School-based mindfulness programs can help students cope with stress

BlogHealthApr 16 2019

Among mental health practitioners, researchers, educators, and even the media, mindfulness practices are gaining popularity as a method to help children and youth cope with stress. A growing body of research suggests that mindfulness interventions in schools can boost children’s ability to regulate emotions and manage their feelings of stress.

Mindfulness has been defined as an awareness of the present moment that allows for acceptance of feelings, thoughts, and sensations. Mindfulness exercises emphasize self-awareness and controlled breathing, and have been associated with improved self-regulation skills in children dealing with stress.

One evaluation examined a 12-week mindfulness intervention across several elementary schools. Researchers found that students who participated in the program, which included breathing exercises and yoga practice four times a week, showed significantly decreased problematic responses to stress (e.g., rumination, intrusive thoughts, and emotional arousal). The video below features the lead researcher of this evaluation and offers a glimpse of how mindfulness practices can be implemented within the school day.

Another recent study randomly assigned sixth-grade students to a mindfulness intervention or a control group. Students in the intervention showed a reduction in perceived stress, improvements in sustained attention, and reduced response of the amygdala—a part of the brain that processes stress and emotions—to negative stimuli, relative to their peers who did not participate in the intervention.

Given these promising findings, school staff looking for interventions to help students manage stress may want to consider mindfulness programs. These programs, which don’t require any special equipment, can also be relatively inexpensive to implement; school staff can often be trained to become facilitators. Additionally, mindfulness programs have the potential to reach many students at once, whether through small group activities in a “mindful moments” room, classroom activities, or breathing exercises conducted over a PA system.

As mindfulness programs become more common, the evidence base in support of their effectiveness should continue to grow. One exciting new study launching in England involves more than 300 schools integrating mindfulness exercises into the school day over the next three years. The results of this study and others like it could provide critical guidance to schools looking for ways to effectively utilize mindfulness practices to improve student mental health.