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The Research Is In

Mindfulness Is All the Rage—But Does It Work?

The research shows that mindfulness reduces student stress and even improves academic outcomes.
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Are your students stressed out, tired, and unable to focus? They’re not alone. The average eighth-grade student now spends over 25 hours a year taking standardized tests, while the average high school student reports feeling stressed 80 percent of the time.

Even kindergartners are feeling more academic pressure, spending less time on art and music and more on math, reading, and assessment compared with the late 1990s. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, childhood stress can lead to permanent changes in brain structure and function, increasing the likelihood of learning difficulties, memory problems, and chronic diseases in adult life. Meanwhile, a 2013 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that the negative effects of stress persist into the high school years: 35 percent of teens lie awake at night because of stress, cutting into critical sleep time and increasing the likelihood that they’ll have concentration problems or experience feelings of sadness and depression.

Studies suggest that the amount of stress matters, and can impact student academic performance as well. While low levels of stress can boost memory formation, moderate and high levels of stress can impair a student’s ability to retrieve memories, making it more challenging to pass tests, write papers, or make a presentation in class.

Can mindfulness—a nonreligious form of meditation that teaches students to breathe, focus, and center themselves in the present moment—help reduce any of the detrimental effects of classroom stress or hectic student schedules? Can it help students learn, leading to gains in academic achievement? Many schools are betting on it, integrating relatively simple mindfulness techniques into the school day.

Mindfulness Reduces Stress

For Rebecca McLelland-Crawley’s middle school students, stress was becoming a major problem. When the school district surveyed students a few years ago on their stress levels, the responses were staggering.

“More than 80 percent of the kids at our school feel stressed, most or all of it bad. It’s normal to feel stressed—but it’s not normal for an 11-, 12-, and 13-year-old to feel toxic levels of stress. So that was how classroom mindfulness came about,” said McLelland-Crawley.

To address the problem, her students created their own mindfulness group, NüYü, to learn more about stress and to share healthy coping strategies with their school. Every week, they encourage other students to participate in the Panther “Pause” Challenge, a series of stress-reducing lessons and activities. NüYü students recently held a wellness fair for over 200 parents, students, and community members, at which they introduced yoga stations, stress balls, and glitter jars to participants. They also held workshops on mindful eating and explained the science behind mindfulness.

Now in its second year, the program is expanding to include sixth- and seventh-grade students at the school.

The research suggests that McLelland-Crawley’s students are on the right path—mindfulness can be an effective strategy to help students deal with stress. In 2014, a Dutch study found that elementary school students who participated in 30-minute mindfulness sessions twice a week for six weeks exhibited lower levels of stress, higher levels of well-being, and better behavior than their peers.

Mindfulness can be especially helpful for children who experience stress resulting from community violence, poverty, substance use, and trauma. In a 2015 study, students from two low-income, urban middle schools participated in a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program and experienced a range of mental and behavioral benefits, from lower levels of stress and depression to a more positive mood and better ability to cope with challenging situations.

Mindfulness Boosts Academic Performance

In addition to boosting students’ emotional and psychological well-being, mindfulness can yield academic benefits by increasing students’ ability to self-regulate and focus.

Annie O’Shaughnessy, a high school English teacher in Vermont, spends 10 minutes at the start of class every Monday practicing mindfulness with her students. Using a combination of mindfulness videos and breathing techniques, she helps students handle the stress and anxiety they typically experience during school.

“I teach mindfulness every single year in English class. After teaching it, I can go up to a kid who is about to give a presentation, and I can see that he’s in amygdala hijack mode. He’s forgotten what he’s going to say, and he wants to leave. So I tell him, ‘So now it’s time to do the breathing.’ So he does the square breathing exercise, where he breathes in, holds for four [seconds], breathes out, holds for four. And he’s then able to give his presentation,” she said.

As improbable as it sounds, taking a few seconds to breathe and focus can translate into academic benefits. In 2015, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that fourth- and fifth-grade students that participated in a 12-week mindfulness program had higher levels of attention, better retention, and 15 percent higher math grades than their peers. This was on top of psychological benefits such as lower levels of depression and increased feelings of optimism.

A 2016 study further explored the connection between mindfulness and cognitive benefits, looking at middle school students in a four-week mindfulness program. Compared with their peers, these students showed significant improvements in working memory capacity. “These results are consistent with the notion that the practice of meditation—which requires sustained attention while simultaneously redirecting attention back to the current experience—is closely related to the function of working memory,” researchers wrote in their study.

Academic benefits have been found for children as early as preschool. A 2015 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined a 12-week Kindness Curriculum program that included mindfulness exercises in addition to kindness practices such as empathy, gratitude, and sharing. Compared with their peers, the preschoolers participating in the program earned higher report card grades, in addition to showing more empathy, kindness, and willingness to share.

“Mindfulness is a great tool for learning,” explained O’Shaughnessy. “If I want my students to learn, I need their prefrontal cortex, I need their neocortex. I need those parts of their brain online, and in most grades, those parts of their brain aren’t going to be online until they’ve relaxed and done some mindful activities.”

