Does Mindfulness Help Kids Manage Their Emotions?

Does Mindfulness Help Kids Manage Their Emotions?

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Evidence shows that mindfulness can have a positive impact on the thoughts and emotions of adultsâ€Ã but is the same automatically true for children? And should we be investing time helping kids learn mindfulness techniques in class?

In this episode of school behaviour secrets, we explore what mindfulness is, how to use it with children, and review the scientific research into mindfulness and children. All aimed at answering the question: Does mindfulness work for children who struggle with strong emotions?>

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Show notes / transcription

Simon Currigan  0:00  

There are many small scale trials out there that have found some impact has been shown that mindfulness can in italic have an impact on optimism and positive emotions. It can help with an improvement in social and emotional competence. It can cause decreases in aggression, can decrease in oppositional behaviour in the classroom, can cause improvements in motivation, can cause improvements in calm and self acceptance, can lead to reductions in depression, anxiety, but again, when you dig into the details of all of these studies, they are often small in scale. 

This is the school behaviour secrets podcast. Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to school behaviour secrets. Whereas other educational podcasts are like shiny luxury cars with slick production values and high aspirations. We're more like a donkey. We're here to eat all your carrots and then fertilise your lawn. I'm joined by my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma. 

Emma Shackleton  1:33  

Hi, Simon. 

Simon Currigan  1:35  

Well, this week I considered shaking up the podcast format and then I decided to ask you a question instead. According to a recent survey of 2000 UK adults, what were the top ways we like to unwind and de stress, drink alcohol and then fall asleep? An Englishman doesn't need much of an excuse to have a drink does he really

Emma Shackleton  1:54  

Well? How about watching TV or listening to music exercise for unwinding too? I love exercising

Simon Currigan  2:02  

The top three answers were 16%  said they'd like to go on a long walk. 

Emma Shackleton  2:07  

That's Exercising. 

Simon Currigan  2:03  

16% said they like to spend time with animals. Yeah. And 20% said they'd like to go shopping. I feel this list has been sanitised. Here I think people were kind of like hiding their true preferences. They didn't want to be embarrassed in front of the person asking the questions. 

Yeah the top answer was definitely drinking alcohol and falling asleep. Although it is good to spend time with animals too. Anyway, what's this got to do with this week's episode?

So this week, we're going to ask the question, does mindfulness help kids to manage strong emotions? because there's loads of evidence out there about the positive impact of mindfulness for adults, but we wanted to look at what kind of research has been done with school aged kids, and whether those positive results read across for children.

Emma Shackleton  2:51  

Ah, interesting. But before we reveal the results of that research, I've got a quick request to make. If you're listening to this right now, please, could you open your podcast app and use the Share button to share this episode with three friends or colleagues who you think will find the information useful. And that means you'll be able to have a bigger impact than just on your classroom and the students that you work with. But you'll also reach out to the students that they work with too.

Simon Currigan  3:18  

So let's take a deep breath, focus our efforts and give a mighty blow on that to rusty french horn we call behaviour.

Emma Shackleton  3:27  

So among adults, there's reasonably good evidence that mindfulness is good for life satisfaction, self regulation, and overall happiness. But what about the research that focuses on children in particular? Well, let's start by looking at what mindfulness actually is.

Simon Currigan  3:46  

So mindfulness is when we stop and pay attention to the world around us. So that our attention is drawn to the current moment. Often, when we're walking around, we're thinking about what we need to do later, we might be bringing up shopping list of things we need to collect, we might be thinking about, you know, our to do list for work, we might be thinking about where we have to be do we have to pick up the kids after school? These are all things that take us out of the current moment. And mindfulness is all about putting that to one side and intentionally focusing on what's happening now. So some examples of that might be mindful breathing, which is where you start what you're doing, and you pay attention to your breath as it enters your body. The physical sensations around that does your stomach, you know increase in size, do you feel a relaxing of tension around your shoulders? Where do you feel the breath in your nose and mouth? And how does it feel as it breathes out, bringing our mind to the current moment, it might be mindful walking, where you think about the pressure of your body on the soles of your feet and how that pressure shifts. As you walk it might be mindful listening, which is where you stop and pay attention very carefully to the sounds that are happening around you without putting labels on them or telling stories about them. Just listening for the different sounds and bringing yourself into the present moment. The idea is if you're more aware of your thoughts and emotions in the now, you can recognise and identify them, and then dismiss them if they're negative thoughts or negative emotions, or you can take some sort of alternative action, so they don't overwhelm you.

