By Jillian Haydicky, Ph.D., & Judith Wiener, Ph.D.
Social and emotional learning is a framework for developing student competencies in the areas of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (CASEL, 2013) to foster resilience and success at school and in the community.
Results of the national School-Based Mental Health Survey (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2013) indicated that universal programs aimed at enhancing social and emotional learning are associated with reductions in behavioural and emotional difficulties, improved coping abilities, and enhanced academic achievement among students. A key recommendation of the Survey was to invest in evidence-informed mental health and/or social and emotional learning initiatives in schools.
There is a growing body of evidence supporting the use of mindfulness-based interventions in schools to promote social and emotional competencies among K-12 students.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation involves deliberately and repeatedly bringing one’s attention to thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they arise in the present moment. These experiences are greeted with an open, curious and non-judgmental attitude (Segal et al., 2002; Williams et al., 2007). Mindfulness meditation fosters self-awareness, self-monitoring and self-regulation (Bishop et al., 2004; Black et al., 2011), which are critical components of social and emotional learning.
Are Mindfulness-Based Programs Appropriate for my Students?
Research with adults indicates that mindfulness-based programs increase positive affect, emotion regulation, empathy, social functioning, and quality of life (Keng et al., 2011). Mindfulness-based programs have been established as moderately effective treatments for chronic pain, anxiety and depression in adults (Baer, 2003).
Reviews of the preliminary research with youth suggest that mindfulness-based programs are acceptable and feasible for this population (Burke, 2010; Zoogman et al., 2014). Youth participating in mindfulness-based programs in clinical and school settings experience improvements in physiological, psychological, and behavioural functioning (Black et al., 2009).
Benefits of Mindfulness for All Students
On April 7, 2014, Ontario’s Ministry of Education released a report entitled “Achieving Excellence - A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario,” in which student well-being was identified as one of the key target areas for improvement. Click here to access the report.
Educators are increasingly using mindfulness-based programs to promote the social and emotional well-being of students across Ontario and beyond. A review of existing programs suggests that mindfulness can be incorporated into the classroom as early as Kindergarten, and positive outcomes can be achieved with students of all ages (Burke, 2010).
Second and third grade students participating in eight-weeks of Mindful Awareness Practices (MAPS) demonstrated significant improvements in executive function skills, including behavioural regulation and metacognition, compared to a randomized control group (Flook et al., 2010). Students with executive functioning challenges prior to the program made the greatest gains, suggesting that mindfulness training may be particularly beneficial for students at risk of learning or behavioural difficulties.
Mindfulness-based programs are also associated with improved attention skills, which are critical for success in the classroom. Primary students (Grades 1 – 3) randomly assigned to Attention Academy, a universal mindfulness-based program targeting attention skills, demonstrated significant improvements in teacher-rated attention problems and better performance on selective attention tasks, compared to a control group of their peers (Napoli et al., 2005).
Mindfulness training in schools is also associated with improved emotion regulation (Mendelson et al., 2010) and reductions in physiological correlates of stress, such as blood pressure and heart rate (Barnes et al., 2004). Students report less negative affect and a greater sense of calm and relaxation (Broderick & Metz, 2009), in addition to improvements in overall well-being (Huppert and Johnson, 2010), after mindfulness training. Youth exhibiting symptoms of mental health difficulties and emotional disturbance experience reductions in anxiety (Beauchemin et al., 2008; Semple et al., 2010; Smith-Carrier & Gallinaro, 2013) and depression (Joyce et al., 2010; Kuyken et al., 2013) after participating in a mindfulness-based program at school.
Overall, mindfulness-based programs appear to enhance students’ abilities to regulate their behaviour, attention, and emotion.
