aren’t securing their most prized parts of their identity, and subsequently not being able to nourish them, then the struggles of education and life itself tend to magnify. Like someone with a strong penchant for creativity sitting in a stale office, never utilising this strength doing some drab job. The deck is stacked against your mental, emotional and physical health.

“All ISHCMC students do ten minutes [of mindfulness practice] every morning lead by either their advisory teacher, or a group of students called ‘masters of mindfulness’,” Watts says. “There are many different mindfulness activities that are pursued by the students ranging from meditation to mindful drawing. Students have also tried mindful eating and mindful walking.”

But, why mindfulness practice for students? And why now?

“We are facing a crisis with adolescent health statistics, so it would be egalitarian of me to wish the best for all students in HCMC,” Watts explains. “That means having other schools follow the example set by ISHCMC. Mindfulness can have an amazing effect upon student calmness. By bringing students into the present and focusing on the right side of the brain, students can reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Having the skill to bring oneself into the present and stop worrying about the past, which you can’t change, and the future, which you don’t know, has to be a good skill to be taught and become proficient at using.”

When asked about a research component to the programme, and a way in which the school may be able to measure the net effect of mindfulness in schools to help other schools take on such a progressive undertaking, Watts explained that they’re working on it.

“We have not collected data on mindfulness because we don’t know what tools would be most effective. However, we will be working with the Institute for Positive Education to ensure that we can measure the difference that this makes to ISHCMC.”

Not only are the students reaping the benefits of a more mindful way of life – they are bringing it home to their parents.

“Parents have been very supportive of the programme,” Watts claims. “Many students have introduced their parents to mindfulness as a skill that they could use. Some students now meditate each day with their parents in the evening. Each day parents can attend a mindfulness class organized by Alicia, who with the help of some parents, facilitates a mini-mindfulness workshop each week. ISHCMC has run 8 week courses for parents to learn about mindfulness and introduce them to its practices. These have been very popular with the ISHCMC parents.”

Mindfulness programmes like the one currently being led at ISHCMC seem to be bringing in a new age of positive education for students, faculty, and parents alike. When students are encouraged to explore themselves, as well as the academic pursuits great schools provide, there seems to be all the makings for a unique recipe of success. Both in the classroom, and in daily life.