Morning Zen

The Case for School-Based Mindfulness Programs

June 11, 2019

We know the world is a stressful place. Our children deal with tremendous amounts of stress from mental health issues, challenging home environments, food insecurity, peer pressure, test anxiety, fear of failure, the list goes on and on. So, what are we doing to help them cope? Where are they learning the skills to deal with life’s stressors successfully? Increasingly the answer is in school with Mindfulness programs.

The term “mindfulness” was first used by Jon Kabat-Zinn almost 40 years ago when he developed his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program for adults. Mindfulness programs for children began to emerge in the past ten years to extend the same benefits in this population as Kabat-Zinn had with adults. Schools seemed like the natural place to offer this training since they allow access to large groups of children and have the ability to provide mental health services that would otherwise not be available due to barriers including cost, access, stigma, and lack of transportation.

Mindfulness is a simple concept and requires no special tools or equipment, making it an attractive, cost-effective option for most schools. Mindfulness, as defined by Kabat-Zinn, is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” It is being aware of the present moment so you may pause and cultivate a response instead of simply reacting. In that “pause” is a great power to take control of your emotions and your life. Dr. Marilyn Wedge writes in Psychology Today (2018), about seven evidence-based ways that practicing mindfulness can help children. Practicing mindfulness:

  • gives kids the habit of focusing on the present moment and ignoring distractions;
  • teaches them to stay calm in the face of life’s stressful times;
  • creates good habits for the future. When faced with life’s challenges, they know they can find peace by taking a few moments to meditate;
  • promotes happiness by lowering social anxiety and stress;
  • fosters patience;
  • improves executive functions in their brain like cognitive control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and better grades; and
  • improves attentiveness and impulse control.

The base of research on the benefits of Mindfulness for children continues to expand and demonstrates the effectiveness of Mindfulness in treating children with a wide range of conditions including ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, anxiety, depression, stress, and aggression. Mindfulness’s ability to help children reduce stress and increase focus is directly linked to their ability to improve academic performance. Stress early in life often results in a cascading of negative psychological and neurological effects on children’s physical and cognitive development. Teaching them Mindfulness-based techniques provides a set of skills children will have throughout their lives to help develop resilience and long-term life fulfillment. Schools have traditionally focused primarily on cognitive development – teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic; with Mindfulness-based education, they can also focus on the emotional, non-cognitive, social skills that are the foundation for success in school and life.

The US Department of Education has an Investing in Innovation Program, which was created as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The program partners with the private sector to provide funding for innovative programs in school districts around the country focused on helping children to succeed in school, close the achievement gap, decrease drop-out rates, and increase college enrollment. In 2014 the Erickson Institute received a four-year, $2.5 million grant funded through this program to study Mindfulness in more than 30 high-poverty schools in Chicago. Erickson has used this grant to implement a study utilizing the Calm Classroom program, a Mindfulness-based approach which employs the “calm spot.” Calm spots are spaces set aside where children may go to replenish and regain focus using headphones and watching videos on nature and animals. The focus of the study is on approximately 2,000 kindergartens through second-grade students. This is the most extensive, government-funded study on Mindfulness directly focused on young, low-income children ever conducted. Children growing up in poverty are more likely to experience long-term stress, violence, and food insecurity leading to poor academic performance. Research has shown that these children have a disproportionately high level of behavioral issues due to being constantly on edge, in a fight-or-flight state, which leads to outbursts in the classroom that often result in suspensions and expulsions. All of this makes it difficult for these children to learn and creates a challenging environment for teachers. Teacher feedback on the effects of implementing 10-15-minute daily classroom Mindfulness sessions has been positive, with reported incidences of student tantrums, suspensions and expulsions decreased. The impact on academic results is still pending, but the benefits of creating a calmer learning environment have been demonstrated. The study in Chicago will add significantly to the body of research on the effectiveness of Mindfulness programs in schools.

With the new focus in the federal education law, Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) asking schools to consider measuring student performance on some non-academic measures like learning environment, school culture, or safety; mindfulness programs are a natural fit. Unquestionably an angry, frustrated child isn’t going to be able to learn as well as a calm, focused child. Mindfulness provides the tools children need to participate in the classroom and become active, engaged learners.

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About the Author

Melissa V. Sirola

How Mindfulness Impacts Mental Health and Wellbeing of Children
Melissa V. Sirola is a registered nurse with over 20 years of experience in the healthcare field. Melissa has worked as a staff nurse, a nurse administrator, and an educator, teaching nursing leadership at several local universities. Melissa is currently pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice in Leadership and Health Care Innovations at the University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing. For her internship with the Children’s Mental Health Network, Melissa is researching the effects of Mindfulness on behavioral and mental health issues with children in rural primary school settings. Melissa is excited for the opportunity to work with the Children’s Mental Health Network to research, explore, and report on innovative Mindfulness programs that exist in various parts of the country and around the world.

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