Benefits of Mindfulness for Students with Learning Disabilities
In addition to academic difficulties, students with learning disabilities (LDs) often experience social difficulties and psychological disturbance (e.g., Capozzi et al. 2008; Willcutt & Pennington 2000), and many have a comorbid diagnosis of ADHD (Maynard et al., 1999; Willcutt et al., 2005). There are very few school-based interventions designed specifically for youth with LD and/or ADHD, but emerging research suggests that these programs produce similar outcomes as universal programs delivered to the general student population.
Secondary students with LDs who meditated for 5 – 10 minutes at the beginning of class every day for five weeks demonstrated significant improvements in their social skills and academic achievement, and significant reductions in anxiety and behaviour problems (Beauchemin et al., 2008). Results from clinical studies support these findings.
Integra Mindfulness Martial Arts is a 20-week clinic-based intervention for youth with LDs in Toronto, Ontario. Preliminary evaluations of this program indicate that adolescents with LDs and ADHD symptoms exhibited reductions in problem behaviours and social difficulties, and improved self-monitoring skills, compared to a waitlist control group (Haydicky et al., 2012). Participants of this program also described their improved self-understanding and communication skills, increased mastery and pride, a subjective sense of calmness and well-being, and better ability to manage impulses and tolerate discomfort (Milligan et al., 2013).
A clinical study conducted with youth with ADHD (67% of whom had co-occurring LDs) and their parents revealed similar improvements in attention, behaviour, and social relationships, as well as reductions in parenting stress (Haydicky et al., 2013).
Mindfulness-Based Programs in Canadian Schools
There are several mindfulness-based programs currently being implemented and evaluated in school districts across Canada. MindUp is a 15 week intervention involving short, daily breathing practices led by teachers, plus one 40-50 minute lesson per week. MindUp is widely used in British Columbia, with over 3,500 teachers trained, and is also in use in the Trillium Lakelands District School Board in Ontario. Large-scale controlled trials indicate positive effects on a variety of indices of social, emotional and academic functioning, including executive function, stress regulation, emotional control, attention, academic achievement, attendance, optimism, school self-concept, mindfulness, depression, empathy, perspective-taking, prosocial behaviour, and popularity (Schonert-Reichl & Lawlor, 2010; Schonert-Reichl et al., in preparation).
Secondary teachers in the Toronto Catholic District School Board are currently facilitating the Mindfulness Ambassador Council, a 12-lesson curriculum designed to promote social and emotional learning, leadership, and life skills. Click here to access a video about the council. Results of a preliminary unpublished program evaluation suggest that students exhibited improved observing skills, showed greater emotional clarity, experienced less anxiety, and developed in the domains of character and confidence. Qualitative results suggested additional improvements in coping, communication and relationship building. Students and teachers alike reported a high level of satisfaction with the program (Smith-Carrier & Gallinaro, 2013).
To find out if mindfulness-based programs are happening in schools near you, click here to visit www.discovermindfulness.ca.
Strategies for Mindfulness in the Classroom
The mindfulness-based programs reviewed here are time-limited interventions (i.e., ranging from 4 – 12 lessons, lasting 10 – 50 minutes each) designed to complement or augment existing curriculum. Trained teachers or professional facilitators typically deliver the programs to the whole class or a group of students.
Common elements of mindfulness-based programs include:
- guided breathing practices
- mindful movement such as yoga to promote body awareness
- kindness and compassion exercises
- activities to increase awareness of thoughts, feelings, and how the mind works
Example of a beginner mindful breathing practice:
- Instruct students to find a comfortable position sitting in a chair or lying on the floor.
- Invite students to close their eyes, if they feel comfortable.
- Direct students’ attention to the sensations of their body (e.g., contact points between body and chair).
- Guide students to bring their awareness to the sensations of their breath. Encourage students to pay attention to the feeling of each in- and out-breath, without trying to control or change the rhythm.
- Students may wish to place a hand, a stuffed animal, or a jewel on their bellybutton, and observe the gentle rise and fall of their abdomen with each inhalation and exhalation.
- Prompt students to notice when the mind wanders, and gently bring it back to the sensations of the breath.
