TheThe juniors and seniors in the international baccalaureate class at Eastern Senior High School in Washington, DC, are stressed out. I asked Raven Wright, a senior, to list all the things she has a deal with on a given day. Be on time. Homework. Applications. Scholarship essays. Two jobs: Chipotle and Macy’s. Mentoring a younger student. Driving lessons. Exhausting.
Once a week for a semester, as part of their IB philosophy class, Wright and her classmates take a break from classwork to meditate.
At 8:45 am, during first period, they sit so quietly that all you can hear is the whirl of computer fans.
Today’s lesson: attention to breathing.
“Just notice your breath,” says the instructor, Satyani McPherson, “where it manifests in the body and the abdomen. … And whatever is appearing, just allow it to be there.”
A student walks in late, and the door slams. No one moves. Eyes are closed. Fourteen chests rise and fall.
Ever wonder how your mind works?
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Eastern is one of hundreds of K-12 schools — many of them in urban areas, attended mainly by minority students who qualify for free school lunch — in the US participating in an unconventional, informal experiment in training students to become more focused and less reactive.
It’s mindfulness meditation. And anecdotally, the students at Eastern love it. “Mindfulness is gonna stay with me for the rest of my life,” A’layza Mitchel, a student who struggles with the autoimmune disease lupus, says. “Especially with the fact of me being a lupus patient and always having to hear news about how it is going to affect me.” With mindfulness, she says she “can just take a moment” to process feelings.
Teachers and administrators at schools like Eastern see mindfulness as a powerful new skill to offer students, not just to manage stress but also to keep them from acting out. Its appeal: one simple, centralized intervention with effects that potentially stretch beyond the classroom.
The companies and foundations largely responsible for introducing mindfulness programing into schools tout its psychological benefits — such as reduced anxiety and increased attention. And they say the evidence for mindfulness is based on decades of scientific research.
But research quality is not the same as quantity. And considering that more and more US schools are embracing it, I decided to take a look through the literature: What does the science actually say about mindfulness in kids?
I read more than a dozen studies — including systematic meta-reviews, which account for thousands of other papers — analyzing the best available research on mindfulness in both students and adults (there’s much more research available on adults). I also talked to researchers and advocates involved in the work. I asked these experts what questions and concerns parents should have when they hear mindfulness is coming to their schools. (Scroll down for those questions.)
The short of it: The relatively few studies we have on mindfulness in schools suggest a generally positive effect on decreasing anxiety and increasing cognitive performance. But the hype around mindfulness also seems to be outpacing the science, specially when it comes to teaching these practices to children.
Mindfulness brings awareness to thoughts, sensations, and emotions
Mindfulness is about noticing. Noticing your breathing. Noticing how your emotions manifest in your body. “The essence of mindfulness is just tolerating experiencing sensations that come into your body, other than trying to get [them] to stop immediately,” Jeff Bostic, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Georgetown University, says.
You can think of mindfulness as state of mind, an ability, and a practice. It can be traced all the way back to the early teachings of Buddhism (though it’s not exclusive to Buddhism). There are many different mindfulness exercises to achieve this state: from paying attention to the sound of ringing bells to visualizing foods and smells. Other exercises gently push practitioners to acknowledge what makes them fearful and anxious and accept that these emotions are just a normal part of life.
Mindfulness has an immediate intuitive appeal in a world that’s more distracting and fast-moving than ever before. It’s now taught in hospitals and Silicon Valley corporate seminars and is popular on the TED circuit. More than 14 million people have downloaded the Headspace app for its simple 10-minute meditation exercises. There’s an entire academic journal, Mindfulness, devoted to its study. And a recent sketch on Seasame Street had the Count teach Cookie Monster how to concentrate on breathing to reduce stress.
There are spiritual, philosophical, and cultural dimensions to this movement, for sure. In the 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist at University of Massachusetts and practitioner of Zen Buddhist mediation, began developing a mindfulness program for adults in clinical settings. He called it mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), and designed an eight-week course to teach participants how to deal with the pain and stress of chronic illness that’s still very popular today.
Researchers from fields ranging from neuroscience to psychiatry have been fascinated by it too. According to Bostic, mindfulness attenuates the more evolutionarily primitive areas of our brains — the amygdala, the brain stem, etc. — the areas that provoke us to fight, be frightened, or flee, and turn up activation in our frontal lobes, the reasoning center. “The one fundamental concept that’s shared by all the branches [of mindfulness practice] is the awareness that you accept sensations … and that you can make sense of what triggered them,” he says.