Emma Shackleton  5:20  

And we know that many children who experience strong emotions really lack that moment by moment, self awareness, Viktor Frankl said there is a gap between stimulus and response, something happening to us and taking action. So if we can take action in the gap, then we are more in control of our actions. Put another way, there's a saying, which goes all the way back to Seneca that basically goes, I'm not responsible for my first thought. But I am responsible for my second thought. So you have automatic thoughts that bubble up all day long, everybody does. Some of those thoughts are positive, some of those are negative. And this isn't something that you should fight against, because it's actually something that your brain is programmed to do.

Simon Currigan  6:10  

Yeah, we know we can't prevent people from getting away from automatic negative thoughts. I mean, the label automatic means it happens without your choice, it happens subconsciously, these things are constantly bubbling up. So you truly aren't responsible for your initial thoughts. When something happens if someone cuts you in a car, you're not responsible for those initial feelings that you have, or the initial thoughts that you have. But you are responsible for your second thought you are responsible for what happens next. So you might get upset when someone cuts you up in traffic, that you are responsible when you lean across some beep on the horn or shout some four letter words out of the window, whatever your reaction to that is, hopefully it's karma. Now, I'm not kind of like revealing my individual preferences here, we are responsible for the follow up thoughts, the actions that we take. And that's often to do with the stories we tell ourselves about those thoughts were happening, if we tell ourselves stories, that everyone's out to attack us and try and beat us and get the things that we're entitled to. When someone cuts us up in traffic, we're going to have very negative thoughts and likely to take negative actions in response to that if someone cuts us up in traffic, and we tell ourselves stories, like sometimes people are late and they're desperate to get somewhere, maybe they have a medical appointment that they're going to miss, then our actions will be different, we have the same trigger the same event. But the stories we tell ourselves influence our follow up thoughts and actions. One mindfulness practice actively tackles this, you sit in a quiet room, and just pay attention to and notice your thoughts as you pop up. And then you deliberately just dismiss them, whatever they are, you just let them go. She's just sitting there in the quiet. And your brain will naturally produce a set of automatic thoughts, some will be positive, some will be negative, some will be neutral. And as we catch ourselves having those thoughts, which is entirely natural, we just dismiss them, we don't tell ourselves off, we're not trying to have a deliberately quiet mind, which is paying attention to those thoughts and feelings. And then just saying you can go You can stop now. And then going through another period of quiet when you're stressed or angry, it can feel like your thoughts or feelings are constant. Like they're hard to shift, or they'll never go away. We're going to be constantly in this state of anger. It's almost like because a very permanent emotion. And what this practice does is it trains us that the idea is wrong. Our thoughts and emotions are like clouds passing in the sky, Feelings come and then they go again. Thoughts come, and then they go again. They don't stay forever. And when we notice unhelpful thoughts or negative thoughts or negative emotions, realising this, that they're like clouds in the sky empowers us to just notice them, dismiss them and let them go. 

Emma Shackleton  8:46  

So then, when it comes to regulating emotions, mindfulness seems to help by allowing us to serve on emotion. When we notice anger or anxiety rising, we recognise it and stay with it, labelling it and then dismissing it and waiting for it to pass rather than not having those emotions at all in the first place, which is the focus of many other practices around strong emotions. So we're not actually trying to get rid of those emotions. We're just trying to notice them, recognise them for what they are, put the accurate label on them, which we know takes the sting out of big emotions, and then let them pass. We don't have to feel any emotion and then immediately act on it. We're trying to work with that gap. It's also been shown in MRI scanners that mindfulness turns off the part of the brain called the posterior cingulate cortex. This area of the brain lights up when we are thinking about ourselves are craving something or we are daydreaming, it could be by shifting the focus away from ourselves, helps us to regulate our thoughts and emotions more effectively. So we're kind of taking a psychological step back from the problem and analysing this in a less The personal, more detached way.

