Why “Mindfulness” Belongs in the Classroom

“Mindfulness” might sound like the latest buzzword, but research shows it might be more effective than “grit” in helping students succeed.

The concept of “grit” has lately been fashionable in the education world as a way to help students succeed. Popularized by researcher Angela Duckworth, “grit” refers to the characteristics of perseverance and doggedness that Duckworth and her team have identified as key elements to success, be it for students or adults.

More recently, however, more educators are beginning to question whether “grit” can actually be taught. New research finds that “grit’” is correlated to “conscientiousness,” a personality trait – and therefore, unlikely to change– and that “grit” alone is insufficient for achieving success, depending on how one defines it.

The attention to “grit,” however, has emphasized the importance of teaching students the fundamentals of social-emotional skills. Where the research is not in dispute is that teaching students to master skills such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making not only leads to success in the classroom but can even impact their long-term earning potential and life-long measures of happiness. For example, a 20 year study tracking kindergarteners into their 20’s found that even very small gains in a child’s social competence made him or her more likely to earn a high school diploma, graduate college and find full-time employment as an adult.

But if teaching “grit” isn’t the best way to teach students the skills they need, “mindfulness” could be.

“Mindfulness” is often defined as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” ‘Mindfulness,” like “grit,” is something of a buzzword these days, but unlike “grit,” there is a growing body of research around its efficacy, from stress reduction to ameliorating depression and anxiety. A 2007 study showed that just five days of mindfulness training helped to reduce stress hormone levels in participants faced with difficult tasks, as compared with their control group. Studies have shown the stress reducing effects of mindfulness training on populations ranging from veterans to cancer patients.

Moreover, there are proven methods for teaching mindfulness, including to children. The seminal study on mindfulness and education, led by Kimberly Schonert-Reichel, examined the effects of adding MindUp—a mindfulness based curriculum– to an existing social-emotional learning program for fourth and fifth grade students. Compared to the students who received the basic program, the students who also received the mindfulness curriculum exhibited an improvement in their executive functioning—i.e., their ability to follow through on tasks, problem solve, and become mentally flexible when pursing a goal. This translated into the MindUp students being twice as fast, but equally as accurate, as their peers when faced with learning a new skill or rule.

Students also exhibited an increase in empathy and emotional control, as well as a decrease in self-reported symptoms of depression and peer-aggression. Additionally, mindfulness practices appear to have a protective effect on student stress levels, to decrease levels of anxiety and depression, and to increase student’s abilities to orient their attention.

The research suggests what practitioners of mindfulness have known for some time; that mindfulness practices not only help students do better in school, they can equip students to live happier, more fulfilling lives. This is especially significant, when the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 1 in 5 teens and young adults lives with a mental illness, with over half of those illnesses appearing by age 14. Rates of adolescent mental illness are indisputably on the rise, making a holistic approach to student success and well-being—one that looks beyond simple measures of academic success and achievement– more important than ever.

The potential advantages of mindfulness may be especially meaningful for high risk and underserved student populations. As many as 21% of low-income youth ages 6-17 meet the criteria for mental illness, most often anxiety and depression. Organizations like the Holistic Life Foundation, based in Baltimore City, have had success implementing mindfulness practices in area high schools and have witnessed a reduction in school fights and truancy, showing that simple techniques like breathing can have a large impact on student’s overall well-being.

Already, some policymakers are realizing the benefits of “mindfulness” training in education. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), a long time mindfulness advocate and author of [the book] A Mindful Nation How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit, has been vocal about his support of mindfulness in the classroom. Ryan pushed to include language in the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (the successor to No Child Left Behind) that would help expand the teaching of social-emotional learning and make it more effective. The Every Student Succeeds Act represents an opportunity to prioritize the social and emotional well-being of students and teach them skills that are vital in our increasingly global and complex world. The Bill provides increased opportunities for schools to receive funding for programs—such as MindUp — that support student safety and health, as well as opportunities for teachers to receive professional development centered on supporting the whole student.

While mindfulness may have many benefits for students, it is not a panacea or a substitute for the daily, intentional attention and formation of a teacher or caregiver, nor is it a substitute for mental health care. Mindfulness in and of itself will not make the world a less confusing or complicated place, alleviate all anxiety, or solve many of the injustices that underserved students face. What it can do, however, is provide students the gift of space to pause and approach these realities from a more grounded, regulated place. More importantly perhaps, mindfulness can help children learn to appreciate what “is” rather than compulsively pursuing a certain version of success.

“Mindfulness” practices have been shown not only to be cost-efficient and simple to implement, but effective. Teaching our children to slow down, self-regulate, and approach their lives with a sense of curiosity and compassion are skills that will not only help them in the classroom and in the boardroom but most importantly, in life.

Kate Gerwin

Kate Gerwin is a Baltimore-based counselor and educator with a special interest in integrating mental and physical health care.