Patrick Frato, EdS
Lecturer in School Psychology
Cleveland State University
Sinéad O’Neill Gibson, BFA, E-RYT 500
Cleveland State University
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in collective stress and anxiety levels not likely seen since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. In a March 2021 survey conducted by the APA, 80% of adults indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic was a significant source of stress in their lives. Sixty-one percent of adults reported undesired weight gain, 67% reported sleep disturbances, and nearly a quarter reported drinking more. Parents with children were particularly hard hit: 47% of mothers with children home for remote learning reported deteriorating mental health and almost half of all teachers who voluntarily stopped teaching in public schools after March 2020 (before scheduled retirement) cited stress resulting from the COVID 19 pandemic as the primary reason (APA, 2021; Steiner & Woo, 2021). Further, children worldwide reported stress levels significantly above baseline, with symptoms of anxiety and depression ranging from a quarter to nearly half of all children (Wagner, 2020). Now more than ever — and especially as schools return to in-person instruction — parents, teachers, and students need mental health support to cope with the continuing impacts and potential long-term trauma resulting from the pandemic.
Mindfulness is a mental state characterized by awareness of the present moment (Broderick, 2021). To work towards this state, practitioners regularly engage in activities that promote attention and concentration (Kabat-Zinn, 2013). Mindfulness practices have been in existence for thousands of years, but have only recently achieved mainstream acceptance in the United States (Mayo, 2021). These activities often include (but are not limited to) meditation, breath work, progressive muscle relaxation, and body scans. Purported benefits include stress reduction, improved emotional regulation, and enhanced executive functioning (Broderick, 2021).
In recent years, educators and mindfulness experts have collaborated to adapt mindfulness practices for children and schools. These activities can be implemented at all tier levels, from Tier I daily quiet time intervals to 1:1 Tier III self-regulation training. Although research on the impacts of mindfulness in schools is not as extensive as research on mindfulness in the adult population, initial findings suggest that these interventions can be highly beneficial when implemented in a school environment (Felver et al., 2013).
A lesser-known mindfulness benefit is its impact on learning. Mindfulness interventions implemented in schools can increase cognitive capacity, resilience, and working memory. A meta-analysis of 24 studies including 1,348 students found that mindfulness-based interventions had the greatest impact — compared to other factors — on improving academic engagement and learning; slightly less powerful but still significant results were seen in the areas of resilience and stress reduction (Zenner et al., 2014). Similarly, results from a randomized controlled trial involving 198 adolescents found that, in comparison to groups of students participating in hatha yoga and waitlist control groups, students engaging in mindfulness meditation showed significant improvements in working memory capacity (Quache et al., 2016).
Another meta-analysis of 24 studies and 3,977 students found that mindfulness interventions had small-to-moderate pre-post intervention effects on cognition, stress, anxiety, depression, and well-being. The strongest effects were seen in students aged 15-18 when a variety of mindfulness strategies were taught and applied. This suggests that mindfulness strategies may be more well-suited for older students, or that more work needs to be done to adapt mindfulness to the needs of students in earlier grades (Carsley et al., 2018).
Teacher well-being is inextricably linked to student success (and well-being), so it’s important to note that mindfulness strategies can also be beneficial for teachers (Roberts & Kim, 2019). A meta-analysis of 29 studies including 1,493 teachers found moderate pre-post intervention effects in improving well-being and psychological distress. It should be noted, however, that impacts on classroom climate, teacher practices, and achievement were inconclusive and the authors indicated that more research is necessary (Klingbeil & Renshaw, 2018).
Strategies for Integrating Mindfulness in Schools
With their unique role in brokering the research-practice gap in education settings, school psychologists are well-positioned to model and disseminate mindfulness interventions. The following strategies and resources are recommended for school psychologists interested in integrating mindfulness into their practice.
Start a Practice. Adopting an ongoing, mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) or yoga practice can help increase positive affect and non-judgement, while also reducing stress, reactivity, and implicit biases (Butler et al., 2017; Medvedev et al., 2021; Ivers et al., 2021). In addition to inspiring fellow colleagues and students, school psychologists can derive personal meaning through developing a mindfulness practice and may be better equipped to avoid burnout (Butler et al., 2019).
Educate and Empower. Teachers who cultivate an MBSR practice are likely to model healthy behaviors in classrooms. Further, practicing MBSR can increase caring capacities (emotion regulation, empathy, and compassion) and lead to better relationships with students, improved socio-emotional outcomes, and higher achievement (Lavy & Berkovish-Ohana, 2020).
Align Interventions. School psychologists should consider adding MBIs (mindfulness-based interventions) to existing tiered academic and behavioral supports. Intervention integrity is more easily achieved when interventions are added to frameworks such as MTSS and PBIS. It should be noted that mindfulness is aligned with the five social-emotional learning (SEL) core competencies as defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Incorporating MBIs into existing SEL programming is an efficient and logical approach to service delivery.
