Data Show Positive Outcomes Associated with Mindfulness Practice

Mindfulness, a centuries-old practice, is steadily making its way into discussions of business, parenting, and exercise.

Not surprisingly, one of the most exciting places where these practices are being explored is in the classroom.

In her literature review of 19 recent studies, Katherine Weare of the University of Exeter and Southampton explains that mindfulness practice is “likely to have beneficial effects on the emotional wellbeing, mental health, ability to learn, and the physical health of school students.” What’s more, Weare adds: “Such interventions are relatively cheap to introduce, have an impact fairly quickly, can fit into a wide range of contexts, and are enjoyable . . . for pupils and staff.”

Schools all over the nation — and the world — are experimenting with mindfulness practices to help students, in many cases those from low-income households, cope with challenges so they can learn better.

Beyond the data, there are compelling anecdotes supporting the efficacy of mindfulness practices in schools. For instance, at Arturo A. Schomburg Satellite Academy in the Bronx, English teacher Argos Gonzalez uses various forms of meditation with his classes, “a mix of black and Hispanic students in their late teens, most of whom live in one of the poorest districts in New York City.” Lauren Cassani Davis writes about Gonzalez in an Atlantic article. He participated in a yearlong certification program, during which he worked on skills like controlling his own attention and emotions. He also studied neuroscience, human physiology, and child development. Crucially, the program instructed him in ways of conferring these skills and knowledge to the kids in his classes.

Gonzalez seems deeply serious in his interest in mindfulness; while many critics dismiss the practice as faddish and lacking in substance, he and others believe that it requires study and consideration, and that it cannot just be haphazardly introduced into classrooms and workplaces with the expectation that it will improve outcomes.

Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco (one of the most innovative schools in the country) has also garnered attention for its use of mindfulness practices. The school has instituted Quiet Time, two structured 15-minute periods of silence each day. Even the school’s athletic director, who once dismissed these practices as “hippy stuff that didn’t work,” has been impressed by the 79-percent drop in suspensions and elimination of expulsions (not to mention the boosts in attendance, academic performance, and teacher retention).

Study after study suggests that mindfulness is a productive use of classroom time and deserves thorough consideration. Emily Campbell, a doctoral candidate at UC–Berkeley, wrote a brief digest of research in the field, reporting that outcomes associated with meditation practice in K–12 schools were especially marked among students from low-income backgrounds: "[I]mmediately after the program ended, student behavior improved significantly in all four areas measured — paying attention, self-control, classroom participation, and respect for others — and these gains were maintained seven weeks later." Another group of researchers found that mindfulness practice led to a dip in inattentiveness, symptoms of ADHD, and hyperactivity for a period of at least two months. A third article analyzed by Campbell claims that the two most notable results of implementing mindfulness practice were “stress relief and enhanced school climate.” Interestingly enough, this included an improvement in teachers’ moods (as reported by students).

Mindfulness programs, when they are a good fit for schools and students, can produce impressive results. But the integration of mindfulness into school curricula should be a conscious and careful decision. According to the UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools, administrators should consider the following questions in advance of implementing any new program:

(1) How much will the proposed mindfulness program contribute to efforts to enhance the school’s improvement agenda with respect to ensuring equal opportunity for all students to succeed at school?

(2) Where does the proposed program fit into that agenda?

(3) In adopting the program, will a school have to give up something important?

(4) Will the program help coalesce or interfere with efforts to develop a unified, comprehensive, systemic, and equitable approach to enhancing healthy development and addressing a full range of overlapping learning, behavior, and emotional problems?

For some school leaders, these questions have ready answers — and those administrators are typically able to find a place in their curricula for mindfulness practices. For others, the benefits are murkier. Some who reflect on the practice, for instance, may find that they are not altogether comfortable with the relationship between mindfulness techniques and religious traditions. Critics argue that meditation represents an attempt to incorporate Buddhism and Hinduism into public schools (a practice that would violate the separation of church and state). Others approach the issue of religion from an entirely different perspective, arguing that meditation, when disengaged from its spiritual component, is ineffective and useless.

Parents, educators, administrators, and other interested parties should consider the available research — there’s plenty out there — to ensure that mindfulness is incorporated well and meaningfully into classrooms (with the full understanding that it may not be for everyone). The Mindfulness in Schools Project provides an excellent starting point. Parents interested in finding out more about reading at home can also visit my previous Noodle articles about books for children and young adults to encourage mindfulness.

Wondering how the K–12 schools you’re considering are helping students address stress productively? Check out their school profiles, and ask a question about stress — or anything else.