Mindfulness in Education Research Highlights

By Emily Campbell | September 16, 2014 |

Emily Campbell is the research assistant for the Greater Good Science Center’s education program.

An annotated bibliography of studies of mindfulness in education.

Although research on mindfulness, especially with children and adolescents, is still in relatively early stages, an increasing number of studies have shown the potential benefits of mindfulness practices for students’ physical health, psychological well-being, social skills, academic performance, and more. Other studies have indicated that mindfulness may be effective for reducing stress and burnout in teachers and administrators as well.

The following list of selected articles, with brief descriptions of each study and its results, provides an overview of the current research on mindfulness in education.

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Evidence for Mindfulness and Students

Beauchemin, J., Hutchins, T. L., & Patterson, F. (2008). Mindfulness meditation may lessen anxiety, promote social skills, and improve academic performance among adolescents with learning disabilities. Complementary Health Practice Review, 13, 34–45.

Students with learning disabilities (LD; defined by compromised academic performance) often have higher levels of anxiety, school-related stress, and less optimal social skills compared with their typically developing peers. Previous health research indicates that meditation and relaxation training may be effective in reducing anxiety and promoting social skills. This pilot study used a pre–post no-control design to examine feasibility of, attitudes toward, and outcomes of a 5-week mindfulness meditation intervention administered to 34 adolescents diagnosed with LD. Post-intervention survey responses overwhelmingly expressed positive attitudes toward the program. All outcome measures showed significant improvement, with participants who completed the program demonstrating decreased state and trait anxiety, enhanced social skills, and improved academic performance.

Biegel, G. M., Brown, K. W., Shapiro, S. L., & Schubert, C. M. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for the treatment of adolescent psychiatric outpatients: A randomized clinical trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 77, 855–866.

The present randomized clinical trial was designed to assess the effect of the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program for 102 adolescents age 14 to 18 years with different diagnoses in an outpatient psychiatric facility. Relative to treatment-as-usual control participants, those receiving MBSR self-reported reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, and somatic distress, and increased self-esteem and sleep quality. Also, the MBSR group showed a higher percentage of diagnostic improvement over the 5-month study period and significant increases in global assessment of functioning scores relative to controls.

BCALM, Mindfulness meditation, Victoria British Columbia

Broderick, P. C., & Metz, S. (2009). Learning to BREATHE: A pilot trial of a mindfulness curriculum for adolescents. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 2(1), 35-46.

This study reports the results of a pilot trial of Learning to BREATHE, a mindfulness curriculum for adolescents created for a classroom setting. The primary goal of the program is to support the development of emotion regulation skills through the practice of mindfulness. The total class of 120 seniors from a private girls’ school participated as part of their health curriculum. Relative to controls, participants reported decreased negative affect and increased feelings of calmness, relaxation, and self-acceptance. Improvements in emotion regulation and decreases in tiredness and aches and pains were significant in the treatment group at the conclusion of the program.

Davidson, R. J., Dunne, J., Eccles, J. S., Engle, A., Greenberg, M., Jennings, P., . . . Vago, D. (2012). Contemplative practices and mental training: Prospects for American education.Child Development Perspectives, 6(2), 146-153.

This article draws on research in neuroscience, cognitive science, developmental psychology, and education, as well as scholarship from contemplative traditions concerning the cultivation of positive development, to highlight a set of mental skills and socio-emotional dispositions that are central to the aims of education in the 21st century. These include self-regulatory skills associated with emotion and attention, self-representations, and prosocial dispositions such as empathy and compassion. It should be possible to strengthen these positive qualities and dispositions through systematic contemplative practices, which induce plastic changes in brain function and structure, supporting prosocial behavior and academic success in young people.

Flook, L., Smalley, S. L., Kitil, M. J., Galla, B. M., Kaiser-Greenland, S., Locke, J., . . . Kasari, C. (2010). Effects of mindful awareness practices on executive functions in elementary school children. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 26(1), 70-95.

A school-based program of mindful awareness practices (MAPs) was evaluated in a randomized control study of 64 second- and third-grade children ages 7–9 years. The program was delivered for 30 minutes, twice per week, for 8 weeks. Children in the MAPs group who were less well regulated showed greater improvement in executive function (EF) compared with controls. Specifically, those children starting out with poor EF who went through the MAPs training showed gains in behavioral regulation, metacognition, and overall global executive control.

Greenberg, M. T., & Harris, A. R. (2012). Nurturing mindfulness in children and youth: Current state of research. Child Development Perspectives, 6(2), 161-166.

