Suffolk film-maker Katy Sheppard on mission to bring art of mindfulness to county's schools
When film producer Katy Sheppard made a BAFTA-winning documentary on homeless families the plight of the children involved left a lasting impression.
Later, during another project about primary school children and mental health, she saw how the practice of mindfulness could help pupils stay calm and cope with problems.
Now, mother of two Katy is a passionate supporter of mindfulness in schools and is doing all she can to promote it, including teaching it herself.
She has worked in TV for 20 years specialising in social issues and giving people a voice to tell their stories in a sympathetic way.
“Having worked on so many films where you see children impacted in so many different ways it’s lovely to bring something to them that can help all children,” she said.
Five years ago she was asked to make a film looking at primary school-age children’s mental health.
“With issues about anxiety and depression the children affected are getting younger,” said Katy who lives in Suffolk.
“One of the stories was about a young girl who was very, very poorly with anxiety. Her mum was a teacher and started looking into mindfulness, and then started taking it to her class.
“I’ve always tried to look at some of the positive stories as well. You can’t always just look at the problems and not the solutions.
“When I went into this school in Liverpool where they were doing mindfulness the children were amazing and they could speak so articulately about it.”
She stressed she was not talking about children who needed specific mental health interventions.
“We’re not talking about massive problems, but little wobbles – and they had the strategies to deal with them at the time.
“They were saying things like if I’m taking penalties and I do my ‘finger breathing’ I calm down. Others were saying ‘I use it to not reply to unpleasant messages on text’, and ‘it helps me calm down and helps me go to sleep’.
“I was blown away by this. Having just had my daughter I thought I’m going to find out more.
“I did a course with Martin Wilks, who is an amazing Ipswich-based mindfulness teacher. Through his courses I developed my own practise including retreat days, and I wondered if I could teach the course.”
She has since trained with the Mindfulness in Schools Project, having been helped with the mental health film by its national curriculum development director Claire Kelly.
Katy, who grew up in Rougham, went to the village primary school and Thurston Upper School before studying international history and politics at Leeds University.
Leeds is also home to Yorkshire Television, and a friend who worked in the art department of Emmerdale suggested she should consider being a researcher.
She started doing work experience with Yorkshire TV, fitting it around writing for a magazine that documented censorship around the world while also doing a ‘dead end job’ to help pay the bills.
Through the magazine she met producer Brian Woods and joined his company True Vision Productions which specialises in human rights-related subjects.
“It was there I learned my craft in terms of documentary film making and editing, and it was there I won the award,” she said.
“Then I was in London working on lots of films looking at different social issues, for instance Callum Best on what it’s like being a child of famous parents.
“I always had this approach of working with people in a really sensitive way. Supporting them to talk about things is quite a privilege. Then I went to Channel 4 News doing short pieces on social issues.
Katy met her husband Nick Black – a yacht rigging designer with whom she has two children Freya, eight, and Summer, six – while making a film about record-breaking quadriplegic sailor Hilary Lister.
She is now teaching mindfulness to eight and nine year-olds in Year 4 at Holbrook Primary School, where daughter Freya is one of the class ... and aims to spread the word further.
“I’d like to bring together like-minded people to allow mindfulness to be taught in more schools. If schools were interested we could get together a group of teachers to train.
“We’d let schools know it’s a proper curriculum that can go alongside PSHE lessons. I’d like to be able to go into other schools to introduce it.
“I’m really early on in what I’m trying to do with this,” said Katy who is currently doing the work on a voluntary basis.
“I don’t ever want to stop making films but I’m passionate about wanting to help children.
It helps with self esteem, concentration, self-regulation, coping with stress and a sense of well-being.
“I lost my dad when I was 13, and had also lost my grandparents. That gives you an affinity for how life can change for people so quickly.
“If as a teenager I had known about mindfulness it could have helped me with what I was going through.
“With Covid and lockdown I think we’re only just starting to see the effects on children. Mindfulness can calm you down, and having a way to understand how to do that well is really good.”
The Mindfulness in Schools project includes programmes for seven to 11 year-olds, and for 11 to 18s.
Each lesson includes a meditation. “The curriculum teaches children about their brain and decision making, kindness, compassion and little wobbles,” Katy explained.
“It helps with self esteem, concentration, self-regulation, coping with stress and a sense of well-being. It’s all evidenced now, the scientific research is all there now.
“I would like to see it in all schools. In some, mostly private schools, mindfulness is already really embedded.
“There is so much conversation about it now. What we are doing is ensuring children really understand it.
One technique she teaches is finger breathing – breathing gently in and out as you trace a finger up and down the fingers on the other hand.
“We also teach about attention and how your mind can wander. Your mind is like a puppy and you can train a puppy by being kind but firm.
“Being mindful it is not the same as being mindless. Sitting in front of the TV eating a bowl of cereal you are being mindless. Walking along a log you are being mindful.”
They also talk about snowglobes, to illustrate letting everything settle, and wobble dolls which don’t fall over because they are grounded.
“We are imparting a lot knowledge not just the practice.
“All this has been properly developed by mindfulness practitioners and educators,” she said.
You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf
“It shows how by tuning into the present moment you can make decisions and choices about what you do next. And noticing all the positive things in your life . . . positivity grows and spreads compassion, tolerance and kindness.
“Having that awareness . . . that’s what mindfulness is, being aware. So when you are reaching for your phone again you think do I really need to do that.
“It’s really useful for children to have more of a say over what their mind is doing. They are in control of their thoughts rather than their thoughts being in control of them.
“Tech has ingrained itself during lockdown, and mindfulness is the opposite of that. You don’t have to have a problem – it can be for all of us. I practise every day now first thing in the morning.”
Pupils are not the only ones who can be helped by mindfulness in schools. Teachers, who have also had a tough time during lockdowns, can benefit, too.
“The flipside is that the teachers have had a really difficult time. You have to have the practice of doing mindfulness to teach it, so teachers who are very busy might not have time to do that.
“Some might think oh no, not something else to add to my incredibly busy time. But it sits underneath their teaching and supports what they are doing.
“I would ideally like to take it to schools with years 4,5, and 6, and take it to a teacher who has an interest in it who can train at the same time.”
Katy believes there is something in mindfulness that really resonates with people.
To describe its effect, she quotes John Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in mindfulness-based stress reduction, who said: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
Katy can be contacted by email at email@example.com