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What impact do mindfulness programs have on students?

In the beginning of September, I set out to be helpful, asking folks who had education questions to send them my way. Dalton’s curiosity was piqued about whether meditation works as a deterrent for less-than-desirable behaviors in schools, so I did a little research in response to the question: What impact do mindfulness programs have on students? Anecdotally, it seems that there’s great benefit to bringing mindfulness and meditation into the classroom: “Although no program evaluations have been conducted, anecdotally, faculty and staff credit MMBS [Mindfulness and Mind-Body Skills for Children] for the significant changes that have occurred since the program was implemented”[1]. Watching this video[2] is a compelling way to think about how mindfulness can be utilized to empower students instead of punish them. In several articles, it was apparent that the mindfulness practitioners, both adults and kids, felt that there was a benefit to what they were doing. And there’s a pretty compelling list of areas where schools are seeing positive impacts in students. One piece in Forbes highlights increased attention, better attendance, higher grades, a break from trauma, improved mental health, self-awareness and self-regulation, and social-emotional development[3]. Anyone who works with kids in any capacity would love to see these kinds of benefits, and the idea of an easy-to-implement solution is very appealing.

But finding widespread, peer-reviewed research studies in this area is challenging. The abstract of “Mindfulness Goes to School” states, “We offer a summary of research support for each program and discussion of unpublished, mostly qualitative indicators of feasibility, acceptability, efficacy, and effectiveness...We encourage researchers…to conduct rigorous program evaluations.”[4] And Brian Resnick of Vox says, “What we don’t know: How much of that effect [decreasing anxiety and increasing cognitive performance] comes from mindfulness instruction specifically versus just giving kids a chance to take a break from the busy school day. Also unknown: how much instruction kids need, if the effect on anxiety and focus last.”[5] Many psychological studies have trouble holding up over time (see our post “It’s More Than Okay to Question the Canon (and those who uphold it)” for more examples of this) because they can’t be replicated or because there were issues with the methodology; this has sparked debate about what can really be considered the canon in psychology. While the research on mindfulness is more contemporary and doesn’t have the clear benefit of hindsight, it does still have important limitations (How do we really isolate mindfulness as a practice and test for the effects of just that? How can we conduct this rigorous research on a broad enough scale in varied schools?). But the idea behind using mindfulness (and other proactive strategies to help build kids’ understanding) is both powerful and important: We should be teaching kids how to be aware of what’s happening inside their bodies and how to regulate their emotions and behaviors. When schools only think reactively about “problematic” moments, we miss a critical understanding—kids are not their behavior. [1] From: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5405439/ by Randye J. Semple, Ph.D., Vita Droutman, Ph.D., and Brittany Ann Reid, M.A. [2] From: https://www.facebook.com/60SecondDocs/videos/2181101245462733/UzpfSTEwMDAwMTE4NTUxNDA0NjoxODgxOTU5MDc1MTg2OTI1/?comment_id=1882201688495997&reply_comment_id=1882425138473652&notif_id=1538514241670304&notif_t=feed_comment_reply [3] From: https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2016/10/18/the-many-benefits-of-meditation-for-children/#af0612ddbe33 by Alice G. Walton [4] From: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5405439/ by Randye J. Semple, Ph.D., Vita Droutman, Ph.D., and Brittany Ann Reid, M.A. [5] From: https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/5/22/13768406/mindfulness-meditation-good-for-kids-evidence by Brian Resnick In addition to the resources listed in the footnotes, please check out: (1) "Should Schools Teach Kids To Meditate?" From the Atlantic, by Amanda Machado https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/01/should-schools-teach-kids-to-meditate/283229/ (2) "Being Mindful About Mindfulness" From Slate.com, by Elissa Strauss http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/family/2016/03/teaching_mindfulness_meditation_in_schools_a_skeptic_s_investigation.html Image courtesy of Wix.com.