Simon Currigan  10:02  

So does this work in practice with children? What does the evidence say? Well, let's think about how mindfulness might impact on positive outlook first, and kids life satisfaction. There was a really interesting study in 2020, that looked at the effectiveness of mindfulness training for nine and 10 year olds. So this was a six week programme. So it was a sustained programme, and involved 108 Children, half of which were given a mindfulness programme as part of their normal curriculum entitlement, and the other half just carried on, you know, doing their normal work that they would do at that time. Compared to the control groups. The researchers found that children in the mindfulness group did show significant improvements in positive outlook and life satisfaction. And the majority of the children also said as a side benefit that they enjoyed the sessions. And when researchers asked children the question, do you feel you are now living with more friendliness towards yourself and others? over half 55% said, yes, 43% said that they didn't know. And those effects weren't just immediate. They persisted when the researchers followed up with the students. Although they did find that the effects of that mindfulness intervention did fade over time. This is a reasonably sized study of a group of mainstream children, we took about 100 kids, but it did rely on children's self reporting accurately. And we do have to question about how effective how well those children were able to answer those questions. It requires a certain amount of self knowledge that they may or may not be able to access consistently. What it proved was that for a small group of kids just 64 received the mindfulness intervention in the end, that he could have a positive impact. And I'm not saying that's a bad thing. Those signs are positive, but is a sample of 64 children. Are they going to be representative of children as a whole when we scale up these kinds of interventions, so it was a positive study, but it was a small study. I'd just like to take a pause for a moment and say that if you're finding this podcast useful, then you're going to love what we've got waiting for you in our inner circle programme. The inner circle is your one stop shop for all things behaviour. It's a comprehensive platform filled with videos, resources and behaviour inspiration to get you unstuck with classroom behaviour. We've got training resources on de escalation, supporting kids with anxiety support strategies for conditions like autism, ADHD, and PDA. practical ways of helping pupils deal with strong emotions, assertive behaviour management techniques for managing the whole class setting out to a classroom environment for success. Resetting behaviour with tricky classes, and more. Our online videos walk you through practical solutions step by step, just like Netflix, you can turn an inner circle subscription on or off whenever you need to, with no minimum contract Plus, you can now get your first seven days of inner circle but just one pound, get the behaviour answers and you've been looking forward today with inner circle visit to  and click on the inner circle picture near the top of the homepage for more information Okay, so let's look at the effects of mindfulness and emotional well being. Another study back in 2005 looks at the impact of mixing mindfulness and relaxation techniques with five to eight year olds. This time the sessions ran for 12 sessions, and each of those sessions was 45 minutes long. Now the biggest impact of this research was that on children's ability to make conscious choices of what to pay attention to, and the student's experience of test anxiety, however, the ability to sustain attention was weaker, thoug still measurable. So while kids were better at focusing their thoughts intentionally after the intervention, mindfulness was less good at helping them stay focused over a period of time.

There was a separate study in 2010 that found the inner kids mindfulness training programme was particularly effective at promoting self regulation for kids who found this difficult to start with. So this isn't just a sample of kids from mainstream. These are children who already had difficulty with emotional regulation. And the authors wrote that these children in particular showed significant improvements in their ability to regulate their emotions. For kids with average or above average regulation. Already, researchers didn't find any significant impact. So this study shows that mindfulness was helpful teaching kids regulation skills, if they didn't have them already, it was of less benefit to kids who already had those skills. However, although promising, again, this study was small scale only working with 64 children and many of those didn't get the mindfulness they were placed in it couldn't Trial Group. So again, we've got a study with a very small number of kids. And we have to ask ourselves, would that scale out to larger numbers of pupils. And there are many other small scale trials out there that have found some impact, it's been shown that mindfulness can in italic "have an impact" on optimism and positive emotions, it can help with an improvement in social and emotional competence, it can cause decreases in aggression can decrease in oppositional behaviour in the classroom, can cause improvements in motivation can cause improvements in common self acceptance can lead to reductions in depression, anxiety. But again, when you dig into the details of all of these studies, they are often small in scale. One study measured the impact on just 24 students, and another on two classes of children, another on 64 children. So we do have to look at whether the results of these studies are scalable, because the numbers of children involved are too small. Is it just that we're finding a small group of children for whom this intervention happened to be impactful? It just happened to work for them? Was it a statistical fluke? Or when we take this out to wider numbers of children in the hundreds and 1000s? Is it still going to have the same difference?