Adopt an Inclusive Approach. A one-size-fits-all approach for programming and interventions is neither effective nor inclusive, particularly for high-risk students (trauma, poverty, discrimination, and pressure to achieve) (Luthar et al., 2020). Educational professionals unfamiliar with adapting MBSR practices for high-risk students might consider hiring a professional to deliver programming. Cultural competence and relevance are also essential to the success of MBIs.
Include Parents and Community. All successful school-based programs require consent and collaboration from parents and community stakeholders (Luthar et al, 2020). School psychologists can seek input and even assistance with intervention implementation from local, qualified mindfulness teachers, or create a partnership with a local university to study the effects of MBIs on student outcomes (Accardo, 2017). If met with resistance from parents or stakeholders, strategies of persuasion include sharing compelling research on the benefits of MBSR, stressing the secular approach of MBIs, or showing promotional in-classroom videos (Brensilver, 2021, Accardo, 2017). It should also be noted that the Ohio Department of Education’s Each Child, Our Future (2018) and Whole Child Framework (2020) emphasize self-awareness and social-emotional learning: teaching strategies such as mindfulness is now considered an essential part of public education in Ohio.
Implement a Whole-School Approach. A whole-school approach provides opportunities for students to apply acquired mindfulness skills beyond MBI training in clinical intervention settings. Incorporating mindfulness into all aspects of school culture strengthens social-emotional efficacy by allowing increased opportunities to apply mindfulness skills (Kielty et al., 2017).
The following is a list of MBIs, resources, and simple, non-programmatic practices that can be implemented across school settings. Note: this is not an exhaustive list.
- Evidence-Based Mindfulness Programming for Schools
- CARE for Teachers
Professional development program that helps teachers and school administrators learn mindfulness to reduce stress and prevent burnout.
- Center for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Led by Dr. Richard Davidson, the Center for Healthy Minds developed the Kindness Curriculum for preschool students (available in both English and Spanish) and has research, resources, and workshops available on their website.
- Child Light Yoga provides evidence-based and trauma-informed professional development trainings, curricula, and resources for educators.
- Learning to Breathe (L2B)
Research-based mindfulness program for adolescents; designated SEL-supportive program by CASEL.
- Mindful Schools
Nonprofit mindfulness programming that is both educator- and student-focused to build joyful and equitable learning environments; offers teacher education, consultation, and free and paid resources.
For students ages 3-14; research-based curriculum; memberships for individuals and school/districts available; developed around four pillars of neuroscience, social-emotional learning, positive psychology, and mindful awareness.
- RULER Method
Developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence (YCEI), the RULER method teaches K-12 students mindfulness through recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotions; offers programming, workshops, and resources.
- Still Quiet Place
Created by Dr. Amy Saltzman, Still Quiet Place is mindfulness programming for children, adolescents, and adults; has programming that specializes in youth athletics.
- Yoga 4 Classrooms
Evidence-based, trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness program for schools; aligns with CASEL 5 core competencies and National School Climate Standards; has more than 200 classroom-based activities; memberships and trainings available.
- Yoga Ed
Offers evidence-based yoga and mindfulness online programs for ages 3-18; has workshops, trainings, and resources for educators and administrators.
- ZENworks Yoga
Northeast Ohio-based nonprofit that teaches yoga and mindfulness to K-12 students; has free and subscription-based online resources for educators; offers teacher-centered workshops.
Further Reading and Listening:
- “Adding Mindfulness Practice to your School Psychology Toolbox”- NASP
- "Best Practices for Bringing Mindfulness into Schools"- Mindful.org
- “How SEL and Mindfulness Can Work Together”- Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley
- “Integrating Mindfulness into Your Classroom Curriculum”- Edutopia
- “Meta-Analysis of Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Youth & Caregivers"- NASP
- “Mindfulness in the Special Education Classroom"- Empowering Education
- Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom by Patricia A. Jennings
- Mindfulness Practice Workbook for Children: A Guide for Teachers, Parents and Those Who Love Children by Maria Napoli
- Yoga for Children by Lisa Flynn
- Easy Mindfulness Practices:
- Five Finger or High Five Breathing
- Coloring Your Breath
- Mindful Journaling or Gratitude Journaling
- 5-4-3-2-1 Method
- Mindful Meditation- Mind in Jar, Just Like Me/Loving Kindness Meditation, Body Scan (YouTube is an excellent source for free, quick meditations to use with students of all ages)
- Mindful Listening
- Mindful Movement
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Brensilver, M. (2021, February 23). Guidelines for secular teaching of mindfulness. Mindful Schools. https://www.mindfulschools.org/foundational-concepts/secularity/
Broderick, P.C. (2021). Learning to breathe: A mindfulness curriculum for adolescents to cultivate emotion regulation, attention, and performance (2nd ed.). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
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Ohio Department of Education (2018). Each child, our future. http://education.ohio.gov/getattachment/About/EachChildOurFuture/Final-Strategic-Plan-Board-Approved.pdf.aspx?lang=en-US
Ohio Department of Education (2020). Whole child framework. http://education.ohio.gov/getattachment/Topics/Student-Supports/Ohio-Supports-the-Whole-Child/Whole-Child-Framework.pdf.aspx?lang=en-US
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