Research Mindfulness in Schools
CHILDREN, YOUNG PEOPLE AND STAFF
The following includes two summaries of research into the impacts of mindfulness on children and young people and also on staff. These have been prepared by Katherine Weare, Emeritus Professor at the Universities of Exeter and Southampton.
More details of research into mindfulness in schools can be found on the Evidence Base pages of the MiSP website:
Impacts of Mindfulness on Children and Young People
Amongst adults there is reasonably strong evidence for the positive impact of mindfulness on a wide range of mental and physical health conditions, on social and emotional skills and wellbeing, and on learning and cognition. There is also good evidence from neuroscience and brain imaging that mindfulness meditation reliably and profoundly alters the structure and function of the brain to improve the quality of both thought and feeling.
Research with children and young people is not yet as extensive as with adults, and the studies carried out so far have some methodological limitations, most notably small numbers, and limited use of control groups or randomisation. Conclusions must therefore be tentative. Nevertheless, work is growing rapidly and the results are promising which suggests that mindfulness in schools is well worth doing.
Two recent systematic reviews and twenty individual studies of mindfulness interventions with school aged children, all with reasonable numbers of participants, have been published in reputable peer reviewed scientific journals. The interventions involved all age ranges, both volunteers and ‘conscripts’, children without problems and children with a range of mental and physical health problems, and took place in school, clinical and community contexts. The weight of evidence from these studies concludes that:
Mindfulness for young people is easy to carry out, fits into a wide range of contexts, is enjoyed by both students and teachers, and does no harm.
Well conducted mindfulness interventions can improve the mental, emotional, social and physical health and wellbeing of young people who take part. It has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, reactivity and bad behaviour, improve sleep and self-esteem, and bring about greater calmness, relaxation, the ability to manage behaviour and emotions, self-awareness and empathy.
Mindfulness can contribute directly to the development of cognitive and performance skills and executive function. It can help young people pay greater attention, be more focused, think in more innovative ways, use existing knowledge more effectively, improve working memory, and enhance planning, problem solving, and reasoning skills.
The studies also show that adolescents who are mindful, either through their character or through learning, tend to experience greater well-being, and that being more mindful tends to accompany more positive emotion, greater popularity and having more friends, and less negative emotion and anxiety.
Mindfulness is therefore likely to have beneficial effects on the emotional wellbeing, mental health, ability to learn and the physical health of school students. Such interventions are relatively cheap to introduce, have an impact fairly quickly, can fit into a wide range of contexts and are enjoyable and civilising, for pupils and staff.
Impacts on the well-being and performance of school staff
Mindfulness involves learning to direct our attention to our experience as it is unfolding, moment by moment, with open-minded curiosity and acceptance. It is a skill that can be learned by practices, akin to meditations, that focus on immediate felt experience in the breath, body and mind.
Interventions which teach mindfulness are proliferating in all sectors, including most recently in education for students and staff. Conclusions here about the benefits of mindfulness for school staff are based on solid evidence of the impact of mindfulness on adults, and a growing and promising evidence base on the impact on children and young people. Randomised control trials (RCTs) with adults and young people have shown moderate impacts on mental and physical health, social and emotional competences, and performance of various kinds, and on many indicators of quality of life and wellbeing. MRI (brain scan) studies suggest that mindfulness meditation reliably and profoundly alters the structure and function of the brain to improve the quality of both thought and feeling.
Specific mindfulness interventions for school staff are now developing, some connected to existing school based programmes, others within teacher education. There are currently 13 studies published in peer reviewed journals of mindfulness with school staff. They include 5 RCTs, 7 control studies, 3 before and after, and one qualitative study. They mostly use self-report methodology, but increasingly include tests of real world performance. Their findings echo the wider adult and workplace literature on the impacts of mindfulness, and show:
reductions in stress, burnout and anxiety, including a reduction in days off work and feelings of task and time pressure, improved ability to manage thoughts and behaviour, an increase in coping skills, motivation, planning and problem solving, and taking more time to relax.
better mental health including less distress, negative emotion, depression and anxiety.
greater wellbeing, including life satisfaction, self-confidence, self-efficacy, self- compassion and sense of personal growth.
increased kindness and compassion to others, including greater empathy, tolerance, forgiveness and patience, and less anger and hostility.
better physical health, including lower blood pressure, declines in cortisol (a stress hormone) and fewer reported physical health problems.
increased cognitive performance, including the ability to pay attention and focus, make decisions and respond flexibly to challenges.
enhanced job performance, including better classroom management and organisation, greater ability to prioritise, to see the whole picture, to be more self- motivated and autonomous, to show greater attunement to students’ needs, and achieve more supportive relationships with them.
This evidence base comes from well designed and implemented programmes, taught by skilled and well educated trainers with a personal practice of mindfulness. School staff need to themselves experience sufficient high quality education in mindfulness from well-educated trainers, and have a regular personal practice, in order to become skilled and authentic teachers of mindfulness and avoid doing harm.