Mindfulness in the Classroom: Meeting Children’s Socioemotional Needs

In recent years, mindfulness practices have expanded from healthcare to other fields, including business, education, and even military. Defined as the ability to focus non-judgmentally on the present moment, mindfulness has demonstrated positive effects on adults’ self-regulation, relationship-building skills, and health outcomes. However, the effects of mindfulness training on children have not been as thoroughly explored, even though the personalities, behaviors, and competencies that begin developing during late childhood persist into adulthood.

In a new study, Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl, Eva Oberle, Molly Stewart Lawlor, David Abbott, Kimberly Thomson, Tim F. Oberlander, and Adele Diamond shed new light on how mindfulness practices may have positive outcomes for children in late childhood.

The authors examine the effects of a social and emotional learning (SEL) program, MindUP, for 100 fourth and fifth grade students ranging in age from nine to 12 years. The MindUP program includes three-minute mindfulness practices, repeated three times per day, during which children focus on their breathing and listen to a single resonant sound. The program also provides lessons that promote cognitive control abilities (also called executive functions, or EFs), self-regulation, viewing problems from others’ points of view (“perspective-taking”), empathy, positive mood, acts of kindness, and gratitude for others.

The study took place within four public elementary schools in a Canadian, suburban, middle-class community. The schools were similar in size, achievement level, socioeconomic status, and ethnic and racial diversity. The researchers compared a treatment group that received the MindUP program to a control group that received an alternate social responsibility program, “Business as Usual” (BAU). Participants in both programs had similar baseline demographic characteristics, such as gender, family composition, and first-language learned. This ensured successful random assignment between the MindUP and comparison BAU programming groups.

Children in the treatment group had statistically significant improvements in empathy, perspective-taking, sharing, trustworthiness, optimism, emotional control, school self-concept, and mindfulness. MindUP participants also showed a significant decrease in depressive symptoms, such as anxiety, as well as a decrease in aggressive rule-breaking and fight-starting behavior. These findings are reflected in the chart below.

MindUP participants earned higher math scores than their BAU counterparts at the end of the year, which suggests important links between socioemotional skills and academic performance. MindUP children outperformed BAU children on tasks of inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. In particular, MindUP children showed quicker reaction times and less distractibility in behavioral tests that evaluated attention, and distraction, inhibition.

The researchers estimate that, had the average of the control group students participated in the MindUP program, they would have shown a 24 percentile increase in social competence, a 20 percentile increase in self-reported well-being, a 15 percentile increase in math performance, and a 24 percentile decrease in aggression.

The study does have important limitations to consider. Randomization at the classroom level can result in the non-independence of participants if children are very alike within classrooms. Additionally, peer reports for both groups came from students who had participated in the same training. This could bias some of the peer report measures. For instance, if a peer reporter has also recently been coached on the importance of “sharing” and “helping” within the MindUP setting, he may be more likely to rate others highly on those attributes. For unbiased peer reports, “blind” or “neutral” peer reporters would be preferable.

The authors suggest that mindfulness training fosters abilities that are fundamental in the development of emotional regulation, which can lead to decreased aggression and more successful interactions with others. Policymakers aiming to alleviate the root causes of mental health issues might consider these results when designing elementary school curricula. Although more research in this topic is required—particularly regarding long-term effects on adolescent and later-life outcomes for a larger, more diverse sample of program participants—programs like MindUP may represent a cost-efficient method of expanding healthful, emotional and stress regulation practices in children. Efficient expansion of this type of program could potentially lead to a more mentally-healthful population over time.

Article Source: Schonert-Reichl, Kimberly A., Eva Oberle, Molly Stewart Lawlor, David Abbott, Kimberly Thomson, Tim F. Oberlander, and Adele Diamond. “Enhancing Cognitive and Social-Emotional Development through a Simple-to-Administer Mindfulness-Based School Program for Elementary School Children: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Developmental Psychology 51(1), 2015.

Featured Photo: cc/(Jon Mannion)

Thelma Armendariz-Villarreal
Thelma ('17) is a staff writer for Child & Family.

Comments are closed.