Should mindfulness be taught in schools?

'Mindfulness' has become quite the buzz-word recently. The origins of mindfulness are often traced to Buddhism, and the Pali word sati (Grossman & Van Dam, 2011; Hanley et al., 2016), with the Zen Buddhist and Professor, James Austin stating that mindfulness always starts ‘as a nonreactive, bare awareness open to anything’ (Austin 1999, p. 126). Although found in the Chan (Chinese Zen) and Tibetan Dzogchen traditions (Sharf, 2015), the Vedic concept of sakshi bhava- a mind which is continually observing without being affected (Banth & Talwar, 2010)- outdate all these, and could be the uncredited origins of mindfulness. The introduction of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) in the West are often credited to Kabat-Zinn (Hanley et al., 2016; Hyland, 2015), who gives an operational definition of ‘the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment’ (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). At present, there is no agreed upon operational definition, with Bishop et al. (2004) offering a two-component model involving ‘self-regulation of attention’ and an ‘orientation to experience’ (p. 9).


As interest in MBIs rises, the field is entering school settings and at first glance looks a highly promising intervention. Positive effects have been discovered on stress (Boderick & Jennings, 2012; Ceisla et al., 2012; Gouda et al., 2016; Siblinga et al., 2015; van de Weijer-Bergsma et al., 2014) and anxiety levels (Beauchemin et al., 2008; Cunha & Paiva, 2012), whilst improving sleep (Britton et al., 2014; Bei et al., 2013). It has been found to enhance academic performance (Beauchemin et al., 2008), with improved attention (Crescentini et al., 2016) and metacognition (Sanger & Dorjee, 2016). This growing body of research has led to a number of reviews and meta-analyses which show a more balanced picture.


Burke’s (2010) review of fifteen studies found empirical evidence to be lacking, with self-reports widely utilised, poor study designs, involving small sample sizes which were often non-randomised without control groups. At the time this was attributed to the recentness of mindfulness in schools, yet these limitations remain in later reviews (Black, 2015 ; Felver et al., 2016; Rempel, 2012; Zenner et al., 2014). Heterogeneity was seen, along with a lack of long-term follow-up, blind third-party measures and multi-methods. More promisingly, Dunning et al. (2019) were able to perform a meta-analysis of randomized control trials (RCTs), finding efficacy in mindfulness, executive functioning, attention, depression, anxiety/stress and negative behaviours, but when compared to active controls, it was only in mindfulness, depression and anxiety/stress levels. This analysis seems to offer evidence for using MBIs for students’ mental health and well-being, but limitations in relying on self-reporting, small sample sizes, publication biases and heterogeneity remain.


To establish if recent research has addressed these issues, a search on PubMed (December 1, 2020) with the terms ‘mindfulness’ and ‘schools’ was performed for the years 2018-2020. RCTs were selected, giving 263 results, most of which did not meet the criteria of being school-based. After assessing each paper, and eliminating university (n= 9) and college (n= 4) based studies, six were left for review, somewhat demonstrating a lack of quality research in the field. The table below shows the key findings of the papers.

All of the studies had a reliance of self-reporting, offering no blind third-party measures or multiple methods of measurement, and small sample sizes throughout; the largest being 404 (Patton et al., 2019), perhaps due to costs. Heterogeneity continued, with each study giving different interventions, measurements and variables. It seems the more standardised practices of MBSR or MBCT are yet to be fully adapted or widely accepted in the school setting, and no agreed upon measurements for mindfulness. ‘Mindfulness-based colouring in’ as an intervention in Carsley and Heath’s (2018) study demonstrates the suggested ambiguity more recently found in MBIs (Bodhi, 2011).


Four of the six offered active controls, showing some improvement in experiment design, but there are many of the same limitations found in earlier studies. Validity must be questioned with small numbers of schools and a lack of diversity across demographics. Only one completed the study by Antonson et al. (2018), which used an online intervention- showing the difficulties faced when self-motivation of students is required- meaning no results were found, but all other studies showed benefits of MBIs. Although this may be a result of publication bias towards positive findings, Patton et al. (2019) additionally demonstrated that there was no added benefit of mindfulness meditation seen when given alongside cognitive behaviour therapy.


The study by Salmoirago-Blotcher et al. (2018) found at follow-up after 6 months the positive effects found in impulsivity had diminished, demonstrating the importance of extended follow-ups and how benefits may require continued upkeep (Hyland, 2015). Most studies offered eight- or twelve-week programmes, when nine-months has been suggested for interventions to have lasting effects (Weare, 2014). A study by Gouda et al.(2016) offered MBIs to both students and teachers together and highlighted the possible need for integration of mindfulness in numerous areas of the education system- such as teacher trainings and school curricula- to promote lasting effects. The study could have gone further by offering a longer follow-up period, as well as comparisons with only teachers, and only students receiving MBIs to analyse the possible influence of wider integration of mindfulness. Comparison studies with schools offering wider mindfulness integration would be necessary, yet highly difficult in the UK; 2 such schools have been found (Erricker, 2009), with only the Shambala School in Halifax remaining since the closure of the Dharma School in Brighton as of July, 2020 (Dharma School, 2020). These schools are the closest we have to what Forbes calls ‘Critical Integral Contemplative Education’ (Forbes, 2016), in his idea of what an integrated mindfulness school would entail.


It is suggested that Kabat-Zinn’s original intention of universal dharma has been lost (Hyland, 2015) and with its commodification becoming termed McMindfulness (Purser & Loy, 2013; Hyland 2017). It is said that mindfulness without the ethical framework provided by Buddhism (and other traditions) may only provide symptomatic relief (Monteiro et al., 2014), whilst not addressing the actual causes. For example, the use of mindfulness in schools to improve attention, when there is evidence of inattention linked to mobile phone use (Kuznekoff & Titsworth, 2013; Seo et al., 2016; Zheng et al., 2014). Although Lindahl suggests there is a fear in secular society of MBIs becoming too similar to religion if ethics are incorporated (Lindahl, 2014), it seems they would be necessary if child well-being is to be more important than dominant ideological factors such as achievement (Wear, 2014).


Whilst the research suggests a variety of benefits of MBIs in schools, it is still yet to be reliable and valid. We have to wonder why in ten years these research limitations are yet to be fully addressed and numerous questions have been raised around the use of mindfulness in the school setting. Perhaps the question could be ‘what makes children ‘unmindful’?’ and seeking to prevent that, whilst keeping mindfulness in the ‘package’ of Eastern traditions. Future research could move in the direction of analysing the more ethical aspects of these traditions and what they may bring to mindfulness, as well as overall wellbeing.


References:

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