Mindfulness

Pros and Cons of Mindfulness in SEL

Mindfulness interventions should be just one component of social and emotional learning.

August 14, 2018
Three teachers meeting at a table in the staff lounge. There's a laptop on the table and they're in deep discussion about curriculum.
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Perhaps the most popular current trend in social and emotional learning (SEL) practices is mindfulness. It’s not difficult to understand why. In 2017, mindfulness interventions were designated as deserving a full chapter in the Annual Review of Psychology. It’s a topic featured in many popular outlets and has come to be identified with the field of positive psychology.

While there is no single definition, most agree that mindfulness is designed to help individuals focus on their present experiences and reduce the stress they may be experiencing. It’s a brief practice, taking only a handful of minutes, with a variety of benefits reported, including reduction of depression, chronic pain, and addictive behaviors, as well as stress.  

While it may seem simple at first to control one’s breathing or direct one’s thoughts to one’s immediate surroundings, integrating these experiences into one’s everyday life, and especially applying them in difficult circumstances, requires much practice and effort. Relatively little research has looked at the long-term use of mindfulness practices following interventions, and its enduring effects, especially in schools. When we consider SEL and the practice of mindfulness, there are a couple of things that come to mind for me.

Mindfulness Is Just a Part of SEL Curriculum

Mindfulness can seem like a concise way to implement SEL. However, SEL involves many skills, more than the ones systematically developed by most mindfulness curricula. For example, emotional recognition in self and others is a skill that certainly is linked to being mindful but is not necessarily developmentally exercised in most mindfulness approaches.

One can certainly imagine that the ability to be in a mindful state might help clear one’s mind for important decision making. Yet the detailed skills of decision making and problem solving, which are central to many lessons in SEL curricula, are not given the same emphasis in mindfulness. 

Mindfulness interventions may lead school personnel to cope better with difficult and challenging conditions. That is a good thing, of course. But if that reduces the motivation to change troubling situations and school systems that are leading to such stress, it may not be so good. Mindfulness could lead to complacency by encouraging acceptance of circumstances that are difficult not only for educators but for students as well—circumstances that teachers and students should make efforts to change instead of accepting them.

Three Considerations 

As we continue with mindfulness interventions in SEL curricula in our schools, here are three considerations for us to ponder and discuss with colleagues:

  1. Mindfulness can help students cope with stresses they experience in school and could make them more available for learning, but mindfulness programs are not a substitute for comprehensive SEL and character development interventions and positive changes in school-wide climate.
  2. If you are implementing mindfulness interventions, consider supplementing them with activities focused on developing students’ emotion vocabulary and recognition skills, as well as their problem-solving skills.
  3. Mindfulness interventions for adults in schools are not a magic bullet. Educators must be wary that mindfulness may be indirectly and subtly fostering complacency or sidelining energy that otherwise might be focused on changing conditions in schools that should be considered intolerable working conditions for them and counterproductive learning conditions for their students.

There is balance at play here, and as mindfulness ramps up in popularity, educators need to weigh both its benefits and limitations when it comes to SEL curriculum.