Researchers at MIT suggest a mindfulness program would be beneficial to children as part of the daily classroom curriculum.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Mindfulness, or the process of focusing all of one’s attention on the present moment, is typically thought of as an adult hobby and often associated with meditation. However, two new studies conducted at MIT have found that mindfulness can also be a helpful academic tool for young middle schoolers.
Researchers say that mindfulness can actually improve students’ grades, reduce stress, and promote less disruptive behavior in the classroom. Also, for the first time ever, the authors discovered that mindfulness can even change brain activity in middle schoolers for the better in an experiment that evaluated brain scans of students.
“By definition, mindfulness is the ability to focus attention on the present moment, as opposed to being distracted by external things or internal thoughts. If you’re focused on the teacher in front of you, or the homework in front of you, that should be good for learning,” explains John Gabrieli, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, in a press release.
Based on their findings, Gabrieli and his team believe that elementary schools should offer mindfulness training to all students.
“We think there is a reasonable possibility that mindfulness training would be beneficial for children as part of the daily curriculum in their classroom,” Gabrieli says. “What’s also appealing about mindfulness is that there are pretty well-established ways of teaching it.”
Both studies took place at charter schools in Boston. For the first experiment, about 100 sixth graders were studied. Half of those students received mindfulness training every night for eight weeks, and the other half took a coding class each night. Students who received the mindfulness training were taught to focus on their breathing and place all of their attention completely on the present moment.
Students in the mindfulness group said their stress levels went down after completing the eight week course, but those in the coding group reported no changes in their daily stress. The mindfulness group also reported less feelings of anger and sadness.
Around 40 of the 100 students also took part in brain imaging before and after the eight week training period. During these brain imaging sessions, amygdala activity readings were taken from students while they viewed a variety of different faces. At the beginning of the study, before anyone received any training, students who reported the highest levels of stress also showed the most activity in their amygdala when viewing scary faces. These findings gel with previous research that had suggested the amygdala is overactive in people who frequently experience stress; this overactivity in the brain causes stress-prone individuals to have especially strong or negative reactions to life events that may seem trivial to others.
“There’s a lot of evidence that an overly strong amygdala response to negative things is associated with high stress in early childhood and risk for depression,” Gabrieli comments.
After the mindfulness training, students displayed less activity in the amygdala while viewing scary faces, which makes sense considering the students also reported feeling less stress. These results indicate that mindfulness can be a powerful asset against stress and stress-induced mood disorders.
The other experiment did not include any mindfulness training, instead researchers surveyed more than 2,000 Boston middle schoolers in grades 5-8. Each student was asked to rate how strongly they agreed with statements like, “I rush through activities without being really attentive to them.”
Each participant’s answers were then compared to their individual grades, standardized test scores, attendance rate, and any school suspensions on file. Researchers discovered that students who displayed more mindfulness in their survey answers tended to have better grades, higher attendance rates, and less disciplinary strikes against them.
Moving forward, researchers are planning a full school-year long study with a larger group of students. They believe that in order for mindfulness’ benefits to last long-term, it must be practiced for longer than a couple of months.
“Mindfulness is like going to the gym. If you go for a month, that’s good, but if you stop going, the effects won’t last,” Gabrieli concludes. “It’s a form of mental exercise that needs to be sustained.”
The studies are published in Behavioral Neuroscience and Mind, Brain, and Education.