Emma Shackleton  16:18  

So I guess what you're saying there that although there are some positive indicators, size really does matter, because it tells us whether the research is scalable. And social science in educational research has a big issue around scalability. What we mean by that is just because something works with 64 kids doesn't mean it will work with 1000 kids or 100,000 Kids, perhaps there was something particular about the demographics or the backgrounds of that small sample in that particular school that was relevant to the research. Many trials are run by researchers who care about the outcome. So often, the programmes are delivered by experts who can provide a much better quality of teaching than say, an average teacher who's got no particular expertise in teaching mindfulness. And those experts are enthusiastic, they care about the programme doing well. And they're likely to invest time and effort in preparation. Small trials might not be measuring whether mindfulness is effective, particularly, they might be measuring the effectiveness and enthusiasm of the person delivering the programme. So we all know, when you're taught something by a really enthusiastic and engaged teacher, it tends to be more memorable than it tends to be more effective. And if we're asking class teachers in mainstream schools who haven't had particular training in mindfulness, or who maybe don't even believe in mindfulness, or they're not that enthusiastic about it, how can we guarantee that they will see the same positive results as the small scale sample researchers have done?

Simon Currigan  17:58  

I think this is a really interesting topic for education in general, because I'm all for evidence based interventions. But actually, we do have to dig into what the actual evidence is, there is a massive issue, in my opinion, with very small scale trials for all aspects of education, they show a positive result. And then we can spend time and money scaling those out and just not getting the same results. This is a well known problem, not just in education, but in sociology, as well. And we do need to be looking at what are the details, what was the quality of the research, who was running the research, and how many kids was the research to use with So in conclusion, even the largest of the studies, we found were still fairly small scale. So it could be hard to separate out the effects of mindfulness with those students from other factors. We can't assume the effects will scale up when you start using this approach with 1000s and 1000s of children and across the system. And it does remind me actually, of some research that I saw that was really interesting about teaching children with very high levels of autism around empathy. When you looked at the research, it looked amazing, it had a positive result. But you know, that the children did manage to move along the continuum that they were using to measure the levels of empathy that were shown. But when you dug into it, they were doing it with three kids. We do have to read the detail here. We can't just say, Oh, we got an evidence base. It's like, well, what specifically is the evidence that we're looking at.

Emma Shackleton  19:15  

And in adults and children, there is no evidence that mindfulness is actually harmful. So it's unlikely to have a damaging impact on students well being.

Simon Currigan  19:25  

And there is a huge body of evidence that for adults, mindfulness can be effective in helping regulate emotions. There's even a whole branch of CBT cognitive behaviour therapy. Now that focus is on mindfulness.

Emma Shackleton  19:38  

And it is likely although not necessarily proven that mindfulness can have similar benefits for children, particularly if those children lack self regulation skills in the first place. That said, it's going to depend very much on the underlying needs of the child and whether they can access the practice in the first place. And I will say the delivery from the adults as well. And don't forget, there will be certain children who find mindfulness particularly tough to access. So think about children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, for example, they are going to really struggle if they are asked to be very still to focus and to concentrate on one particular thing, because focus and concentration is an element of their difficulty. So they're going to find it extra tough to engage with mindfulness practice.

Simon Currigan  20:33  

So maybe we shouldn't just be asking the question, does mindfulness work for kids? Maybe we should be asking, which kids does mindfulness work for? So what's our verdict? Can mindfulness help kids manage strong emotions? Well, it's highly likely done in the right way from the evidence with adults that it can, but it's evidence for its impact with children is not 100% over the line yet.

Emma Shackleton  20:57  

So if you work with kids with challenging behaviour, and you're not sure why they're acting in that way, we've got a download that can help. It's called the Sen handbook, and it will help you to link the behaviours that you can see in your classroom with possible causes such as autism and ADHD.

Simon Currigan  21:16  

The idea here isn't for teachers to make a diagnosis, we're not qualified to do that. But if we can link behaviours to possible causes quickly, it means we can get the right help and get early intervention strategies in place.

Emma Shackleton  21:28  

And the Sen handbook is free to download. So go to our website and click on the free resources tab near the top. We'll also put a link in the episode description.

Simon Currigan  21:41  

And if you've enjoyed today's episode, then make sure you never miss another episode by opening up your podcast app and tapping that subscribe button or follow as it's now called in Apple podcasts. Then your app will do all the hard work of watching out for new episodes. It'll download them for you so they're ready and waiting. Next time you open the app it's like series link on your TV box. But for podcasts, and to celebrate joining our family of subscribers, why not salute the next stranger you meet on the street than flash them your phone and walk away with pep in your step? They won't quite know what's going on, but they'll know something's up, subscribing and respect from a random stranger. Let's call that double win. Go you.

Emma Shackleton  22:21  

That's all for today. We hope you have a brilliant week and we look forward to seeing you next time on school behaviour secrets. Bye bye for now. 

Simon Currigan  22:29  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)