Essentials: Is Mindfulness Effective In Helping Children Handle Their Emotions?

Essentials: Is Mindfulness Effective In Helping Children Handle Their Emotions?

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Are you looking for innovative ways to support your students†social and emotional well-being? Want to create a more inclusive and nurturing learning environment?

Join us in our latest essentials episode of School Behaviour Secrets as we explore the fundamentals of mindfulness and in particular reviewing the scientific research into its application and success with children so that you can consider its application in your classroom.

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Simon Currigan

There's loads of research out there listing the transformative effects of mindfulness on adults, but have you ever wondered if the same is true for children? Can mindfulness truly help children struggling with intense emotions? Tune in as we explore the fundamentals of mindfulness and in particular, review the scientific research into its application and success with children so you can consider its application in your classroom. Welcome to the School Behaviour Secrets podcast.

I'm your host, Simon Currigan. My co host is Emma Shackleton, and we're obsessed with helping teachers, school leaders, parents, and, of course, students when classroom behaviour gets in the way of success. We're gonna share the tried and tested secrets to classroom management, behavioural special needs, whole school strategy, and more, all with the aim of helping your students reach their true potential. Plus, we'll be letting you eavesdrop on our conversations with thought leaders from around the world. So you'll get to hear the latest evidence based strategies before anyone else. This is the School Behaviour Secrets podcast. Hi there.

Simon Currigan here, and welcome to another essentials episode of School Behaviour Secrets where I share a small excerpt from an earlier episode that can have an impact for the students that you work with. And in this essentials episode, we join my co host Emma Shackleton and I midway through original episode number 64 where we considered research into the effectiveness of mindfulness for children. But before we begin, I'd like to remind you that if you find this episode interesting or useful, please don't forget to subscribe and tell your friends or colleagues about the School Behaviour Secrets podcast.

Emma Shackleton

So then when it comes to regulating emotions, mindfulness seems to help by allowing us to surf an emotion. When we notice anger or anxiety rising, we recognize it and stay with it, labeling 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, recognize 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 an 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 analyzing this in a less personal, more detached way.

Simon Currigan

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 9 10 year olds. So this was a 6 week program, so it was a sustained program and involved a 108 children, half of which were given a mindfulness program 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. Now this is a reasonably sized study of a group of mainstream children. We're talking about a 100 kids, but it did rely on children 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 been able to access consistently. What it proved was that for a small group of kids, just 64, received the mindfulness intervention in the end, 30 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 kind of interventions? So it's a positive study, but it was a small study.

Emma Shackleton

Okay. So let's look at the effects of mindfulness and emotional well-being. Another study back in 2,005 looks at the impact of mixing mindfulness and relaxation techniques with 5 to 8 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 students' experience of test anxiety. However, the ability to sustain attention was weaker, though 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.

Simon Currigan

There was a separate study in 2010 that found the inner kids mindfulness training program 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 a control group. So, again, we've got a study with a very small number of kids. Then 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 italics, 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. One study measured the impact on just 24 students and another on 2 classes of children, another on 64 children. So we do have to look at the 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 100 and 1,000, is it still going to have the same difference?

Emma Shackleton

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 and 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 a 1000 kids or a 100000 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 programs 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 program 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 program.

Simon Currigan

And if you would like to hear the original episode, simply click the link at the bottom of the episode description to head back to episode number 64. If you found today's episode helpful, please spare a moment to rate and review as it only takes 30 seconds, then your feedback will help boost School Behaviour Secrets to reach more listeners. Let's keep this community building together. Thanks for tuning in today and I look forward to seeing you next time on School Behaviour Secrets.


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