By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support, and Kaela Farrise, CEI Intern
Mindfulness’ popularity has extended beyond wealthy neighborhoods in urban centers to small towns and rural areas where yoga studios and meditation centers are appearing more frequently. Now, many schools and districts around the country are implementing mindfulness programs or integrating mindfulness techniques into the curriculum, too. School and district leaders are excited about using mindfulness to improve students’ attention spans and other executive functioning skills (EF). Teachers and administrators who use mindfulness during the school day are providing anecdotal reports of gains – not just in socio-emotional spheres, but in academic areas as well. Recent research supports these narratives. The Center for Educational Improvement (CEI) hopes to provide more data to support those claims, which we discuss below.
Why Mindfulness Potentially Improves Academic Achievement.In an Institute of Education Sciences review of recent research on executive functioning, Zelazo, Blair, and Willoughby (2016) found conclusive evidence for adults and preliminary direct evidence for children that mindfulness enhances EF. In fact, that same year a study of 191 third grade students showed that a pre-recorded mindfulness-based social emotional learning program was found to significantly improve reading and science grades as well as classroom behavior (Bakosh, Snow, Tobias, Houlihan, & Barbosa-Leiker, 2016). The authors speculate that an improvement in EF skills, due to the daily mindful awareness training provided by their brief recordings, led to an increased ability to pay attention – which improved the students executive functioning, learning, and grades.
One earlier study shows an interaction effect between the Mindful Awareness Program (MAP) and EF in that students who had been less regulated at baseline and went through the MAP program had greater improvement in EF skills by the end of the program (Flook et. al., 2010). This reinforces the idea that students most in need of EF skill building benefit the most from mindfulness-based intervention programs.
School Leaders Say, “See its effects and you’ll believe, too!”
In 2019, 11 elementary schools in the San Francisco Unified School District implemented a mindfulness program in their schools and saw quick results. Students as young as the kindergarten level indicated that the techniques helped them to stay focused, calm, and respectful towards others. One teacher, Christina Melia, said that the students’ approach to seeing others upset has changed: “If they see somebody upset, they say oh, ‘Let’s do deep breaths together, calm down, take a breath to calm down.’ So, they really help each other” (Melendez, 2019).
Steve Richardson, principal at John Adams Middle School in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, whose school implemented a mindfulness pilot in 2015, remarked, “It really is quite remarkable to see our middle-schoolers, who are typically high energy, pause to get present before a test, remind each other to ‘Just breathe,’ or lead their class in a breathing exercise” (Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, 2015).
In 2017, the Evergreen Public School District in Washington adopted a policy to implement mindfulness and social emotional learning strategies as one of a few techniques for responding to discipline (Evergreen Public Schools, n.d.). In one first grade classroom at Illahee Elementary School, this policy translated into brain breaks: “an opportunity after a high-energy activity like recess to do some deep breathing and reflecting” (Gillespie, 2017). Other activities the district employed include:
- Discussions about what being mindful looks, feels, and sounds like in the classroom and other venues
- Discussions of how meditation and other activities affect the brain
- Meditation training for teachers and staff
- Deep breathing exercises for staff and students.
Closing the Mindfulness in Schools Research Gap
A meta-study of 24 school-based mindfulness programs (Zenner, Hemleben-Kurz, & Walach, 2014) found that mindfulness-based interventions show promise for improving cognitive performance and resilience for stress, but that most published studies are underpowered, so more large-scale randomized control trials are needed. Greenberg and Harris (2011), who did an earlier analysis of mindfulness-based interventions, agree that meditation and yoga may be beneficial for academic and social emotional outcomes for children and youth, but that the quality of the research being done on these topics must improve to show conclusive evidence. Since the 2014 and 2016 meta-studies, however, researchers have been busy continuing this work as you can see by the reports from school leaders who are helping facilitate this important research in their schools.
The Center for Educational Improvement is working to inform the data supporting the use of mindfulness to improve school culture, lower stress of staff and students, and enhance awareness of and maintain control of emotions. By inviting schools to take the School Compassionate Culture Analytic Tool for Educators (S-CCATE) with the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC), which you can read more about in this month’s newsletter article, “Bringing Trauma Responsive Practices to New England,” we’re continuing to look at how mindfulness can support a more positive school culture along with its ability to help schools better respond to trauma in both student and teacher populations. Our intent is to use evidence from the C-TLC connection to compare individual school results to the national norm and to guide evolving mindfulness practices.
Bakosh, L.S., Snow, R.M., Tobias, J.M., Houlihan, J.L., & Barbosa-Leiker, C. (2016). Maximizing mindful learning: An innovative mindful awareness intervention improves elementary school students’ quarterly grades. Mindfulness, 7(1), 59-67.
Evergreen Public Schools. (n.d.). District Improvement.
Flook, L., Smalley, S.L., Kitil, M.J., Galla, B.M., Kaiser-Greenland, S., Locke, J. Ishijima, E., & Kasari, C. (2010). Effects of Mindful Awareness Practices on executive functions in elementary school children. Journal of Applied Psychology, 26, 70-95.
Gillespie, K. (2017, Dec. 27). A brain break: Students learn, practice mindfulness. Evergreen Public Schools curriculum includes hot new trend in education around U.S. The Columbian.
Greenberg, M.T. & Harris, A.R. (2011). Nurturing mindfulness in children and youth: Current state of research. Child Development Perspectives, 0(0), 1-6.
Melendez, L. (2019, Mar. 1). San Francisco elementary schools practicing mindfulness in the classroom. ABC 7 News.
Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. (2015). Mindfulness program at John Adams Middle School enhances school climate: District works to enhance campus life at all school sites.
Zelazo, P.D., Blair, C.B., & Willoughby, M.T. (2016). Executive function: Implications for education. (NCER 2017-2000) Washington, DC: National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Zenner, C., Hemleben-Kurz, S., & Walach, H. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions in schools: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 603-624.