School systems have long been interested in supporting students’ mental health as a means to improve behavior, decrease absenteeism, and even strengthen academic performance. The privations and disruptions of pandemic-era school closures have only heightened this interest. Mindfulness is one technique among many being used as a mental health and resilience booster in schools, but does it really do any good on that front—much less on key outcomes like student academics and behavior? A recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of School Psychology and conducted by a team of Canadian scholars aims to find out.
Mindfulness originates from ancient Buddhist practices and focuses on teaching individuals to pay calm attention and focus with nonjudgmental acceptance on their thoughts, feelings, and sensations. The secularized version of mindfulness is often used as a therapeutic technique to decrease anxiety and stress, but research on it is heavily focused on adults in non-educational settings. In the K–12 setting, kids might be guided through a slow breathing and visualization activity to calm them before class begins. Practitioners tend to agree that students need help with stressful situations and relationships, but worry about how to make the time for mindfulness in the classroom and whether they are equipped to implement such programming.
The Canadian analysts here initially identified nearly 5,400 unique, peer-reviewed, English-language studies on mindfulness-based programs (MBPs) published through 2017 for their meta-analysis. But limiting their criteria to randomized controlled designs focused on students—in either K–12 or undergraduate college settings—reduced that number to just forty-six. They standardize and code a set of educational outcomes—which includes attention, self-regulation, impulsivity, interpersonal skills, school functioning, student behavior, academic performance, and mindfulness itself—and also create an overall school adjustment measure that combines those individual outcomes. They compute standardized effect sizes for each outcome and subgroup, and use a random-effects model that enables inferences to a broader population of comparable studies. They also make adjustments to their models to control for publication bias.
At the end of the programs, the effect size of MBPs compared to control groups was small for the overall school adjustment measure, as well as the individual academic performance and impulsivity measures. The effect was small to moderate for attention, and moderate for mindfulness. Specifically, of the forty-six studies, only nineteen assessed mindfulness as an outcome itself, and they had an effect size of 0.5 (considered moderate impact). There were no differences between treatment and control groups in terms of interpersonal skills, school functioning, or student behavior.
When examining whether students’ educational level had an impact on the effectiveness of MBPs, they found significant differences: increases in mindfulness (only) for elementary grade students; increases in both mindfulness and overall school adjustment for students in middle and high school; and increases in overall school adjustment (only) for undergrads.
Variations in the control groups influenced the results, too. For example, when an MBP treatment group was compared to a business-as-usual control group (i.e., no program per se to improve school adjustment), they saw significant differences between them. But when MBPs were compared to another active control condition (i.e., students received a different, non-MBP treatment to improve school adjustment), they saw no difference. The analysts suggest that other active control conditions (for instance, playing “The Good Behavior Game” or participating in concentration training) might be providing similar impacts on student focus or classroom disruption, without the specific emphasis on mindfulness. What’s more, positive impacts only materialized when the MBP program was led by an outside facilitator with previous experience in mindfulness. No differences were observed when the classroom teacher was leading the program, whether experienced or not—nor when the outside facilitator had no experience in mindfulness.
In the end, it seems like there’s no great harm in helping kids—especially older ones—to be more mindful of their thoughts and actions, presumably to reduce stress. Plus, the programs provide a little lift to academics and help students to pay attention. Encouragingly, their effectiveness is less about a particular mindfulness program—that’s good since they are all over the map—than it is about having an experienced facilitator who knows what she’s doing. Still, we’ve got to keep in mind (pun intended) that MBPs don’t have outsized impacts, probably don’t belong on a classroom teachers’ to-do lists, and will take time away from other priorities if they are not integrated into the school day.
SOURCE: Jessica Mettler et al., “Mindfulness-based programs and school adjustment: A systematic review and meta-analysis,” Journal of School Psychology (April 2023).