Is School-Based Mindfulness Not As Effective As We Thought? | Occupational Therapist Evidence Based Review

About Mindfulness

Mindfulness has seen some promising results in research for conditions such as stress and PTSD. I took a short course on mindfulness in OT school and learned about the research in different areas and its benefits. I have noticed an increase in school-based mindfulness interventions and practice (SBMI; SBMP).

“Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.”[1]https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/mindfulness-exercises/art-20046356

Why Mindfulness in Schools?

Research has shown that youth, such in urban communities are at high risk for negative outcomes. Causes include stress, behavioral problems, and poor academic performance. Due to the success of mindfulness with other age groups and conditions, mindfulness-based approaches are hypothesized to help with these negative outcomes. Many pilot studies have assessed the feasibility of SBMI.[2]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 … Reference List

What Recent Research is Finding

Mindfulness for students in schools has not been as effective as we thought for managing symptoms of anxiety and depression. One article from the research found small significance effect sizes for these interventions. These researchers state that mindfulness interventions may not provide additional benefits for these symptoms.[3]Phillips, S., & Mychailyszyn, M. (2022). The Effect of School-Based Mindfulness Interventions on Anxious and Depressive Symptoms: A Meta-analysis. School Mental Health, 1-15.

Why is it Not Working?

There may be several reasons why mindfulness may not be working well for students in schools.

The main barrier is that students are just not practicing enough mindfulness to be successful.

Mindfulness requires metacognition (thinking about thinking), which for some younger students, may not be a skill they have developed yet. There is also a lot of variation in the approaches taught, so some interventions may be more suitable than others. As most techniques appear to be taught by teachers, researchers suggest that learning from peers may be more effective than learning from an adult for something that is new and unfamiliar (which may take some convincing to practice).

My Thoughts on Why

Much like a new skill, I believe this may also be due to difficulty with self-initiating a change in one’s habits, especially at such a young age. They may forget to practice it, when there are other things on their mind such as homework, extracurriculars, socializing, and spending time with the family. It takes intentional practice to disconnect and practice some of the mindfulness techniques. Practicing mindfulness may not be seen as cool among peers. In a sense, practicing mindfulness may mean admitting that one has a problem.

Critics argue that mindfulness is potentially even harmful or a distracting ‘quick fix’ for issues in child development and education.[4]Langer Primdahl, N. (2022). When the ‘mindfulness wars’ enter the classroom: making sense of the critique of school-based mindfulness. Oxford Review of Education48(1), 112-129. So while it may be easy to think of the benefits, we have to remember the economics of OT. Everything comes with an opportunity cost. Mindfulness requires time, training to teach it, and active effort/energy for those involved. This comes with a cost. There is possibility that students may be doing something better and less expensive.

So is mindfulness a one-sized fits all approach that we can blanketly hope for all schools, educators, and students to adopt? Certainly not. And that may have what’s happening. I am even seeing it more in popular culture. Mindfulness needs to be adapted to the age group and population, and background to meet the needs of those who may benefit from it. Customization. It also should not be used in isolation, but as an adjunct to other interventions as well – education, therapy, pharmacology, and other proven approaches such as CBT.

While it may be easy to teach and understand, the art and act of practicing something consistently on such as large scale should come as no surprise of it’s low successes. One idea is to look at it in terms of teirs and instead of the institutional/population level, more of the targeted groups of smaller sizes – before we look at individualized mindfulness interventions.

But who knows? If during morning assembly, if all students take a minute to stop, breathe, and be mindful, maybe the world could be a happier place? I imagine there would be a lot of pushback and politics that come with this too. Maybe some schools are doing this already?

References

References
1 https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/mindfulness-exercises/art-20046356
2 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 psychology38(7), 985-994.
3 Phillips, S., & Mychailyszyn, M. (2022). The Effect of School-Based Mindfulness Interventions on Anxious and Depressive Symptoms: A Meta-analysis. School Mental Health, 1-15.
4 Langer Primdahl, N. (2022). When the ‘mindfulness wars’ enter the classroom: making sense of the critique of school-based mindfulness. Oxford Review of Education48(1), 112-129.
Jeff is a licensed occupational therapist and lead content creator for OT Dude. He covers all things occupational therapy as well as other topics including healthcare, wellness, mental health, technology, science, sociology, and philosophy. Buy me a Coffee on Venmo.