School-Based Mindfulness Leads to Stress Reduction, Study Finds

Researchers find improvements in stress-related outcomes among middle school students exposed to a school-based mindfulness program characterized by attention and focus-related strategies, mindsets associated with stress, and overarching beliefs.

Sadie Cathcart
4
1357

Mindfulness has received substantial attention in the fields of psychology and education in recent decades. Although mindfulness-based interventions are increasingly being implemented and researched in schools, variability in definition and application of the construct has highlighted a need for more cohesion and improvements in research. To assess the impact of one mindfulness training program for middle school students, a team of researchers led by Clemens C. C. Bauer of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, compared the effects of exposure to mindfulness intervention to that of a neutral academic task in the absence of formal mindfulness.

Their results, outlined in the American Psychological Association’s Behavioral Neuroscience publication, indicate a relationship between mindfulness training and brain changes relevant to a variety of school-based outcomes relevant to stress. Bauer and colleagues’ work is unique in that it is the first to demonstrate that “a neurocognitive mechanism for both stress and its reduction by mindfulness training is related specifically to reduced amygdala responses to negative stimuli.” Beyond solidifying the connection others have established between school-based success and mindfulness practice, this particular study provides a potential explanation for the mechanisms at play.

Photo Credit: Flickr

The researchers set out to study two different but related questions about both neuroscience and education policy.

  • First: whether mindfulness training reduces stress when administered in a school-based program to an entire (unselected) grade-level within a school. A finding that children reported reduced feelings of stress would encourage the implementation of mindfulness as part of the school curriculum for all children regardless of any clinical diagnosis.
  • Second: what is the neurocognitive basis of mindfulness-reduced stress? Although the right amygdala has been implicated in both stress and mindfulness training in adults, there is no direct evidence at any age about the mechanism of amygdala functional plasticity for mindfulness-based reductions of stress.

Although many school-based mindfulness training programs – including some that are manualized, pre-packaged and available for immediate adoption – have been researched and deemed effective, Bauer and team note the absence of “rigorous scientific evidence” of stress reduction in nonclinical samples of students.

Research regarding mindfulness-based interventions has occurred in a variety of promising pockets (indicating potential to prevent depression, reduce anxiety, provide pain relief, positively impact mental health, benefit children with an autism spectrum disorder, etc.). There is some danger in taking what’s been done and applying mindfulness as a cure-all.

In the same way that cognitive-behavioral therapy can be helpful when appropriately applied, but has notoriously been generalized or oversimplified in ways that dilute impact, mindfulness may not always work if not thoughtfully adopted and implemented. Examination of the mechanisms and effects of mindfulness programming is critical.

Stress impacts the experience of school for students. School may also be a source of substantial stress. Recognizing an increase in the prevalence of clinically significant anxiety, schools must consider ways to support students according to trends in student needs. To examine the extent to which mindfulness-based programming could reduce stress and the emotional experiences of students in one urban middle school, and assess processes at play in the underlying stress reaction in the context of exposure to mindfulness, authors randomly sorted a sample of 99 students into two conditions.

The first condition involved a four-day-a-week, two-month mindfulness training program, and the second, a coding training group (with educational content associated with computer training) of the same schedule and duration.

“The full-scale RCT included 99 children who reported ratings of perceived stress with the Perceived Stress Scale and positive and negative affect on the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule for Children at Pre- and Postintervention time points. Additionally, we assessed student acceptability for both the mindfulness training and coding training through a Postintervention survey. Results reported here come from the subset of children whose families opted to participate in a neuroimaging visit at Pre- and Postintervention, which was approximately one third (34.3%) of all children enrolled in the full-scale RCT (all families were invited).”

Self-reported student stress levels and experiences of emotion were assessed before and after the intervention across both groups, and students whose families opted for their child participate in brain scans before at both time points were evaluated according to brain activity. In the lab-based neuroimaging procedures, student participants were exposed to fearful, neutral, and happy facial expressions, and their reactions (in relation to amygdala activation) were assessed.

Consistent with what had been hypothesized, students in the mindfulness training condition experienced reduced perceived stress and physiological stress response following the intervention.

“The RCT design of the study indicates a causal relation between mindfulness training and decreased stress, decreased amygdala activation for negative stimuli, and relatively stronger functional connectivity with [ventromedial prefrontal cortex]. Further, among children receiving mindfulness training, greater reduction in stress was associated with a greater reduction in amygdala activation to fearful faces.”

Although further study is needed, research continues to indicate that mindfulness interventions represent acceptable, effective approaches to student stress reduction and potential anxiety reduction in schools.

 

****

Bauer, C. C. C., Caballero, C., Scherer, E., West, M. R., Mrazek, M. D., Phillips, D. T., … Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2019). Mindfulness training reduces stress and amygdala reactivity to fearful faces in middle-school children. Behavioral Neuroscience. (Link)

4 COMMENTS

    • Most of the children I work with would likely prefer having things like recess, art, and music added back to the school curriculum, over “mindfulness” meditation. Children have lots of energy, and love to develop the creative side of their brains. But all the stress creation over testing in schools is appalling.

      And what do the schools do to the children who get 100% on the state standardized tests? Congratulate them? Reward them? No! They sick a psycho school social worker, spewing lies at the mother, wanting to drug up all the smart children. Eventually confessed by the principal “because we are not equipped to deal with the smartest children.” Fine, the truth should have been confessed to in the first place.

      I’m quite certain the scientifically invalid, DSM deluded lunatics should be taken out of the schools. Leave our children alone, stigmatization “bible” worshipping fools, grasping at straws to find your relevance. “Mindfulness” meditation in schools? I’ve got a better idea, admit your DSM “bible” was debunked long ago, and get the BS psychobabble/lying, child drug pushers out of our schools.