Do the interventions work?
Mindfulness has been gaining greater support and interest from researchers, clinicians, and educators. However, the effects of mindfulness practice among children are still understudied.
Mindfulness derives from Buddhist practice and is described in the psychological literature as an intentional and non-judgmental awareness of the present moment (Kabat-Zinn,1990). We will look deeper into the meaning of non-judgmental awareness in future articles. For now, let us look at where mindfulness is going and where it has been. During 2012, over 500 scientific articles on mindfulness were published. This was more than the total number of mindfulness articles published between 1980 and 2000. Although this is a small number of articles the research is growing. A recent survey by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) found that 75 percent of general practitioners in the United Kingdom believe that mindfulness is beneficial for patients with mental health problems (MHF, 2010). Evidence that mindful interventions do help students has Teachers and Schools across the country adopting mindfulness-based interventions to help their students avoid anxiety and depression, and improve their focus.
For example, a study of 400 low-income students found that teachers reported students were more focused and compassionate after practicing mindfulness sessions for five weeks.
Others studies suggest that mindfulness interventions, practiced as part of school policy, is associated with decreased impulsivity. Accordingly, introducing mindfulness meditation in elementary schools may help children cope with various difficulties related to attention regulation skills and enhance emotional regulation. Longer periods of meditation may lead to more robust effects. The reviews found a mixed bag of results: Students who participated in mindfulness programs showed small, but significant improvements in cognitive skills and social and emotional behaviors. This makes sense, the authors of the study explain, because those are the skills that mindfulness interventions focus on. But the data did not show that students improved their classroom behaviors or academic achievement as a result of the interventions.
So what does all of this mean?
The review authors concluded that, while mindfulness in schools is popular at the moment, youth may not benefit in the same way that adults do because they may not be developmentally ready for the complex focus and level of awareness these interventions require. Studies have shown a higher efficacy with young adults than with younger children.
The students included in the review were all part of regular classroom populations. While these interventions yield greater improvements for students experiencing anxiety or depression, there is some evidence that mindfulness practices can sometimes worsen symptoms for some people who suffer from mental illnesses when not attended to. Mindfulness-based interventions in the clinical setting like MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) will be the focus of future articles.
Practice is starting to be popular in many schools systems and among politicians. One particular congressman from the Midwest, Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio in 2012 published A Mindful Nation and received a $1 million federal grant to teach mindfulness in schools in his home district. Perhaps not surprisingly, the surge of mindfulness-based approaches has come with critics, some of whom have coined the term “McMindfulness” to highlight the simplistic and commercialized nature of many programs, claims, and offerings.
Some forms of Mindful practices are Yoga, deep breathing, and gratitude exercise to name a few. Like adults, young children Yoga can help eliminate stress. A recent article done by Forbes Magazine talked about the benefits of Yoga and young children. A study from Tulane University, randomized third-graders who had some degree of anxiety to receive either a yoga and mindfulness intervention for eight weeks or to receive usual care. Students in the yoga/mindfulness group had 10 sessions of Yoga Ed. either in the fall or spring; each session lasted 40 minutes, and took place in the classrooms before the school day began. “The session content included breathing exercises, guided relaxation, and several Vinyasa and Ashtanga poses appropriate for third graders,” the authors wrote in their paper.” Students in this study were given regular care, but something was different with them when they started using Yoga.” The intervention improved psychosocial and emotional quality of life scores for students, as compared to their peers who received standard care,” said study author Alessandra Bazzano who in a statement also said: “We also heard from teachers about the benefits of using yoga in the classroom, and they reported students used yoga (mindful interventions) more often each week, and throughout each day in class, following the professional development component of intervention.”
Many in the mindfulness community express concern that the media has overstated the scientific evidence of the benefits of mindfulness—so much so that “misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed. This raises serious questions about where and how mindfulness programs are offered, by whom, and in what context? But they all seem to agree that more studies and research needs to be done on methods used, who uses those methods and the student’s involvement in these studies.
In the coming months, we will take a look at other Mindful practices I will be introducing simple, helpful mindfulness interventions that can be used to help connect your family and help your child become more aware. Self-awareness brings self-compassion and we can all use more self-love.
Anthony Cupo is a Trained Mindfulness Facilitator (TMF) from the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He is a co-owner of Stepping Forward Counseling Center, LLC and has been meditating for over 30 years.