This article reviews the current state of research on contemplative practices with children and youth. It reviews contemplative practices used both in treatment settings and in prevention or health promotion contexts, including school-based programs. Interventions that nurture mindfulness in children and youth may be a feasible and effective method of building resilience in universal populations and in the treatment of disorders in clinical populations. This review suggests that meditation and yoga may be associated with beneficial outcomes for children and youth, but the generally limited quality of research tempers the allowable conclusions.

Gregoski, M. J., Barnes, V. A., Tingen, M. S., Harshfield, G. A., & Treiber, F. A. (2010). Breathing awareness meditation and LifeSkills Training Programs influence upon ambulatory blood pressure and sodium excretion among African American adolescents.Journal of Adolescent Health, 48, 59–64.

To evaluate the effects of breathing awareness meditation (BAM), Botvin LifeSkills Training (LST), and health education control (HEC), 166 African American adolescent participants with moderately high blood pressure (and thus an increased risk for development of cardiovascular disease) were randomized by school to either BAM (n = 53), LST (n = 69), or HEC (n = 44). In-school intervention sessions were administered for 3 months by health education teachers. The BAM treatment exhibited the greatest overall decreases in blood pressure and heart rate.

Lawlor, M. S., Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Gadermann, A. M., & Zumbo, B. D. (2012). A Validation Study of the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale Adapted for Children.Mindfulness, 1-12.

A total of 286 fourth to seventh grade children completed the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale—Children (MAAS-C), a modified version of a measure designed to assess mindfulness in adults. Results indicated that mindfulness, as accessed via the MAAS-C, was related in expected directions to indicators of well-being across the domains of traits and attributes, emotional disturbance, emotional wellbeing, and eudaimonic well-being. These findings were in accord with those of previous research with the MAAS in adult populations.

Mendelson, T., Greenberg, M. T., Dariotis, J. K., Gould, L. F., 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(7), 985-994.

Mindfulness-based approaches may improve adjustment among chronically stressed and disadvantaged youth by enhancing self-regulatory capacities. This paper reports findings from a pilot randomized controlled trial assessing the feasibility, acceptability, and preliminary outcomes of a school-based mindfulness and yoga intervention. Four urban public schools were randomized to an intervention or wait-list control condition (n = 97 fourth and fifth graders, 60.8% female). Findings suggest the intervention was attractive to students, teachers, and school administrators and that it had a positive impact on problematic responses to stress including rumination, intrusive thoughts, and emotional arousal.

Napoli, M., Krech, P. R., & Holley, L. C. (2005). Mindfulness training for elementary school students: The attention academy. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 21(1), 99-125.

This article presents results of a formative evaluation of whether participation in a mindfulness training program affected first, second, and third grade students’ outcomes on measures of attention. The training was designed and intended to help students learn to focus and pay attention. The 24-week training employed a series of exercises including breath work, body scan, movement, and sensory-motor awareness activities. Results from three attentional measures administered to the students show significant differences between those who did and did not participate in mindfulness practice training.

Oberle, E., Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Lawlor, M. S., & Thomson, K. C. (2012). Mindfulness and inhibitory control in early adolescence. Journal of Early Adolescence, 32(4), 565-588.

99 fourth- and fifth-grade students completed a measure of mindful attention awareness (self-reported dispositional mindfulness) and a computerized executive function (EF) task assessing inhibitory control. Controlling for gender, grade, and cortisol levels, higher scores on the mindfulness attention awareness measure significantly predicted greater accuracy (% correct responses) on the inhibitory control task. This research identifies mindfulness—a skill that can be fostered and trained in intervention programs to promote health and well-being—as significantly related to inhibitory processes in early adolescence.

BCALM, Mindfulness meditation, Victoria British Columbia

Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & Lawlor, M. S. (2010). The effects of a mindfulness-based education program on pre- and early adolescents’ well-being and social and emotional competence. Mindfulness, 1(3), 137-151.

This study evaluated the effectiveness of the Mindfulness Education (ME) program, which focuses on facilitating the development of social and emotional competence and positive emotions and has as its cornerstone daily lessons in which students engage in mindful attention training. Participants were 246 students in the 4th to 7th grades. Results revealed that students who participated in the ME program, compared to those who did not, showed significant increases in optimism from pretest to post test. Similarly, improvements on dimensions of teacher-rated classroom social competent behaviors were found favoring ME program students. Program effects also were found for self-concept, although the ME program demonstrated more positive benefits for preadolescents than for early adolescents.

