When kids at Warner Arts Magnet Elementary School act up, they aren’t sent straight to the principal’s office. Instead, many students at the high-poverty school in Nashville go to the mindfulness room. The serene space is awash in sunlight and brimming with plants. There are yoga mats, toys, a lounging nook and soothing music drifting out of a desk speaker. In this room, teacher Riki Rattner, who is also trained as a yoga instructor, helps students practice deep breathing and check in with their emotions.
1 in 5 American children struggles with anxiety, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and almost half experience at least one serious stressor at home — like divorce, poverty or a parent’s addiction — according to the nonprofit Child Trends. To help students cope, a growing number of schools like Warner are turning to mindfulness. Its boosters claim all kinds of benefits, and there is research to back them up. But mindfulness in schools can mean many different things, and the explosion of interest has some researchers and proponents advising caution.
“Mindfulness, when delivered in a high-quality structured program, can be beneficial for youth,” says Erica Sibinga, a professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “We can’t immediately assume it’s effective when delivered in other ways.” Mindfulness is a bit of a catch-all term for a secularized version of practices that draw from religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. It might include things like focusing on the senses, deep, regular breathing and mental exercises designed to promote awareness and kindness.
In schools, mindfulness has taken many forms, from intensive curricular programs, to professional development for teachers, to an occasional behavioral respite. Some for-profit companies advertise videos and audio tracks meant to be played to children for as little as five minutes a day; others market toys and gadgets. For example, at Warner, Rattner uses an expandable ball to demonstrate deep breathing and a liquid motion bubble timer filled with colorful oil to help students calm down.
Almost 90% of Warner students live in poverty, and many come to school carrying trauma and other troubles that affect their behavior and ability to focus. The mindfulness program, which began this school year, is one way Warner is trying to address those challenges. In addition to one-on-one sessions with students, Rattner also hosts yoga classes and provides classroom support. And twice a day, Principal Ricki Gibbs leads school-wide breathing exercises. Gibbs says he’s already seen an improvement: Behavior referrals are down 80% compared to the same time last year.
“We’ve given them avenues to work on mindfulness,” Gibbs says, “to work on just calming themselves, getting to their center place where they can just be children.” Gibbs may be seeing results, but there’s little research behind mindfulness programs like his. And the programs that have been studied — and proven effective — take a lot more time than what’s being done at Warner.
Most of the clinical research on mindfulness has centered on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a specific protocol created in a medical school. It draws from traditional Buddhist meditation practices, but secularized and standardized. MBSR for adults is fairly intensive: It typically takes place over the course of eight weeks, for two or two and a half hours per week, plus an all-day retreat. Studies have found that MBSR improves both chronic pain and the body’s immune response. And there are significant mental health benefits: for adults across populations, this protocol has been shown to have a similar effect as antidepressants.
Ultimately, it’s hard to do mindfulness effectively. It definitely requires a holistic approach, with lots of resources, time, and support — three things that are often in short supply in the nation’s schools.
Boston Tutoring Services