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School mindfulness lessons don’t work for teenagers, study says

Here at Tooled Up Towers, we love to see how interventions work in real life. It isn’t easy to prove if something works, so we were excited to learn that a randomised control trial has been carried out on teaching mindfulness in schools. 

Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of what is happening in the present moment. It is a way of reducing how much we worry about the future or ruminate on the past. A therapy based on teaching mindfulness skills to stay well has been proven to reduce depression in adults. So, what would happen if we taught mindfulness in schools?

Do mindfulness lessons improve children’s mental health?

There is a body of research that points toward mindfulness being beneficial in schools, but a lot of the studies are small scale so can’t prove its effectiveness.

The MYRIAD study is a randomised control trial – the gold standard of research tools – designed to test the effect of mindfulness lessons on children’s resilience. Some 84 schools were involved, and almost 8,500 children. Researchers from Oxford University collaborated with the Mindfulness in Schools Project, to develop a mindfulness programme of 10 lessons that teachers were trained to deliver in schools. The lessons covered skills such as training attention, moving mindfully and gratitude. The mindfulness programme was compared with the social and emotional learning that was already being taught in those schools.  

Researchers measured children’s mental wellbeing before the training, after it, and again, a year later, and found no improvement. 

We might imagine that this would come as a disappointing blow to mindfulness advocates keen to bolster child mental health. However, the research has highlighted the importance of how we use mindfulness, and paved the way for employing it in effective ways in the future.

One of the key outcomes was that children found the lessons “boring”, so there was little engagement with it. The programme asked them to continue practising the skills at home, and not many did. Prof Mark Williams, one of the researchers working on the project, likened it to “going to the gym once and hoping you’ll get fit”.  

The study has shown that the mindfulness programme – taught to all students – didn’t work. However, it suggests looking into more targeted interventions based on age and mental health issues. We wonder if this leaves the door open for mindfulness in schools, but tailored to a student’s requirements?

How can we weave mindfulness into daily school life?

Sometimes, we have to hide vegetables in the kids’ bolognaise sauce at dinnertime. If children find mindfulness lessons “boring”, could we instead incorporate mindfulness into other activities?

Any teacher who can create a flow-state of absorption and engagement in an activity is in fact activating mindfulness. 

Five ways schools can teach mindfulness (by stealth!) in schools:

  1. Create clubs that allow students to follow their passions with like-minded people. This could be activities where students are in a state of flow (listen to our podcast to learn more) or fully absorbed in their work. Alongside the essential sports clubs, why not consider other things that really interest your community? Dungeons and Dragons? Online gaming (where content and communication is positive)? Make up? LGBTQ+? Encourage students to get absorbed in their interests – and find their tribe too!
  2. Short bursts of mindful activity within lessons. These can help to train our attention. Mindfulness practitioners famously use the ‘raisin exercise’, where people are encouraged to really taste and experience a raisin. This is something that can be easily adapted to the classroom. Anything can be used. Ask students to complete a task from your lesson plan, but slow it down for 5 minutes. This could work well where children are using their hands as well as their brains, such as in science experiments, DT lessons, cookery, and art. Encourage them to notice small details (the sound of the pencil on the paper, the texture of the wood, the smell of the food, for example).
  3. Find the equivalent to “I-spy” at school. This can be a way of grounding ourselves to a space. Perhaps you could do a treasure hunt where students really notice and engage with their surroundings? Find a certain quote from a book in the library? Ask them to research dyslexia or autism and assess one or two classrooms in the shoes of a person with these conditions? Get outside and explore, using our 75 Things to Do Outside guide?
  4. Help children to understand anxiety and what it does to our minds and bodies, before encouraging them to be mindful of their emotions.  In this way, anxious children can learn to explore anxiety rather than be trapped in it. You could use our keeping calm exercises to help children manage anxiety. 
  5. Create a space that is truly peaceful. Consider creating an area entirely dedicated to silence and peace. Provide activities such as colouring, sewing or use our 30 calming drawing ideas. Essentially, this is a space that children choose to come to, which is staffed by someone dedicated to upholding the peace!
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