And since childhood is certainly not immune to the stresses and strains of living in New Zealand, it makes sense that teaching those skills early on in life gives youngsters the tools to deal with stress later on in adulthood.
There’s also strong evidence which suggests that the way adults react to stressful situations relates directly to their educational performance at school – which means that anything which betters their education will also add to their toolbox. And it just so happens that incorporating mindfulness skills into the curriculum produces positive academic results.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies tried to measure how a randomised trial of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy enhanced social-emotional resilience in children.
Briefly, a group of 25 boys and girls aged between 9 and 13 – mostly from low-income, inner city households in the US – were picked for the trial from out of a tutoring scheme designed to help their “significant reading abilities”. In short, these were children for whom education was hard and all of whom displayed symptoms of stress and anxiety.
After a 12-week mindfulness-based course, which included alternating between focused sensory activities, short breath meditations, mindful body scan and movements, visualisation practices, and drawing or writing exercises, the results showed the children had fewer attention problems than a control group, and there were “significant reductions in anxiety symptoms and behaviour problems”. What’s more, those benefits and improvements were seen to be maintained three months after the trial during a follow-up session.
The researchers stated the results showed how mindfulness-based cognitive therapy “is a promising intervention for attention and behaviour problems, and may reduce childhood anxiety symptoms”.
Since that study, New Zealand’s Mental Health Foundation has also investigated how mindfulness can be introduced into the curriculum to give children a better chance at learning and developing coping skills for later on in life.
Their Mindfulness in Education paper is based on research which “indicates stress reduction programmes in schools lead to improvements in academic performance, self-esteem, mood, concentration and behavioural problems” – pretty much a magic bullet when it comes to providing a good education.
When Jess McAllen from The Sunday Star-Times visited Westmere Primary School to investigate the MHF’s Mindfulness in Schools programme for an article published in November 2014, she heard from the principal Carolyn Marino why she was such a firm believer.
“There’s far more anxiety among children than when I first started teaching. More children have social and emotional disorders as a results of our society. Life isn’t as predictable as it used to be and parents are putting pressure on their children – not necessarily on purpose – but questioning if they’re working hard enough to get that job. Children live in this digital age where they are constantly being got at and don’t have enough down time to get away from that stimulus. Mindfulness gives them a strategy that helps them be a little more present.”
The school’s mindfulness instructor Grant Rix said that not only did it improve pupils’ “self control, attentiveness, respect for other classmates” but it also helped the overall mood of the school and reduced the stress levels of teachers too.
Within the MHF’s paper is the astute quote from Dr Amy Saltzman which sums up the benefits of mindfulness training for children:
“One of the primary ironies of modern education is that we ask students to “pay attention” dozens of times a day, yet we never teach them how. The practice of mindfulness teaches students how to pay attention, and this way of paying attention enhances both academic and social-emotional learning.”
It’s equally clear that by packing those skills into their emotional toolbox, they will well prepared for adulthood.