Mindfulness is thought to have wide-ranging effects, from lessening depressive symptoms to reducing anxiety and helping to deal with chronic pain and trauma. There are studies that find mindfulness reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Neuroimaging studies have shown increases of brain matter density in regions linked to learning and memory (though we can’t always assume more brain matter equals better). And some behavioral studies find increases in working memory and decreases in mind wandering.
What’s less well understood is how effective it is as an intervention — in other words, if you want to use it to change mental health or behavior.
Video from our trips to Eastern High School in Washington, DC.
Mindfulness in schools is a grassroots movement
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, mindfulness continued to grow as a complement to traditional medicine and pain management. And it started to make its way into schools “in ad hoc, idiosyncratic ways,” says Oren J. Sofer, senior program manager at Mindful Schools, which provides mindfulness training instruction for educators. There’s still no formal, national accreditation for mindfulness instruction in schools. But it’s become a bit more centralized.
Today mindfulness enters schools through several routes. There are regional-based nonprofits like Minds Incorporated in the DC area that offer mindfulness instruction (sometimes free of charge) to local schools. There are national organizations such as Mindful Schools, which has trained around 14,000 educators and professionals who work with youth in mindfulness instruction (the starter course costs $125). And it’s being written into textbooks from publishers like Scholastic.
Some schools are even trying it as an alternative approach to discipline.
At Robert Coleman Elementary in Baltimore, students are sent to a “Mindful Moment” room in lieu of traditional detention. When students enter the room — decked out with tie-dye tablecloths and purple beanbags — staff from a nonprofit called the Holistic Life Foundation ask students to explain what happened. Then they practice breathing or yoga with the students — though sometimes they just play a game. School officials have told reporters the mindful moment room has helped reduce the number of suspensions.
The evidence for mindfulness in adults is limited but promising
Mindfulness clearly has attracted a lot of buzz. “We’re almost getting to the point now where the efficacy is taking for granted,” said Timothy Caulfield, who studies health and public policy at the University of Alberta and is skeptical of the research.
So to really know if mindfulness training works — for kids, for adults, for anyone — we need to zoom out a bit and look at the sum of the research we have.
When researchers want to evaluate an intervention like mindfulness, here are the main questions they ask:
1) Does days or weeks of mindfulness instruction lead to any reductions in psychological stress?
2) Is mindfulness any more effective than other stress reduction therapies?
3) Does it work in the school setting?
4) If it does work, why?
5) Is the research high quality, well controlled, and free of bias?
Let’s start with the first question.
The results of the JAMA meta-review were generally positive. These programs seem to slightly move the needle on anxiety and depressive symptoms to a degree “comparable with what would be expected from the use of an antidepressant in a primary care population,” the study concluded.
Here’s a caveat: The analysis found that mindfulness was no more effective than other wellness interventions like exercise, muscle relaxation, or cognitive behavioral therapy.
This is a glass-half-empty or half-full type of finding. On one hand, it could mean mindfulness training is as effective as these other treatments. On the other hand, “it doesn’t show that it’s magical,” said Caulfield.
Overall, at this point in time, the quantity and quality of evidence on mindfulness practices is pretty weak. The JAMA study authors started out with a huge stack of 18,000-plus citations on mindfulness in the literature. But only 47 of those studies had a methodology strong enough to be included in the trial.
“The modest benefit found in the study … begs the question of why, in the absence of strong scientifically vetted evidence, meditation in particularly and complementary measures, in general, have become so popular, especially among the influential and well educated,” Allan Goroll, a professor of medicine at Harvard, wrote in a commentary published alongside the JAMA paper.
The mindfulness research on student is scant, but shows some promise for the neediest kids
Okay. The JAMA analysis only covered research on adult subjects. What about research on kids? It seemed from my time at Eastern High School that the kids were benefiting from the instruction.
Yarnetta Leonard, 17, an Eastern student, says the mindfulness class is helping her manage sad and angry feelings. After the woman who was raising her in Southern Virginia died, Leonard was forced to move to DC to live with her biological mother. “Coming here, being in a space where I can just think instead of retaliating and be mad and be sad — I can think of my actions and do better for myself,” she says.
High schools like Eastern — where the kids are mostly of color and qualify for free school lunch — are commonly targeted for mindfulness interventions. And increasingly, there’s high-quality research on whether mindfulness programs can help.
Over the past few years, Erica Sibinga, a pediatrician who was one of the co-authors on the JAMA study, and her colleagues at Johns Hopkins, have been conducting well-controlled trials of using mindfulness in some of Baltimore’s poorest public schools. which would have a lot to gain from a program that reliably reduces stress.