Semple, R. J., Lee, J., Rosa, D., & Miller, L. F. (2010). A randomized trial of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for children: Promoting mindful attention to enhance social-emotional resiliency in children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19(2), 218-229.

Program development of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for children (MBCT-C) is described along with results of the initial randomized controlled trial. Participants were boys and girls aged 9–13 (N = 25), mostly ethnic minorities from low-income, inner-city households. Participants who completed the program showed fewer attention problems than wait-listed controls and those improvements were maintained at three months following the intervention. A strong relationship was found between attention problems and behavior problems. Significant reductions in anxiety symptoms and behavior problems were found for those children who reported clinically elevated levels of anxiety at pretest.

Semple, R. J., Reid, E. F. G., & Miller, L. (2005). Treating anxiety with mindfulness: An open trial of mindfulness training for anxious children. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 19, 379–392.

This study is an open clinical trial that examined the feasibility and acceptability of a mindfulness training program for anxious children. Since impaired attention is a core symptom of anxiety, enhancing self-management of attention should effect reductions in anxiety. A 6-week trial was conducted with five anxious children aged 7 to 8 years old. The results of this study suggest that mindfulness can be taught to children and holds promise as an intervention for anxiety symptoms.

Tang, Y., Yang, L., Leve, L. D., & Harold, G. T. (2012). Improving executive function and its neurobiological mechanisms through a mindfulness-based intervention: Advances within the field of developmental neuroscience. Child Development Perspectives, 6(4), 361-366.

Mindfulness-based interventions that focus on increasing awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions have been shown to improve specific aspects of executive function (EF), including attention, cognitive control, and emotion regulation. This article reviews research relevant to one specific mindfulness-based intervention, integrative body-mind training (IBMT). Randomized controlled trials of IBMT indicate improvements in specific EF components, and uniquely highlight the role two brain-based mechanisms that underlie IBMT-related improvements. Short-term IBMT may improve specific dimensions of EF and thus prevent a cascade of risk behaviors for children and adolescents.

Thompson M., Gauntlett-Gilbert J. (2008). Mindfulness with children and adolescents: Effective clinical application. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 13, 395-407.

This article aims to provide an overview of mindfulness to professionals who are working in child or adolescent settings. Initially, it provides some orientation to and definitions from the field, before summarizing the current evidence for the utility of the approach. The article recommends specific clinical modifications for mindfulness with children and adolescents, as well as reviewing how to monitor and enhance the development of this skill. Finally, it highlights important differences among mindfulness, relaxation and other meditative techniques.

Van der Oord, S., Bogels, S. M., & Peijnenburg, D. (2012). The effectiveness of mindfulness training for children with ADHD and mindful parenting for their parents.Journal of Child and Family Studies, 21(1), 139-147.

This study evaluated the effectiveness of 8-week mindfulness training for children aged 8–12 with ADHD and parallel mindful parenting training for their parents. There was a significant reduction of parent-rated ADHD behavior of themselves and their child from pre-to post test and from pre- to follow-up test. Further, there was a significant increase of mindful awareness from pre-to post test and a significant reduction of parental stress and over reactivity from pre-to follow-up test. Teacher-ratings showed non-significant effects, however.

Zelazo, P. D., & Lyons, K. E. (2012). The potential benefits of mindfulness training in early childhood: A developmental social cognitive neuroscience perspective. Child Development Perspectives, 6(2), 154-160.

Early childhood is marked by substantial development in the self-regulatory skills supporting school readiness and socio-emotional competence. Mindfulness training—using age-appropriate activities to exercise children’s reflection on their moment- to-moment experiences—may support the development of self-regulation by targeting top-down processes while lessening bottom-up influences (such as anxiety, stress, curiosity) to create conditions conducive to reflection, both during problem solving and in more playful, exploratory ways.

Zenner, C., Herrnleben-Kurz, S., & Walach, H. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions in schools – A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 603.

This article systematically reviews the evidence regarding the effects of school-based mindfulness interventions on psychological outcomes. Twenty-four studies were identified, of which 13 were published. In total, 1348 students were instructed in mindfulness, with 876 serving as controls, ranging from grade 1 to 12. All in all, mindfulness-based interventions in children and youths hold promise, particularly in relation to improving cognitive performance and resilience to stress. However, the field is nascent; there is great heterogeneity, many studies are underpowered, and measuring effects of mindfulness in this setting is challenging.