Do you teach children who find it hard to control their emotions?
Looking for a way to help them:
- Regulate their emotions
- Reduce their anxiety
- Improve concentration and memory
Social media and the internet are full of articles suggesting mindfulness can help with all of these areas.
(For the uninitiated, mindfulness is a form of meditation.)
And more and more often, supporters are encouraging schools to run mindfulness-based interventions for students.
But does it actually work? (And specifically, does it work for school-aged children?)
To answer this question, I've been digging into the scientific studies that have put school-based mindfulness interventions under the spotlight.
And in this article, I'm going to share the results.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a form of meditation.
During mindfulness, you pay attention to what’s happening inside and outside your body, on a moment-by-moment basis.
You ask yourself the question, “What’s happening right now?”
And when your mind wanders off into thoughts, plans or memories (as all minds do), you:
- notice your brain has stopped paying attention to what’s happening “in the moment”
- and direct it back to what you are experiencing in the present moment
Supporters claim this makes you much more aware of emotions and stresses as they happen.
This means you can be more controlled and thoughtful in how you respond to those emotions.
When you notice strong emotions rising, you can ask the question, "Is feeling like this helpful? Does it help me solve the problem?"
(See our article, "How to help students with sudden anger outbursts" for why this would be helpful.)
If these claims are true, it makes sense that mindfulness could help children regulate their emotions and behaviour.
The next question is: what actually happens to our brains when we meditate?
Mindfulness and brain activity
Scientists have used a range of scanning techniques to learn what goes on in our brains when we meditate.
And it turns out, mindfulness activates the areas associated with:
- compassion, empathy and self-awareness
- regulating heart rate and emotions
- focus and learning
- planning, decision-making and moderating social behaviour
These are definitely qualities that are key to success in the modern classroom.
But it's not quite so simple, because there are unanswered questions around:
- how long these effects are sustained after meditation
- how much meditation you need to achieve these benefits
The state of research into mindfulness, emotions and behaviour in children
The quality of the studies into mindfulness and school-aged children varies. A lot.
The problem is, often the studies:
- are small in scale (so they only include small numbers of children – often fewer than a hundred)
- don’t follow-up to see if mindfulness had a long-term impact
- deliver the mindfulness training in different ways (ie. does a teacher deliver the programme, or does the school use an outside facilitator?)
- rely on children and adults to say whether they felt the intervention worked (rather than relying on an objective measure)
Here's an example.
In 2016, a UK study looked at the impact of a mindfulness programme on primary-aged children.
The 8-week programme:
- was delivered by teachers to 7-9 year olds across 3 primary schools
- had a measurable impact on emotional-regulation scores
- was well received by the students
Sounds good, but... the study size was small.
Only 71 children took part - 33 of which received the mindfulness intervention. (The other 38 children formed the control group.)
Because a low number of children took part, all we can say is it worked for this small group of individuals. We can't say this will work for large numbers of children.
We need a large, well-designed trial to tell us whether mindfulness improves children's emotional resilience.
And it's simply not there.
But that's not the end of the story.
The final verdict
In 2017, researchers worked around this problem by combining the results of 24 small-scale trials. These trials included 3977 pupils in total.
They wanted to see if there were any common outcomes or trends.
And here’s what they found.
- mindfulness interventions were helpful in helping children develop learning skills and emotional resilience
- the effect ranged from small to moderately significant
- the largest effect was on pupils aged 15-18
- effectiveness also depended on whether a teacher or outside trainer delivered the programme
Is mindfulness a ‘magic bullet’ for improving concentration, focus and emotional regulation in our schools?
Maybe not…the impact was more limited than that.
Mindfulness practice can have a measurable impact, but it's not a revolutionary cure for emotional and behavioural problems. Think small (but significant) gains rather than radical change.
And across most studies, scientists agreed this was a new field - and larger scale trials needed to be completed to learn more about the effectiveness of mindfulness programmes.
So if you’re interested in starting a mindfulness intervention in your school, two key factors to consider are the quality of:
- the person delivering the intervention (how experienced / knowledgeable are they about mindfulness?)
- the programme you use
And by the way: if you're a teacher delivering a mindfulness programme, there may be a side-benefit.
A 2012 study suggested mindfulness training may help teachers build their own resilience... and prevent burnout.