The chronic stress of growing up poor puts kids at a disadvantage. It’s thought that chronic stress — from poverty, from violence, from lack of good nutrition — activates cellular pathways that make our bodies more prone to inflammation and less able to fight off infections. Some studies suggest people who grow up poor are even more susceptible to the common cold later in life.
“If we’re able to provide youth with tools that may reduce the negative impact of trauma that may potentially have long-lasting effects,” Sibinga says
She and her colleagues recently conducted a randomized clinical trial with 300 fifth- to eighth-graders in two Baltimore city schools. Half the students got mindfulness instruction for 12 weeks. The other half got 12 weeks of health education, and were the study’s controls. Sibinga and her colleagues tried hard to match the instructors for both the health class and the mindfulness class in terms of engagement and skill level. They tried to make the health class engaging and exciting.
Here, mindfulness seemed to move the needle. “On depression, [students] moved from the borderline concerning levels to the normal level,” Sibinga explains. “Does that mean each kid in the intervention group has moved? No, it doesn’t. But the average has moved.” The study found similar improvements in anxiety levels, self-hostility, coping, and post-traumatic symptoms.
Again, that’s only one study. I only found three recent systematic reviews on the use of mindfulness and meditation practices in schools. Like the JAMA study with adults, they generally find positive results, but note methodological flaws in the literature.
A 2014 review published in Frontiers in Psychology found, across 24 studies (11 which had not been published in peer-reviewed journals), that mindfulness improved measures of cognitive performance but had less of an impact on stress and coping.
And the effect seems to be driven by improvements in the most disadvantaged kids.
“What we see from the data, people who suffer, whether they are kids or whether they are adults, they profit the most,” says Harald Walach, a psychologist who studies complementary medicine in Germany and who was co-author of that review. “They are at a low point, and from the low point it is always going upward. If you have kids with real emotional problems, you would likely see a larger effect than if you have normal kids who are doing well at school and have a good family background.”
So mindfulness might benefit kids in particularly tough situations. But it might not be as useful for luckier students.
A second 2014 meta-analysis — published in Education Psychological Review — looked at 15 studies of school meditation programs (which included transcendental meditation as well as mindfulness), and found “school-based meditation is beneficial in the majority of cases,” but “the majority of effects of mediation upon student outcomes are small.”
And a third meta-review, published in August 2017, compiled 72 mindfulness studies of youth both in and outside of a classroom setting. (Only 35 were a randomized control design.)
“The first thing that came to me is just the wide variety of things that are called mindfulness-based interventions,” says David Klingbeil, the University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee) school psychologist who led the meta review. “It makes it harder for someone to know what makes this [a particular practice] mindful.” For instance, he found one study that involved kids coloring for 15 minutes, and it was called “mindfulness-based.”
Overall, the study found “universally small, positive therapeutic effects” on areas like attention, introspection, and emotion regulation. But there was inconclusive evidence on whether it could help academic achievement. “I wouldn’t expect teaching someone mindfulness to help their reading, if they are struggling with reading,” Klingbeil says. “But in terms social and emotional skills, maybe it helps there.”
Because mindfulness sessions are composed of a grab bag of activities — concentrating on breathing, concentrating on sounds, group discussions of the mind-body connection — it’s hard to know what, exactly, the mechanism for these positive changes is, and if that mechanism is unique to mindfulness.
“What is not answered is whether the true contribution is the mindfulness practice itself,” Walach says. The effect could be from just taking time out from the normal classroom schedule, or taking part in a group activity, or being taught by an inspired teacher. “Or do you need all of that together — that, we don’t know, because it hasn’t been studied very well,” he says.
And that’s one of the biggest criticism of mindfulness that I kept encountering in reporting: It’s all kind of vague. Mindfulness — a collection of disparate concentration activities — targets broad regions in the brain and broadly helps people on a number of things.
“It may look like it’s all over the place,” Sibinga admits. “But it may be what’s changing is upstream of all of those things.” By upstream, she’s talking about overall systemic changes in the brain or in patterns of thinking. The uncertainties don’t scare her away from the research. “We know our whole body and brain and mind function together,” she says. But we don’t know exactly how. “I’m fascinating by that question. It makes me think we need to explore it further.”
In mindfulness studies, it’s very hard to control for the placebo effect
So if you want to see the effectiveness of mediation, you’d compare people who received instruction for a few weeks with those who did not. Right? The problem is that you can’t have the control group do nothing. What if the benefit of being in a mindfulness program is derived from spending time in a classroom setting? Or just paying attention to an instructor?
These variables are really hard to account for, and even the best-controlled studies can’t control for expectations or the placebo effect. It’s not like a clinical drug trial where the control and experimental groups are taking an identical-looking pill. In these studies, people know what group they’ve been sorted into. It could be that people who get sorted into mindfulness groups expect greater improvements and are then likely to tell their evaluators they improved.
