Original publication in Mindful.org on November 21st 2019

New research shows that classroom-based mindfulness programs can aid the development of executive function abilities in young children, while also helping them cope better with stress.

More and more young, developing children are showing signs of stress when they enter school, making it more important than ever to teach young students the tools of emotional resilience. New research out of Australia finds that mindfulness education during the school day may be of benefit to elementary school students, building skills that help them thrive in the classroom and beyond.  

There are three critical skills that develop in early childhood: paying attention and remembering information, shifting back and forth between tasks, and behaving appropriately with others. These abilities are known as executive functions and they are essential for more advanced tasks like planning, reasoning, problem solving, and positive social relationships.

Most of what we know about the effects of mindfulness practice on the mind, emotions, and behavior comes from studies with adults. Although we know that mindfulness-based interventions in schools can be helpful for children, we know little about how these interventions affect executive function. Researchers at Australia’s Griffith University decided to find out.

The Effects of Mindfulness on the Mind, Emotions, and Behavior of Children

In the study, 91 kindergarten- to 2nd grade students participated in a classroom mindfulness program. Roughly two thirds of the children were offered lessons during the first part of the study, and the other third, who were part of the control group, were placed on a waitlist and received instruction later. At the end of the semester, researchers compared the children who initially received mindfulness training to the control group students.

The mindfulness program was designed to boost the development of executive function skills by building on what teachers are already doing in the classroom. Each day, teachers performed a “core practice” (listening to the sound of a chime) at the start of the day, after morning recess, and after lunch for the duration of the school term. They were also free to supplement lessons in typical academic subjects like reading or math with a variety of mindfulness-based activities to help kids keep calm, like taking mindful moments, reading books like “Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda”, drawing pictures, and making puppets. Students also practiced breathing and body scan exercises, and had their own mindfulness diaries. 

Students in the mindfulness classrooms were better able to pay attention, regulate their behavior, shift between tasks, plan, organize, and monitor their responses

Teachers in the study had little or no prior experience delivering mindfulness lessons. They received a half-day training session, weekly consultation, and a mindfulness program manual that included scripts and materials for teaching mindfulness to young children.

Students in both groups underwent a series of computerized tests before and after the semester to see if they differed in their executive functioning abilities. These tests included attention tasks, where children looked at a fish in the middle of a screen and had to say whether the other fish presented were pointing in the same or opposite direction. They also had to sort images on cards by shape or color. Lastly, teachers were asked to fill out questionnaires about students’ behavior, emotional wellness, relationships with peers, attention, and prosocial behavior.

Mindfulness Helps Kids Pay Attention, Regulate Behavior, Plan, and Organize

Results of the study showed that students in the mindfulness classrooms were better able to pay attention, regulate their behavior, shift between tasks, plan, organize, and monitor their responses than control group children. The students in the mindfulness program were also rated by their teachers as having greater attention and concentration skills, as well as more prosocial behavior. No significant differences were found between the groups on teacher reports of emotion or conduct problems, or peer relationship difficulties. 

These results are particularly important in light of the fact that early childhood is a critical time for developing executive functioning abilities, which are key to academic and social thriving. They also show that school teachers can effectively integrate mindfulness practices into classroom activities throughout the school day with very little training. School-based delivery may allow children who might not otherwise receive mindfulness instruction to benefit from its effects.

Written by B GRACE BULLOCK PHD

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