Mindfulness and meditation are effective ways to improve the concentration, behaviour and mental health of pupils, new research says.
But the benefits can be severely limited by inexperienced or poorly trained teachers, according to research psychologists at Nottingham Trent University.
Interest in the health benefits of mindfulness lessons for primary and secondary pupils has increased significantly over the past 10 years. Mindfulness, the researchers say, is "an intentional engaging of a non-judgemental awareness of the present moment ... inherited from the Buddhist tradition".
In a paper published in the latest edition of the Education and Health journal, the researchers conducted a review of existing research into the effectiveness of mindfulness programmes.
A cognitive shift
The researchers found that, while there is much debate over the most appropriate age at which to introduce such programmes, evidence generally supports their use among school-aged children.
One study, for example, introduced an eight-week mindfulness programme to 64 pupils aged between 7 and 9. Pupils had two, 30-minute mindfulness lessons each week. At the end of the study, they showed significant improvement in cognitive skills such as planning and memory.
Similarly, a mindfulness programme was introduced to 246 secondary pupils, with an average age of 13 and a half. The 10-week programme included breath awareness and attentive listening exercises. These pupils were subsequently judged by their teachers to be far more optimistic, social and well-behaved than their classmates who had not participated in the programme.
Mindfulness practice involves focusing on the present moment. The researchers believe that this leads to a significant cognitive shift. This, they say, "makes it easier for children and adolescents to let go of and simply observe their thoughts and feelings as passing phenomena".
A 12-week programme of mindfulness and yoga with 97 key stage 2 pupils led to significant improvements in the way those children dealt with social stress. This included a reduction in unwelcome thoughts and heightened emotions, when compared with a control group.
Examining thoughts and feelings can also reduce pupils' anxiety when they are confronted with external situations, the academics say. This leads to an increased sense of calm and an improved ability to cope with the world.
In fact, studies have shown that mindfulness programmes can also help to alleviate more serious difficulties, such as anxiety, depression and problems with self-esteem. This is significant, as approximately one in four adolescents in the UK experiences a mental health problem.
"Stress and depression, poor emotion regulation capacity, and underdeveloped behavioural and social coping skills in adolescents are principal factors that can lead to academic non-completion and diminished opportunities in later life," the researchers say.
Flexible and cost-effective
The researchers point out some of the advantages of such programmes. Mindfulness lessons are cost-effective and there are few adverse side effects. Sessions are flexible: frequency and duration can be varied, and they can be modified to incorporate yoga or other exercise.
However, the researchers say that the usefulness - and, indeed, credibility - of the practice can be compromised by poor teaching. Mindfulness programmes are unregulated, and some facilitators have completed only an eight-week training course plus a few months' experience.
Mindfulness practitioners often claim to have a link to Buddhist meditation. However, authentic Buddhist masters tend to undergo decades of focused meditation training, as well as physical hardship, before they consider themselves qualified to teach.
"Students more accustomed to Buddhist principles have been shown to conceptualise mindfulness in different ways, compared with students from non-Buddhist backgrounds," the researchers say. "It is currently unclear whether Westernised versus Buddhist approaches to meditation and mindfulness involve different mediating mechanisms."
They therefore conclude that there is a need for greater clarity and consistency, both in defining mindfulness education and in training its teachers. And these teachers should "be mindful of the need to respect and safeguard the credibility, heritage and ethical values, not only of clinical practice in general but also of the Buddhist teachings," the researchers conclude.
Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W. and Griffiths, M. D.
"The Health Benefits of Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Children and Adolescents", Education and Health, 30 (4) (2012), 95-98.
Education and Health.
Mindfulness programmes can be easily adapted for school pupils, according to researchers from Nottingham Trent University.
They offer these recommendations for working with children and adolescents:
Explain ideas and the rationale behind them more fully than you might for adults.
Include a broader range of practices than you might for adults. These might include "mindfulness of sounds", which involves mindful listening to different genres of music.
Use age-appropriate metaphors. For example, the concept of the wandering mind might be explained by comparing it to a puppy one is trying to persuade to sit still.
Be prepared to vary practice more often than you might for adults.
Shorter practice sessions, lasting between one and 10 minutes, are more appropriate for children than the longer sessions offered to adults.
Consider involving parents and carers alongside the children.