But even with controls, it’s still hard to control for people’s expectations — it’s impossible to do double-blind studies on mindfulness. And these studies largely rely on participant self-reports in their data collection.
“There’s nothing wrong with placebo effects except that they often aren’t enduring,” says James Coyne, emeritus professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania (and a vociferous critic of psychological research methods).
In fact, placebos can help people deal with pain and negative emotions. And that’s not trivial. But if mindfulness is just a placebo, it means there’s nothing special about it compared to other interventions intended to reduce stress.
The mindfulness literature also suffers from other methodological limitations
Mindfulness studies vary greatly in the populations of their subject pools. The JAMA review included studies on alcoholics, asthma sufferers, and people who have a constant ringing in their ears — as well as in the dosage of the treatment (how long and how often participants train), and in the type and quality of the instructions.Which makes it hard to understand if mindfulness gains in one group will generalize to another. There are a lot of variables at play.
A recent PLOS One study found evidence that the whole field of mindfulness studies suffers from publication bias — that is, a tendency for only positive results to be reported, leaving contradictory evidence collecting dust in researchers’ file drawers.
The authors also took a look at mindfulness studies whose methods were registered before the trials began. (Preregistration is now seen as a research best practice, as it limits researchers’ ability to skew conclusions after the data comes in.) They found 21 registered trials, but only eight of these locked-in study designs yielded publishable results. That suggests that many studies that go unregistered and do not find positive results are simply forgotten.
“I’m not against mindfulness,” Brett Thombs, an author of the study, told Nature. “I think that we need to have honestly and completely reported evidence to figure out for whom it works and how much.”
(A note: Mindfulness research is hardly the only field of psychological study that suffers from publication bias. Researchers throughout social and biomedical sciences are amid a revolution to demand more rigorous data collection procedures.)
Mindfulness is basically harmless, but it’s not for all kids
Nothing is for everyone. The same goes for mindfulness.
Though the researchers and studies I consulted agree that it’s basically harmless, I asked Sibinga, the pediatrician, if there are any cases where kids shouldn’t be involved with mindfulness programs. The cases are rare, but she says schizophrenics and people suffering from other thought disorders are not advised to seek out mindfulness training, as it may not be helpful to be “mindful” about thoughts or delusions that don’t have any basis in reality.
The other contraindication is for people who have suffered severe recent trauma. “Their ability to compartmentalize and wall that [trauma] off is closely related to their ability to cope,” Sibinga says. Mindfulness can be an invitation to tear down those mental walls too soon. And that’s why it’s important, she says, for mindfulness instructors and students to be well trained, and to look out for these vulnerable youth.
Researchers have also been looking into the potential negative effects of mindfulness. One 2015 study in Psychological Science found that 15 minutes of mindfulness instruction made study participants (college undergrads) more susceptible to forming false memories. In the case of this study, the participants were shown a list of words like “garbage, waste, can, refuse, and sewage.” Participants who did mindfulness training were more likely to misremember reading the word “trash,” which is similar to those words but didn’t actually appear on the list.
Why? The authors guess when you turn your thoughts inward during meditation, you may be more likely to mix up reality with imaginative assumptions. “Mindfulness meditation appears to reduce reality-monitoring accuracy,” the authors of the paper concluded. (It’s unclear how practically significant misremembering one word on a list is for classroom instruction. Perhaps if students are daydreaming, Brent Wilson, the UC San Diego psychological researcher who led the study, says, they’ll have trouble telling if a thought “came from the daydream or the teacher.”
And then, finally, some people just don’t enjoy introspection, especially when it comes to negative emotions.
“It is not uncommon for participants in mindfulness interventions to report various unpleasant reactions, such as agitation, anxiety, discomfort, or confusion, during formal mindfulness training exercises,” a 2016 review of the state of the field reported. (Though dealing with tough emotions is a core feature of the therapy, not a bug.)
Overall: The state of the evidence here is frustrating
Overall, there’s evidence that suggests mindfulness has a positive effect on kids on anxiety and cognitive measures. But the research isn’t clear on why, whom it’s most beneficial for (a recent small study found mindfulness training may work better in women), or whether the effect is specific to mindfulness instruction.
“There’s a lot we still have to learn about what we’re doing,” Tish Jennings, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, says. She’s generally in favor of mindfulness, and has used it with teachers to help them cope with the stress of their demanding jobs. But she cautions that there’s still a lot we don’t know. Here’s a big one: What types of meditations are more effective than others?
