By Shu Jie Ting, CEI Intern
Mindfulness is a phenomenon that is becoming widely applied across the globe. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of many prominent leaders advocating for educational progressivism, applies mindfulness in innovative ways to combat chronic pain, stress, and depression.
Mindfulness Trending in UAE Classrooms
Classrooms in the United Arab Emirates are also embracing the mindfulness movement as a technique to bring clarity and focus while promoting the wellbeing and resiliency of students. Dr. Christine Kritzas, a counseling psychologist in Dubai, affirms that mindfulness is fast “becoming a trend in the region.” She states that the popularity of teaching mindfulness is likely to have a “a great deal to do with the fast-paced, transient nature of this region” and that “individuals are desperate and hungry to find coping strategies that will bring some stillness and peace of mind amidst the excitement and chaos that this interesting yet challenging region provides.”
Such fervor in promoting mindfulness may stem from UAE’s higher-than-average rates of depression and mood disorders (Bener, Ghuloum, & Abou-Saleh, 2012; Ferrari et al., 2013). Dubai’s government programs to promote student happiness and reduce depression, led by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), have been encouraging mindfulness practices in schools. In fact, the KHDA collaborates with Southern Australia’s Department of Education and Child Development (DECD) to implement a UAE-tailored assessment of student wellbeing and to recognize schools that are actively working to ensure students’ wellbeing by introducing the Healthy and Happy School Award. Regional recognition is an exemplary model of motivation and can possibly be adopted in the United States as well.
Mindfulness Models in UAE Schools
In Greenfield Community School, Mindfulness Rooms incorporate a sensory room with a range of stimuli for students to use to center themselves. These rooms also incorporate reading areas, a positive affirmation wall, and are equipped with iPads that contain guided meditation routines for when students wish to meditate alone. Students are also encouraged to scribble on the Gratitude Tree to promote positivity and remind them of things they are grateful for.
As mindfulness in UAE schools is a fairly new concept, school counselors are spearheading its implementation (Barrack, 2015). Carmen Barrack, Learning Support Specialist and School Counselor in Abu Dhabi, writes that school counselors are “frontline workers who advocate for child protection” and often have relevant experiences advising for “body image difficulties, low self-esteem, self-harming, depression, anxiety.” As such, they often have existing trust and rapport with students for successful implementation of mindfulness practices. Not unlike the United States, the UAE also serves students of many nationalities. School counselors should be trained to be culturally sensitive in addressing ethical, moral and religious concerns when implementing new mindfulness practices.
Unique Challenges and Meaning of Mindfulness in the Arab-Islamic Context
Although the efficacy of mindfulness transcends theistic traditions and has become widely adopted across cultures, mindfulness practices have a surprising resonance with the Islamic tradition. However, to understand the success of teaching mindfulness in UAE schools, one must first observe the meaning of mindfulness and the unique challenges it presents in the Arab-Islamic context.
A recent study reports that one major challenge that Muslim women face is the lack of cultural connection they feel towards the content in mindfulness practices (Thomas, Raynor, & Bakker, 2016). Most of the stories used in mindfulness programs are “not from here, they do not relate to us, but they are not inappropriate,” one participant in the study said. Bridging this cultural disconnect with carefully curated stories and poems from culturally appropriate literature can improve mindfulness-based interventions for Muslim American students in the United States as well. Using examples of stories from the Sufi Islamic tradition may be highly resonant with contemporary mindfulness interventions.
For the sake of inclusivity, teachers are also encouraged to demystify or re-contextualize meditation in terms of the Islamic concept of khushū, which means “humility and presence-of-mind during prayer.” Many Muslim students are often more familiar with the idea of khushū, a state of mindfulness that combats distracting thoughts during prayer (Thomas, Furber, & Grey, 2017), which is practiced to discourage berating of oneself when lapses in concentration occur.
Though United Arab Emirates’ implementation of mindfulness practices in schools faces unique challenges, they are an exemplary leader in the mindfulness movement in the Middle East. Their techniques could be applied here in the United States to promote greater inclusivity. Adapting mindfulness-based interventions based on religious and cultural worldviews of students may also prove to increase effectiveness and should be considered as an option for Muslim students at the discretion of school leaders.
For more resources on teaching mindfulness in the UAE and on how to implement mindfulness more inclusively in the U.S., please check out this blog. It addresses unique challenges regarding gender and adaptations of curriculum elements for effective implementation.
Barrack, C. (2015). School psychology in the UAE: A mindfulness-based intervention explored.In Mental Health and Psychological Practice in the United Arab Emirates (pp. 223-232). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bener, A., Ghuloum, S., & Abou-Saleh, M. T. (2012). Prevalence, symptom patterns and comorbidity of anxiety and depressive disorders in primary care in Qatar. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology, 47(3),439-446.
Dutt, C., & Ninov, I. (2016). Tourists’ experiences of mindfulness in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing, 33(8), 1195-1212.
Ferrari, A. J., Charlson, F. J., Norman, R. E., Patten, S. B., Freedman, G., Murray, C. J., Vos, T., & Whiteford, H. A. (2013). Burden of depressive disorders by country, sex, age, and year: Findings from the global burden of disease study 2010. PLoS medicine, 10(11),e1001547.
Mirdal, G. M. (2012). Mevlana Jalāl-ad-Dīn Rumi and mindfulness. Journal of Religion and Health, 51(4),1202-1215.
Thomas, J., Furber, S. W., & Grey, I. (2017). The rise of mindfulness and its resonance with the Islamic tradition. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 20(10),973-985.
Thomas, J., Raynor, M., & Bakker, M. C. (2016). Mindfulness-based stress reduction among Emirati Muslim women. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 19(3),295-304.