How Making Time for Mindfulness Helps Students

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Not knowing the answer to a question when you’re called on in front of the entire class. Forgetting your homework. The kid behind you pulling your hair. School poses a lot of stressful moments, but how children (and teachers) react to them can make all the difference.

A new study suggests that mindfulness education — lessons on techniques to calm the mind and body — can reduce the negative effects of stress and increase students’ ability to stay engaged, helping them stay on track academically and avoid behavior problems.

While small, the study of sixth-graders at a Boston charter school adds to a still-growing body of research about a role for mindfulness in the classroom. In recent years, the topic has excited researchers and educators alike as a possible tool to help students face both behavioral and academic challenges by reducing anxiety and giving them a new way to handle their feelings and emotions.

The Findings

After finding that students who self-reported mindful habits performed better on tests and had higher grades, researchers with the Boston Charter Research Collaborative — a partnership between the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University (CEPR), MIT, and Transforming Education — wanted to know if school-based mindfulness training could help more students reap similar benefits.

They designed a study focusing on sixth-graders in another Boston-area school. The study, published in a white paper by a team including Martin West of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, showed that sixth-graders who participated in an eight-week mindfulness were less stressed out than their classmates who hadn’t. Practicing mindfulness had helped hone the ability to focus in the moment, expanding students' capacity to learn and regulate their emotions.

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Four times a week, instructors from Calmer Choice, a Massachusetts nonprofit specializing in mindfulness education, taught the group techniques and led them through practices, like focusing on a rock for a minute, then discussing when their mind wandered and refocused on the rock. Another group of sixth-graders took computer coding during that time instead. The students were randomly assigned between the groups.

At the end of the eight weeks, the mindfulness group reported being less stressed than they had been before the mindfulness education, and better able to practice self-control. About half of the students also volunteered for brain scans, and those revealed positive effects for the mindfulness group, too: their amygdalas — the part of the brain that controls emotion — responded less to pictures of fearful faces than they did prior to the mindfulness work, suggesting their brains were less sensitive to negative stimuli, or, in other words, that they were less prone to get stressed out and lose focus. The group who attended coding classes didn’t see the same benefits.

The findings suggest that the mindfulness instruction helped boost students’ attention skills, as well as develop coping mechanisms for stress. The authors maintain that this kind of evidence could be especially useful in efforts to support students suffering from trauma and other adversities that trigger stress in the body, hurting students’ ability to succeed.

Bringing Mindfulness to Your School

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The paper includes recommendations from educators and leaders of mindfulness-based education programs for implementing mindfulness in your own school:

  • Build consistency and school-wide buy-in. Make time for staff and students to learn about the theory and science behind mindfulness, so students know how to talk about mindfulness and understand its purpose. Creating consistent space for mindfulness practice – like guided meditations — and theory in the school day can positively affect the entire school culture, emphasizing acceptance, self-care, and empathy.
  • Provide teachers with dedicated time to engage in mindfulness practice themselves. In order to help students reap benefits, teachers also need time and support in adopting it. Research has also shown mindfulness to be helpful to teachers, improving their own emotional wellbeing, helping them understand student perspective, and freeing them up to be more effective in the classroom.
  • Allow students to make their own time for mindfulness. Encourage students’ awareness of their own emotions by allowing and encouraging them to identify times when they can use and practice mindfulness. In order to adopt mindfulness as a tool for mental health and happiness, students have to have the space and time to practice it.

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