The Mindful Student

This is part one of a two-part series exploring how schools can implement mindfulness.

Imagine. It’s 8am. You’re in the back of a 6th grade science classroom. The students are sitting up tall in their chairs, their eyes gently closed. The teacher walks slowly around the room and guides them through a breathing exercise. “As you breathe, you may notice your attention drifting to thoughts that come into your head, distracting you from your breath… Treat these thoughts like trains coming into a station… Simply let them pass through, returning your attention to your breath…”

The teacher pauses. You hear only the sound of deep breathing. After a few short minutes, the exercise ends. The teacher invites the students to open their eyes. It’s time to begin the school day.

Just three years ago, it would have been hard to imagine this scene in a Baltimore middle school, and harder still to imagine just how effective these short mindful breathing exercises would be. But this fall, nearly six hundred teachers in Baltimore City will be using these exercises with their students.

Mindfulness was not the original goal. In collaboration with the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP), my colleagues and I at the University of Pennsylvania began a project to help underperforming middle school students achieve academically. At first, we thought we would target grit and perseverance. Our aim shifted after we conducted interviews and focus groups with teachers.

Three years ago, it would have been hard to imagine this scene in a Baltimore middle school, and harder still to imagine just how effective these short mindful breathing exercises would be.

Many teachers told us that their primary concern was getting their students to calm down and focus. Teachers in all three middle schools had their hands full; nearly one-hundred percent of their students qualified for free and reduced-price lunch, and a significant number of students struggled to regulate their behaviors and emotions in ways that schools demand. These factors and many more contributed to the lack of focus and engagement in the classroom. As a result, teachers wanted approaches and practices that would get their students ready to engage and learn.

We looked for evidence-based approaches that could lead to increased focus, attention, cognitive function, and well-being. We found mindfulness.

These days, “mindfulness” is everywhere. You can’t go very far without seeing a beautiful blond-haired woman meditating on the cover of a magazine. The reality of Baltimore City schools could hardly be more different. How can mindfulness apply to—and help—real and struggling students?

First, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is the capacity to regulate one’s attention and present experience, while holding an accepting stance towards that experience. In plain English, it is attending to the moment, non-judgmentally. We can think of mindfulness practices (meditation, yoga, mindful walking) as ways of cultivating this capacity.

These practices are rooted in Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, but a secular version has taken hold in the United States. During the late 1970s, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts, Jon Kabat-Zinn, developed an eight-week secular mindfulness training program for adults. This training program came to be known as MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction). Since MBSR’s inception, studies of this eight-week training program have shown a raft of positive effects: significant increases in participants’ attention and emotion regulation, activity in brain regions associated with positive emotions, quality of life, and reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression.

Based on this secular approach, many programs are springing up in school settings with the hope of fostering these same capacities in youth. (MindUP, Mindful Schools, and Learning to Breathe, are several examples.) These programs range from modified versions of the MBSR curriculum to mindful coloring to breath awareness exercises to yoga. In response to this recent uptick in mindfulness-based interventions, an emerging body of research examines the effects of these interventions in educational settings.

We looked for evidence-based approaches that could lead to increased focus, attention, cognitive function, and well-being. We found mindfulness.

A recent meta-analysis examined 76 studies of mindfulness-based interventions, 49 of which were conducted in school settings. The meta-analysis found that these programs consistently lead to reductions in negative emotions and subjective distress, and show promising positive effects on academic achievement and school functioning, as well as on physical health.

However, the meta-analysis also exposes a few methodological limitations. For instance, most of the studies do not account for whether the interventions were implemented correctly or track the quantity of time participants practice mindfulness-based exercises. In addition, only a handful of studies looked at outcomes like academic achievement and school functioning, making it difficult to draw definitive conclusions.

Furthermore, the majority of studies included in the meta-analysis examined comprehensive training programs (similar to the MBSR approach for adults). Only a few assessed light-touch approaches, such as the short and frequent breathing exercises mentioned above. That said, the meta-analysis found no association between student outcomes and intervention dosage.

In other words, there is no evidence to suggest that participation in MBSR-type programs is more beneficial than brief mindful breathing programs; there were net positive outcomes for both program types. Future research could explore the relationship between program type (e.g., frequent and consistent practice versus comprehensive curricula) and student outcomes, to help educators make more informed decisions about programs based on their time and budgetary constraints.

In Baltimore, my colleagues and I settled on a light touch approach, mainly because teachers were concerned about giving up instructional time for mindfulness exercises. We developed quick and easy-to-implement exercises, framing them as potential time savers. We called them Focus 5: seven exercises which take no longer than five minutes to complete. All the teachers needed to do was read the cards.


Video produced by Wide Angle Youth Media

We hypothesized that by using short yet frequent breathing exercises, teachers would be able to establish calmer and more focused classroom environments. This in turn would lessen distraction, boost engagement, and elevate student learning and achievement.

These exercises, which were short and easy, proved to be effective, at least qualitatively. They were well-received by teachers, administrators, and students.

One 6th-grade teacher who implemented Focus 5 stated, “I think the most surprising thing is that the students I expected to be most resistant, it works the best for. It’s almost like it’s a reset button. And they’re like, ‘Okay, I’m ready now.’”

“I think the most surprising thing is that the students I expected to be most resistant, it works the best for. It’s almost like it’s a reset button. And they’re like, ‘Okay, I’m ready now.’”

More research is needed to measure the extent to which the exercises promote outcomes like increased focus, attention, and academic achievement, as well as whether the exercises work better for some students than others. But there are many lessons from this piloting experience.

First, light touch interventions, like these short breathing exercises, allow for flexibility and scalability, both of which are essential when trying to bring about change in complex school settings.

Second, it is essential to listen to teachers when developing these types of interventions, because teachers understand best what is most needed and feasible in their school contexts. This not only promotes initial buy-in, but also boosts support down the road when it comes to encouraging widespread adoption of these practices.

Third, it is not only important to listen to teachers; it is essential to start with teachers. They need to be doing the practices too.

It might seem intuitive that if schools want to bring these practices to students, they should begin by bringing these practices to teachers. But that is usually not the case. Currently, there are few programs and studies focusing on mindfulness for teachers. How can these practices stick if teachers are not doing them as well? I’ll delve into that in my next article.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Klingbeil, D. A., Renshaw, T. L., Willenbrink, J. B., Copek, R. A., Chan, K. T., Haddock, A., ... & Clifton, J. (2017). Mindfulness-based interventions with youth: A comprehensive meta-analysis of group-design studies. Journal of School Psychology, 63, 77-103. (Link)
  • Cope, A. (2017). Children's mental health: it’s time to put wellbeing on the curriculum. The Guardian. (Link)
  • Twenge, J. A. (2017). Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? The Atlantic. (Link)
  • Kirp, D. L. (2017). Don’t Suspend Students. Empathize. The New York Times. (Link)