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Barb Caines's picture

There is a lot of research out there supporting Mindfulness skills for our students. However, there are many "packaged" programs that are being sold to schools. Please be very skillful in researching and learning about mindfulness. Mindfulness is not about making children calm, or raising test scores and is at risk for being used without integrity. It is not something that has been proven successful to be rolled out top down either. It is also important, as research is supporting that the adults first need to establish and have their own practice first before introducing to their classrooms in any kind of significant way. There is actually a lot more to Mindfulness that is being studied and is important to be informed - it is a simple idea but actually not easy to do with integrity. It is getting misused in many ways and we also risk and have seen backlash around this resource because of this. Mindful Schools is one of the most ethical, school informed and well connected to research and other programs in the country - actually in the world. Do check them out. They are very clear about the need to be fully trained - before trying to implement. They are not out to make money but are fully invested in the value of Mindfulness to our children and are committed to incredibly generous sharing of resources, their expertise, empowering others, but only with protecting the integrity of the practice and the most ethical intention of Mindfulness. Do not fall for a few hour training program - it is not enough. It will not be sustainable - unless you yourself already embody mindful traits yourself.

Barb Caines's picture

Although I appreciate the shout out to Mindfulness and potential benefits to our children and society...This article is lacking in how teachers became familiar with Mindfulness - it is really best to have full training and be fully informed before introducing this. It is far too valuable of a resource to bring to our schools to not be fully informed - eventually there will be questions, push back, reactions from children who have trauma histories - if you are not prepared or will run into push back with the program as well as using the program, or having the program used and valued by the powers that be for the wrong well as potentially hurting your students. Basic breathing, and understanding the nervous system are important components...but to really understand Mindfulness fully - and teach your students more fully - there is a lot more to it than this.

Thomas Patrick Higgins's picture

My apologies; like I said, it was the middle of the night and I just wanted to say something quick about what I consider a very important topic but I never should have been so brief. Mindfulness should be taught in High Schools but by qualified and well trained mindfulness practitioners. Integrating meditation into Western school systems, if as you said, done properly would be an excellent way to integrate it into Western society in general. Meditation, as you know, is nothing new; The Buddha lived about 2500 years ago. I believe meditation in one form or another has existed for eons before that and people have always known of its power to uplift the mind, heart, body and soul. I have many personal struggles in my life and have struggled with a meditation practice myself. It comes easier for some than for others but all should be encouraged to pursue it for its potential is limitless.

Barb Caines's picture

Agreed. It is being heavily introduced into schools - and has needed to be specifically secular - there have been strong challenges to this alone. The science is an important component, as is the learning to pause through anchors - ie breath, senses, in short moments and in more formal opportunities to be quiet and look inward. The other piece that does not exist necessarily in different kinds of meditation- depending on where people are trained, think - Burma, India - what have the self compassion/self acceptance piece - or what they refer to in the Western version as paying attention, non judgmentally and with heartfulness (or self compassion that also leads to compassion for others).

Thomas Patrick Higgins's picture

The need for it to be secular is without question - meditation is not a religious practice. In fact spirituality isn't necessarily religious - it doesn't have anything to do with god. I consider myself to be a spiritual atheist; I struggle at times with being in touch with my soul but consider myself to be a spiritual being. I went through 12 years of Catholic School and I'd like to see All religious schooling abandoned in favor of a meditation - based spirituality where the focus is on expansion of the mind - The Heart, The Soul, and The Imagination - where Reason, Creativity and Humanism (or Loving-kindness) are some of the highest values.

Bridget Bolinger's picture

Being that I want to go into the elementary education field I think that it could be difficult for teachers to create a sense of importance around breathing exercises. Being that most of work with be with 5-10 years olds makes me question how to teach mindfulness as a topic of importance, not a time for students to goof off. In this discussion it seems as though people are more concerned with the religious aspect of meditation and less on other ways of teaching mindfulness to assist in stress management.

Barb Caines's picture

Hi Bridget, The secular piece is significant in public schools. The entire benefit can go down the tubes if this is challenged, so best to be informed. Do check out Teaching little ones on up is actually quite doable and there is a plethora of resources. However, developing your own experience and practice first is considered best practice and it is important to get some good and reliable training - there are many packaged type programs out there. Do your research. I have found Mindful schools to be full of integrity, with wise and generous folks - and it does not cost a bundle like many of them do. Becoming knowledgeable of the research, the neuroscience, the heartfulness and about the process of teaching mindfulness are all very important in order to develop this resource in our selves and in our students. Check out the video of Megan Cowan from Mindful schools teaching first graders about the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex...and mindful breathing to make good decisions - it will make you smile. This video is accessible on their website. The little ones really usually love all of the breathing, movement, heartfulness, eating...all kinds of experiences...If in doubt there is a sweet video with Elmo teaching about Breathing.

Blake's picture
7th Grade English Teacher

Hi Barb,

Thanks for your comments. I went to the Mindful Schools site and was impressed with what I saw. It does seem like a well-credentialed organization. If I can manage to sell mindfulness to my administration, this program will be first in the lineup. Thanks for sharing.

Sheldon S | The Knowledge Roundtable's picture
Sheldon S | The Knowledge Roundtable
Enthusiastic teacher, writer, and learner

Me too! I didn't buy into mindfulness practices until they turned out the be the only effective way for me to control my own severe panic attacks. Since then, I have seen a tremendous value in bringing mindfulness techniques like focused breathing, sensory awareness, and guided meditation into the classroom. I want my students to have the tools to cope with stress and anxiety that no one ever gave me.

Sheldon S | The Knowledge Roundtable's picture
Sheldon S | The Knowledge Roundtable
Enthusiastic teacher, writer, and learner

Even without a formal curriculum, there are still ways you can integrate mindfulness practices into the classroom. Don't let the almighty budget be the deterrent!

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