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October 1, 2015
Vol. 73
No. 2

Research Says / Promising, But Incomplete, Results for Mindfulness

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At the DREAM Academy in Harlem, New York, with a backdrop of car horns and sirens, students enter a darkened classroom, sit down, and breathe deeply. For several minutes, they do nothing—except clear their minds and focus on the here and now (Gregoire & Resmovits, 2015). School leaders insist this daily practice improves behavior, classroom focus, and ultimately, achievement. They're joined by many schools across the United States that have begun incorporating mindfulness programs into their school days.
Borrowing from the positive psychology movement that aims to head off negative behaviors before they arise by fostering optimism and self-determination, mindfulness programs teach students to practice meditation, yoga, reflection, and self-talk to help them embrace the moment, ruminate less on the past, and worry less about the future. It's a sensible proposition: Scientific studies have, in fact, shown that mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation can reduce stress, create positive states of mind, bolster immune systems, improve eating and sleeping habits, and reduce substance abuse (Meiklejohn et al., 2012). So what does research say about the benefit of mindfulness for students?

Research Shows Promise

Not much rigorous research has been done on mindfulness programs—a recent review found only 14 rigorous studies—yet this small body of research has found positive effects on a variety of outcomes: student attention, anger management, focus, behavior, test anxiety, executive function, and sleep patterns (Meiklejohn et al., 2012).
Canadian researchers, for instance, examined 246 students in grades 4–7 who participated in a 10-week program called MindUp, a series of lessons during which students practiced "mindful attention awareness" techniques, such as quieting their minds, managing negative thoughts, and viewing challenges as opportunities. Researchers found positive pre- to post-test changes in students' optimism (such as affirmative responses to statements like "more good things than bad things will happen to me"). Teachers reported immediate changes in student behavior and found students in the program to be generally more attentive, emotionally regulated, and socially competent than students in the control group (Schonert-Reichl & Lawlor, 2010).
More recent studies have added to our knowledge on mindfulness's effects.
  • A British matched-comparison study involving 500 students ages 12 to 16 examined the effects of the Mindfulness in Schools Program (a nine-week program of scripted weekly lessons). After three months, students participating in the program reported lower stress, fewer symptoms of depression, and greater well-being than nonparticipants (Kuyken et al., 2013).
  • One study tracked 400 students in the Mindful Schools program (which taught them to meditate over five weeks). Researchers found improvements in all four outcomes: paying attention, self-control, classroom participation, and respect for others (Black & Fernando, 2014). The effects persisted even when students were retested seven weeks later.
  • A study at a low-income elementary school in the Midwest examined the effects of the Move-into-Learning program, which provides weekly 45-minute sessions of yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises set to music along with opportunities for self-expression through writing and visual arts. Children's hyperactive behavior, symptoms of ADHD, and inattentiveness decreased, according to teacher observations (Klatt, Harpster, Browne, White, & Case-Smith, 2013).
Despite these positive outcomes, researchers haven't demonstrated a link between mindfulness programs and student achievement. Moreover, mindfulness programs aren't without critics. An elementary school in Ohio, for example, discontinued its meditation program after parents expressed concerns about its connections to Eastern religion. A California district was sued on the grounds that its mindfulness program was indoctrinating children with Hindu beliefs (Machado, 2014).
Proponents of mindfulness programs insist that they are secular, but without a stronger link to student performance, it can be difficult to persuade skeptical communities to support them. In light of this resistence, it's worth noting that a meta-analysis of 213 studies of social-emotional learning (SEL) programs—which aim to teach students to recognize and manage their emotions, set and achieve goals, appreciate others' perspectives, and develop positive relationships—found these programs effective in improving students' social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance—equivalent to an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011). Schools wishing to achieve many of the same outcomes as mindfulness programs plus raise student performance might do so with these presumably less controversial, better-documented approaches.

Toward Simplicity

As the adage goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because researchers haven't yet shown a link between mindfulness and student performance doesn't mean it's not there. It's probably not a stretch to speculate that, like SEL programs, mindfulness programs could someday be shown to have positive effects on student achievement, especially as many of the already demonstrated outcomes—including greater executive function, self-efficacy, and self-regulation—are linked to student achievement.
Anecdotally, some schools trying mindfulness report positive effects on learning. After implementing daily meditation, Visitacion Valley Middle School, a high-poverty school in San Francisco, saw attendance rates climb, suspension rates plummet, and grade point averages improve (Kirp, 2014). The simple program affected student behavior, school climate, and academic performance—outcomes that more complex, expensive efforts like adding counselors, tutors, and after-school programs hadn't achieved.
The simplicity of mindfulness programs may, in fact, turn out to be their advantage. Durlak and colleagues' meta-analysis (2012) divided SEL programs into two groups—multicomponent programs (involving parent, schoolwide, and classroom interventions) and single-component programs (occurring only in classrooms)—and found that more complex programs didn't deliver better results. They also found that 39 percent of SEL programs were plagued by implementation issues, leading to significantly poorer outcomes (effectively cutting effect sizes in half). Program complexity likely contributed to poorer implementation.
In the end, improving social-emotional outcomes may not require complex approaches but may be possible with something as simple as brief meditation sessions, which themselves could be an antidote to the "busyness" of school life—that nagging feeling that we must do more to accomplish more. Implemented thoughtfully and documented carefully, mindfulness approaches could serve as another example of the fact that sometimes the best approaches work precisely because of their simplicity.
References

Black, D. S., & Fernando, R. (2014). Mindfulness training and classroom behavior among lower-income and ethnic minority elementary school children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 23(7), 1242–1246.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students' social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.

Gregoire, C., & Resmovits, J. (2015, May 7). How mindfulness has changed the way Americans learn and work. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/07/mindfulness-schools-workplace_n_7085718.html

Kirp, D. L. (2014, January 12). Meditation transforms roughest San Francisco schools. San Francisco Gate.

Klatt, M., Harpster, K., Browne, E., White, S., & Case-Smith, J. (2013). Feasibility and preliminary outcomes for Move-into-Learning: An arts-based mindfulness classroom intervention. Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(3), 233–241.

Kuyken, W., Weare, K., Ukoumunne, O. C., Vicary, R., Motton, N., Burnett, R., et al. (2013). Effectiveness of the Mindfulness in Schools Programme: Non-randomised controlled feasibility study. British Journal of Psychiatry, 203(2), 126–131.

Machado, A. (2014, January 27). Should schools teach meditation? The Atlantic.

Meiklejohn, J., Phillips, C., Freedman, M. L., Griffin, M. L., Biegel, G., Roach, A., et al. (2012). Integrating mindfulness training into K–12 education: Fostering the resilience of teachers and students [White paper]. New York: Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.

Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & Lawlor, M. S. (2010). The effects of a mindfulness-based education program on pre- and early adolescents' well-being and social and emotional competence. New York: Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for 15 years, serving previously as Chief Operating Officer and Director of Communications and Marketing. 

He has authored or co-authored several books, including Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student SuccessThe 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning: Tools for Achieving Success in Your School and The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020. Goodwin also writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership magazine. 

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