It could be as simple as taking 10 slow breaths before each class. It could mean standing still in a circle for two minutes, trying not to move regardless of distractions. In some classrooms, it could look like group therapy, with the students taking turns focusing on each individual’s story and feelings.
Mindfulness, in its multiple manifestations, is a secular practice inspired by Buddhist meditation. It teaches focus, and awareness and regulation of one’s emotions. Studies suggest that practicing mindfulness can improve attention and reduce anxiety and stress.
Recently, mindfulness has become a buzzword, a hashtag, and a product. Can’t concentrate? There are dozens of mindfulness apps available for purchase. Unconvinced? Read “Why These 4 Celebrities Meditate … And You Should Too!” Or if you work for a corporation like Target or Google, you may have access to free mindfulness training sessions—offered to employees because they boost productivity.
Fad status aside, mindfulness can be a meaningful practice for students struggling with attention and behavior issues. Schools and other educational organizations are increasingly incorporating mindfulness practices into their curriculums to help kids improve academic performance, and for some children to cope with traumatic experiences and be able to focus in class.
For students who are survivors of violence or abuse, for example, sitting in class attempting solve a math problem is a near-impossible task when there’s a storm of anger, fear, and grief brewing inside you.
“When we look at low-performing schools it’s not that these children are unable to learn, it’s that very often they are unavailable to learn,” Madeline Kronenberg, a California school board member, told Mind/Shift. “They’re not able to focus; they’re so fixated on other things that are going on in their lives that it’s difficult for them to be able to find space for learning.”
Education equity isn’t only a question of resources. It requires all students to feel safe and calm in their learning environments. Across all demographics, there are kids who struggle with anxiety and attention issues that impede learning. And they might not yet have the ability to shift focus to the task at hand.
“We tell kids be quiet, calm yourself down, be still,” said Jean-Gabrielle Larochette, an educator who practices mindfulness himself and with his students, in Mind/Shift. “We tell them all these things they need in the classroom, but we’re not teaching them how to do that.”
Schools that have incorporated mindfulness and meditation have seen drops in detentions and suspensions. Educators say students handle conflict better and feel safer on campus. There have been few controlled studies tracking the effect of mindfulness on academic performance, but early research has yielded positive results. In one study, fourth- and fifth-grade students who participated in a four-month meditation program received higher math grades than their peers.
Kids praise these programs. A sixth-grade student told Mind/Shift that mindfulness has helped him ignore older bullies’ provocations instead of getting into fights. A high school student told The Atlantic that mindfulness lessons have helped her cope with depression and participate in class. She transferred to her current school shortly after her brother died and her friend was killed. At first, she’d spend the short in-class mindfulness exercises crying, and wrote angry comments instead of meditative reflections. Eventually she decided to listen to the teacher’s instructions and focus on breathing.
“I noticed that I could feel [my breath] in my chest,” she said. “And at that moment, I felt so relieved. The only thing I could think in my mind was, ‘I’m ok.’ ” School has been more manageable since.
Like all education interventions, mindfulness is not a panacea. It doesn’t replace strong curriculums and flexibility, and needed mental health services. It doesn’t replace well-compensated teachers or access to technology. But mindfulness does address students’ emotional well-being, a critical and too often overlooked component of an equitable education system. It’s one tool among many needed to ensure kids are reaping the benefits of school, and learning how to learn.