The LD@school team has compiled a guide of 5 mindfulness activities from resources across our website. Click here to access the guide Mindfulness Practices for the Classroom.
Summary of level of evidence
This survey of the literature focused on mindfulness-based programs in educational settings. Criteria for inclusion in the review were:
- A) Individual, whole class, or school-wide mindfulness-based interventions for students with LD and/or ADHD; or B) Individual, whole class, or school-wide mindfulness-based interventions for general student populations; or C) Mindfulness-based interventions for youth with ADHD/LD in clinical settings
- Published in a peer reviewed journal, practice guide, or educational report. Studies focusing on the indirect effects of teacher mindfulness on students, or those conducted with post-secondary students or youth with clinical diagnoses, were excluded.
Although interest in mindfulness for students is rapidly growing, and the number of published evaluations of school-based mindfulness programs is steadily increasing, the research in this field is still in its infancy. However, preliminary research consistently demonstrates that mindfulness-based programs are acceptable and feasible for K-12 students, and to date, no harmful effects have been reported.
Overall, results of multiple well-designed pilot studies, as well as several randomized controlled trials with large samples, revealed statistically significant positive outcomes with small to moderate effects sizes (Burke, 2010; Zoogman et al., 2014).
Related Resources on the LD@school Website
Discover Mindfulness – an Ontario-based organization linking teachers across the province who are interested in bringing mindfulness to their schools. Click here to visit the organization's website.
Mindfulness in Education Network – a network for educators who want to bring mindfulness into the classroom. Click here to access the website.
Association for Mindfulness in Education – collaborative association of organizations and individuals working together to provide support for mindfulness training as a component of K-12 education. Click here to access the organization's website.
Garrison Institute – develops and researches mindfulness in education programs, offers conferences and retreats at their centre in New York State. Click here to visit the Garrison Institute's website.
Greater Good Science Center – studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society. Many excellent articles on mindfulness in education. Click here to visit the website.
Guardian Teacher Network resources on How to Teach Mindfulness – tips, scripts, audio and video and many other ideas and tools for teaching mindfulness to students. Click here to access the resources.
MindSpace Resources page – guided meditations, articles and resources to bring mindfulness to schools. Click here to access the resources.
WakeUP Schools – an initiative of Thich Nhat Hanh and Plum Village to recognize the importance of creating sustainable and lasting programs in schools that support the happiness and well-being of teachers, administrators, students, and parents. Click here to access the website.
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Dr. Jillian Haydicky is a Clinical Psychologist (supervised practice) working at the Toronto Catholic District School Board, and at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships in Toronto. She graduated with her Ph.D. in School and Clinical Child Psychology from the University of Toronto. She previously trained at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre, Child Development Institute, and Reach Out Centre for Kids (ROCK). Dr. Haydicky’s research focuses on evaluating the processes and outcomes of mindfulness-based interventions for youth. She has conducted clinical program evaluations of mindfulness-based interventions for youth with Learning Disabilities (Haydicky, Wiener, Badali, Milligan & Ducharme; 2012) and ADHD (Haydicky, Shecter, Wiener & Ducharme, 2013). Starting in September 2014, Dr. Haydicky will cofaciliate mindfulness groups for youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder as part of a research study at York University.
Judith Wiener is a Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at OISE/University of Toronto. Working in the School and Clinical Child Psychology program she teaches a number of course about assessment as well as the education of children and youth with learning disabilities and ADHD. She is also the Past President of the International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities. Prior to her academic career Dr Wiener served as a School Psychologist for six years in school districts in Quebec and Ontario.
Dr. Wiener’s research focused on understanding the peer relations of children with learning disabilities and the social, behavioural and emotional impacts of different approaches to special education service delivery. Currently her research is focused on the social and emotional adjustment of children and adolescents with learning disabilities and ADHD. With her team she has researched mindfulness therapy interventions to address some of their challenges.