Comparing Mindfulness Practices across the United States and Canada

By Lindsey Erin Feltis, CEI Intern, and Kaitlyn Butterfield, Canadian Graduate Student

 When Christopher and colleagues compared mindfulness in the United States and Thailand, their research revealed important differences between the two countries, suggesting that Western and Eastern conceptualizations of mindfulness differ significantly (Christopher, Charoensuk, Gilbert, Neary & Pearce, 2009, p. 607).  When comparing mindfulness practices in the United States and Thailand, it may be a case of “apples and oranges,” but when comparing mindfulness practices in the United States and Canada, it can eloquently be described as “comparing apples to… other apples” (Christopher et al., 2009). In this article, we explore how mindfulness began in the United States and Canada, look at mindfulness research and practices in the two countries, and then end with the many ways both countries use mindfulness in their schools in attempts to create better, stronger, learners and leaders (Viglas & Perlman, 2018; Mak, Wittingham, Cunnington & Boyd, 2018; Schonert-Reichl & Stewart Lawlor, 2010).

The Mindful Beginning

In the United States, one of the greatest, and earliest, influences on the Westernization of mindfulness  is Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s patient-centered, educational, Massachusetts-grown program, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Often referred to as the “heart of Buddhist meditation,” mindfulness contributes to MSBR through both yoga and meditation practices (Center for Mindfulness, 2018). The eight-week long intervention focuses on the ability to integrate mindfulness meditation into everyday “life hiccups” by cultivating a heightened sense of self. More specifically, MBSR targets self-efficacy, self-awareness, and sense of self-in-relationship (Center for Mindfulness, 2018). Its venture into mainstream medicine, neuroscience, and healthcare has impacted more than 24,000 MBSR participants alone (Thrive Global, 2017).

Not long after the establishment of MBSR, Canadian scholar Zindel Segal also contributed to the Westernization of mindfulness through the development of an intervention for recurrent depression (Siegel, 2010). In collaboration with Williams and Teasdale, the program was named Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Although heavily influenced by Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR, Segal’s eight week program focuses on the negative mood experiences often associated with depression. MBCT was initially developed as an approach to prevent individuals living with depression from relapsing (Teasdale, Segal, Williams, Ridgeway, Soulsby, & Lau, 2000).  As such, MBSR is most useful for the general population, whereas MBCT targets individuals suffering from depression and/or mild-to-moderate anxiety (Center for Mindfulness Studies, 2018). Since its inception, mindfulness has captured the attention of researchers and educators, leading to over 429,000 results when the term is searched in Google Scholar.

Mindfulness in Research

At the University of Washington, Gueldner and Feuerborn (2016) recently conducted an extensive literature review, evaluating circumstances where mindfulness practices were integrated into school-based social emotional learning. Research showed that when mindfulness-based practices (MBP) were combined with social emotional learning (SEL), educators were able to foster resilience, mitigate risk factors, and increase student well-being.  To explore the viability of combining MBP and SEL, literature was first reviewed to determine how applicable mindfulness has been, both within clinical and non-clinical populations. As hypothesized, literature suggested mindfulness-based practices were feasible to implement in schools and well -liked by students, with no reported negative effects (Burke 2010; Zenner et al. 2014).

Gueldner and Feuerborn (2016) also reviewed  177 studies of  social emotional learning (SEL) programs (129 of which included school-based applications). Significant improvements were found in participant competencies, confirming the benefits of SEL programs for child and adolescent mental health  attitudes toward themselves and others, positive social behaviors, and academic performance.

The third component of Gueldner and Feuerborn’s review  was the inclusion of mindfulness activities into traditional SEL-focused lessons, such as the Strong Kids and Strong Teens (SEL programs). For example, during the “dealing with anger” lesson, the mindfulness-based “body-scan” was incorporated. In conjunction with mindfulness-based practices, social emotional learning has proven effective in fostering self-awareness, emotion regulation, and appears promising in the promotion of academic, social, and emotional growth in today’s youth. Similar research is also taking place at large Canadian universities, supporting the implementation of school-based mindfulness programs.

In a recent study, Viglas and Perlman, professors at the University of Toronto, examined the effects of a mindfulness-based program on young children’s self-regulation, prosocial behavior and hyperactivity, compared to an active control group (2018). Their study included a total of 127 children in Kindergarten classes from Toronto, Ontario. The mindfulness program consisted of 18 twenty-minute lessons; these lessons were then delivered three times a week over the course of a six-week period. Over the six-week period, children in the mindfulness program condition were introduced to a number of mindful concepts, including:

  • mindful breathing,
  • mindful listening and
  • showing kindness to themselves and others

Viglas and Perlman’s results supported the implementation of mindfulness-based programs in Kindergarten classrooms.  To assess self-regulation, Viglas and Perlman used the “Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders” exercise; in this exercise, children are instructed touch their toes when they hear the instruction “touch your head.” Children in both conditions participated in this exercise twice, once before the 6-week period (T1) and once after 6-week period (T2). Children in the mindfulness condition revealed significant differences between their T1 and T2 self-regulation scores, while children in the control condition experienced only moderate differences in the T1 and T2 self-regulation scores. Children in the mindfulness condition also experienced more significant increases in teacher-rated pro-social behavior then children in the control condition. Much like Gueldner and Feuerborn’s work at the University of Washington, Viglas & Perlman’s research contributes to the literature on the benefits of mindfulness in schools, but in a Canadian context.

Mindfulness in Practice

The University of Washington and the University of Toronto are only two of many post-secondary institutions conducting studies on the feasibility and efficacy of mindfulness-based school programs. If you are interested in checking out current school-based mindfulness interventions, please sure to check out our recent blog post, mindfulness workshops and Mindfulness Practices: Cultivating Heart Centered Communities where Students Focus and Flourish by Mason, Rivers Murphy, and Jackson (2018).

References

Center for Mindfulness. (2017). Mindfulness-based programs. Center for Mindfulness.

Christopher, M. S., Charoensuk, S., Gilbert, B. D., Neary, T. J., & Pearce, K. L. (2009). Mindfulness in Thailand and the United States: A case of apples versus oranges? Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(6), 590-612.

Gueldner, B. A. & Feuerborn, L. L. (2016). Integrating Mindfulness-based practices into social emotional learning: A Case Application. Mindfulness, 7, 164-175.

Mak, C., Whittingham, K., Cunnington, R., & Boyd, R. N. (2018). Efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions for attention and executive function in children and adolescents: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 9, 59-78.

Schonert-Reichl, K. A. & Stewart Lawlor, M. (2010). The effects of a mindfulness-based education program on pre- and early adolescents’ well-being and social and emotional competence. Mindfulness, 1, 137-151.

Siegel, R. D. (2010). The mindfulness solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems. New York: The Guilford Press.

Teasdale, J. D., Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., Ridgeway, V. A., Soulsby, J. M., & Lau, M. A. (2000). Prevention of relapse/recurrence in major depression by mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68(4), 615-623.

The Centre for Mindfulness Studies. MBCT and MBSR Similarities. The Centre for Mindfulness Studies.

Thrive Global. (2017, April 12). The f-ather of mindfulness on what mindfulness has become. Thrive Global.

Viglas, M. & Perlman, M. (2018). Effects of a mindfulness-based program on young children’s self-regulation, prosocial behavior and hyperactivity. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27, 1150-1161.

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