There is emerging awareness of the potential of long-existing practices used in other domains to improve individuals’ control over their attention, reactivity, and stress. With practice, individuals learn how to distance themselves from distracting thoughts and emotional reactions so they can focus more effectively on the task at hand. Mindfulness is defined as the awareness that emerges through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experiences moment by moment (Fodor & Hooker, 2008). It was made popular in the United States by molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, who initially explored the benefits of mindfulness for patients with chronic pain (Kabat-Zinn, 1982; Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, & Burney, 1985). He developed a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that introduced mindfulness practices into the mainstream of medicine and was lauded for its effectiveness on a variety of health problems (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004). Research indicates that MBSR helps individuals to calm themselves and bring their attention to the present moment through controlled breathing and awareness. As it is described by Kabat-Zinn, the two operative mechanisms are self-regulation of attention and nonjudgmental awareness of experience. “Regulation of attention promotes awareness of emotional, cognitive, and physical experience as it occurs moment to moment. Nonjudgmental awareness…can increase coping by decreasing reactivity” (Metz et al., 2013, p. 254). Evidence has begun to accumulate regarding the ability of mindfulness practices to reduce stress (Grossman et al., 2004), improve focus (Jha, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007; Lazar et al., 2005) and promote emotion regulation (Gross, 1908). Emotion regulation is critical to information processing, and is supported by the same circuitry in the brain as cognition (Best, Miller, & Jones, 2009).
Under the umbrella term of “mindfulness,” there have been MBSR practices of various types and durations designed for and tested in public schools. Mindfulness advocates argue that in order to engage fully in academics, students need to learn “how to pay attention and then sustain attention over time—in other words, to calm, stabilize, and focus the mind and the body” (Kabat-Zinn & Kabat-Zinn, 2013, p. ix). Studies to date suggest that mindfulness practices can make a difference in students’ stress levels and ability to focus and sustain attention, especially in high stress environments (Burke, Hellman, Scott, Weems, & Carrion, 2011; Evans & Schamberg, 2009).
The Baltimore-based Holistic Life Foundation (hlfinc.org/) introduced mindfulness practices in a study of four elementary schools (two treatment, two control). Both students and teachers viewed the intervention favorably, and the intervention group reported significant improvements in the responses to stress scale of Involuntary Engagement (Mendelson et al., 2010). Qualitative reports from focus groups indicated that mindful breathing was the technique students identified as helpful in reducing their stress, and the practice they used outside of the classroom (Dariotis, Cluxton-Keller, et al., 2015; Dariotis, Mirabel-Beltran, et al., 2015).
The positive results with elementary school students are consistent with findings from numerous other studies of mindfulness practices with adolescents. Learning 2 Breathe, a mindfulness curriculum designed for middle and high school students, for example, showed statistically larger gains in emotion regulation skills and greater access to regulation strategies for treatment than for control students (Metz et al., 2013). A meta-analysis of 20 peer-reviewed studies of mindfulness interventions with youth (under the age of 18) conducted between 2004 and 2011 concluded that the effects were both positive and highly significant, with effect sizes ranging from .23 to .50 (Zoogman, Goldberg, Hoyt, & Miller, 2014). These existing studies are sufficiently promising to have warranted a major investment in a large scale RCT with middle grades students in the U.K. that will begin this fall (Mundasad, 15 July 2015). There are also numerous apps that guide the user through mindfulness exercises, some of which are targeted specifically at adolescents—though these have not been tested in research trials to our knowledge.
Best, J. R., Miller, P. H., & Jones, L. L. (2009). Executive functions after age 5: Changes and correlates. Developmental Review, 29(3), 180-200.
Burke, N. J., Hellman, J. L., Scott, B. G., Weems, C. F., & Carrion, V. G. (2011). The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on an Urban Pediatric Population. Child Abuse and Neglect, 35(6).
Dariotis, J. K., Cluxton-Keller, F., Beltran, R. M., Feagans Gould, L., Greenberg, M. T., & Mendelson, T. (2015). “The program affects me ‘cause it gives away stress’”: Urban students’ and teachers’ qualitative perspectives on stress and a school-based mindfulness and yoga intervention. Manuscript under review.
Dariotis, J. K., Mirabel-Beltran, R., Cluxton-Keller, F., Feagans Gould, L., Greenberg, M. T., & Mendelson, T. (2015). A qualitative evaluation of student learning and skills use in a school-based mindfulness and yoga program. Manuscript under review.
Evans, G. W., & Schamberg, M. A. (2009). Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(16), 6545-6549.
Fodor, I. E., & Hooker, K. E. (2008). Teaching Mindfulness to children. Gestalt Review, 12(1), 75-91.
Gross, J. J. (1908). The emerging field of emotion regulation: an integrative review. Review of general psychology, 2(3), 271-299.
Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research., 57(1), 35-43.
Jha, A. P., Krompinger, J., & Baime, M. J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 109–119.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4(1), 33–47.
Kabat-Zinn, J., & Kabat-Zinn, M. (2013). Foreword. In P. C. Broderick (Ed.), Learning to BREATHE: A mindfulness curriculum for adolescents. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
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Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16, 1893–1897.
Mendelson, T., Greenberg, M. T., Dariotis, J. K., Feagans Gould, L., Rhoades, B. L., & Leaf, P. J. (2010). Feasibility and preliminary outcomes of a school-based mindfulness intervention for urban youth. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38, 985-994.
Metz, S. M., Frank, J. L., Reibel, D., Cantrell, T., Sanders, R., & Broderick, P. C. (2013). The effectiveness of the learning to BREATHE program on adolescent emotion regulation. Research in Human Development, 10(3), 252-272.
Mundasad, Smitha. (15 July 2015). Mindfulness classes to 'help teenagers' mental fitness', BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/health-33540242
Zoogman, S., Goldberg, S. B., Hoyt, W. T., & Miller, L. (2014). Mindfulness interventions with youth: A meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 6(2), 290-302.
The SERP partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools, Baltimore Education Research Consortium, and the Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305H140121. The information provided does not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.