All teachers want their students to be calm, focused, alert, aware and creative, which is essentially what mindfulness is all about, so it’s no wonder the term has become a bit of a buzzword, even in mainstream education.
What is mindfulness?
A simple definition is: “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”Research into mindfulness
Research with children is not yet as extensive as with adults, and the studies carried out so far have some limitations, most notably small numbers and limited use of control groups. 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 with school-aged children have been published in reputable scientific journals. 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 students 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.
Other research suggests that there are a variety of mindfulness-based activities that are effective with students. These approaches include yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and Tai Chi, all of which may increase an individual’s capacity for attention and awareness. Yoga and Tai Chi may be more appealing to students because they combine focus on breathing along with movement, thus providing an outlet for youthful energy (Mendelson et al., 2010).
Mendelson et al. (2010) utilized yoga, breathing exercises and guided mindfulness practices in their study of the impact of mindfulness interventions on stress in fourth and fifth-grade students. The goal of using these interventions was to improve the children’s capacity for sustained attention as well as increase their awareness of and ability to regulate their cognitive, physiologic, and bodily states. Participants reported that they enjoyed the intervention and noticed a decrease in their symptoms of stress.
Research also shows yoga has physiological benefits that increase resilience to stressful events in students. Several teachers at my school, One World International School (OWIS) are already practicing these techniques in the classroom and we also offer yoga as an Extra-Curricular Activity after school.
Effects of mindfulness on development of the whole child
Mental health professionals and educators are increasingly interested in supporting the development of the whole child. Schools are beginning to spend time developing the emotional intelligence of the students, not just focusing on academics. Mindfulness-practices traditionally value the promotion of empathy, creativity, prosocial relationships, and compassion for self and other, the development of which will help children throughout their lives. As the Head of School I am always interested in developing emotional intelligence and mindfulness I use many of the techniques as suggested in the important books you will find on my bookshelf. These books being: The Mindful Leader, The Power of Mindful Learning and Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness.
Although research on mindfulness, especially with students, is still in relatively early stages, an increasing number of studies have shown the potential benefits of mindfulness practices for students’ physical health, psychological well-being, social skills, academic performance, and more. With these being the ingredients of a happy and healthy mind, learning will not be far behind.
Mendelson, T., Greenberg, M., Dariotis, J., Gould, L., Rhoades, B., & Leaf, P. (2010). Feasibility and preliminary outcomes of a school-based mindfulness intervention for urban youth. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38(7), 985–994.