“Often those of us who are developing these programs, we combine a lot of these [meditation] activities, because we’re not exactly sure which one is going to work for what person,” she says. “Because the other thing we don’t know is [whether] some people might benefit more from one kind of activity than another.”
Mindfulness is an interesting — and experimental — approach to providing kids with a way to reduce stress. But it’s not a home run. Recently, a group of 15 psychologists wrote a review of the state of the mindfulness literature in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Overall, they concluded this emerging subfield of study is lacking rigor and specificity. “The various possible meanings of “mindfulness” have to be clarified,” they write. Otherwise, the research becomes impossible to compare apples-to-apples.
“It’s okay to keep an open mind about this stuff; we just need to be really careful not to hype the potential benefits associate with it,” Caulfield says. “It would be great if something as simple and straightforward as mindfulness really did have all these incredible benefits, but we’re not there yet.” When it comes to programs touting mental health benefits for youth, he says, we should demand a high bar of evidence.
On the other hand: Does mindfulness need to have a scientifically approved psychological benefit for it to be useful for classrooms?
Oren J Sofer, the senior program manager at Mindful Schools, disagrees with skeptics’ thinking that it’s too soon to bring mindfulness meditation into schools.
“You can overstate the research and make claims that haven’t been validated, but saying that it’s ‘experimental’ I believe is understating the research,” he says. “I think it’s important to research this stuff, but at the same time, I think it’s important to have common sense. Do we as adults and educators in society have a responsibility to teach children to be self-aware? You don’t need a research study answer that question.”
Throughout my conversations, I had a lingering question: Does mindfulness need to have a scientifically approved psychological benefit for it to be useful or interesting for students? It’s not just a psychological technique. It’s a philosophy: a way of approaching life. At Eastern High School, teacher Rebecca Milner welcomed it into her classroom because it complemented the curricula — she teaches Eastern philosophy in her course. A little stress reduction is an added benefit.
We don’t demand humanities instruction have double-blind placebo strength evidence before teachers assign students to read Hamlet. Teachers assign Hamlet because it’s a great piece of literature that invites students to think about the characters, history, and the English language. Hamlet is taught because it is interesting to think about Hamlet. Mindfulness could be something similar: a toolset for a new, interesting way of thinking about the body, mind, and our emotions.
“If it is being presented as a worldview, or almost as a philosophy or an approach to relaxing, that’s one thing,” Caulfield says. “But the problem is that it is increasingly being framed as an intervention. If they’re making claims about specific clinical benefits, I do think we need research to support it. Or present it as experimental or possibly beneficial.”
But here’s the thing: Mindfulness instructors also like to avoid telling students about the religious and philosophical roots of these practices. And so they lean on the science in their pitches.
“We deal with [the religious issues] by being transparent and bringing in the science,” says Bruce Gill, executive director of Minds Inc., the DC nonprofit that provided the mindfulness programming for Eastern High School. (To the organization’s credit, the website does caution that “much research is still to be done.” And Gill was sure to point out “the bulk of formal research has been done with adults.”)
Should these open questions prevent further research efforts in schools? No. Not at all. If mindfulness is truly useful in reducing stress in children and adolescents, we should know that. There needs to be more high-quality research like Sibinga’s to better understand how this affects kids. There’s a large randomized controlled study underway in 76 UK schools involving around 6,000 students, which should help.
Questions parents should ask about mindfulness programs at schools
So parents should be mindful and ask some questions when mindfulness training comes to their school district. The experts I talked to suggested a few:
- Is mindfulness instruction replacing another, potentially more valuable, activity or resource? For instance, we know physical fitness is critical to mental and physical well-being. Our mindfulness programs taking time out of fitness? Or math instruction? Or reading? There’s only so much time in the school day.
- How much does the program cost? Where is the budget coming from?
- How much training do the instructors have? Teaching mindfulness to yuppie adults is different than teaching it to urban youth. Are the instructors used in the classroom setting?
- Do the instructors practice mindfulness in their own lives? (Sofer says this makes a huge difference in instruction quality.)
- Are the instructors using mindfulness practice with a strong evidence base like mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)?
- Have the practices been fully secularized? Will the students learn about the Buddhist origins of the techniques? (This might be more of a sticking point for some parents more than others.)
- Is there a quiet space for the training? Distractions will make it a waste of time
- Is it being used to control behavior or to reduce anxiety?
At the very least, Sibinga says, this research “is recognition is that children really need balance in their school day, and the notion of teaching for the test and trying to cram full the day with only academic work is limited.”
If the benefit of mindfulness is simply taking time out of a busy school day, and just remembering to breathe, that’s not such a bad thing.