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Does Mindfulness in Schools ‘Not Work’ or Could It Offer Systemic Transformation?

Reflecting on Research


By Lindsey Frank, President of Coalition of Schools Educating Mindfully (COSEM)

January 2023



The rising mental health concerns in our adolescents sparked the “My Resilience In Adolescence” (MYRIAD) study, the most extensive research study to date of a large-scale implementation of a school-based mindfulness intervention. Professionals around the world have been intrigued by MYRIAD’s results. Despite the overarching headlines like, “Mindfulness in Schools Does Not Improve Mental Health, Study Finds'', powerful results were discovered that support a necessary systemic transformation in education. We encourage you to read the MYRIAD report to learn more. Our intention for this article is to invite you into reflection with us to explore how MYRIAD is an asset for mindfulness in schools that uncovers next steps as mindful educators and leaders.


Points to Note:
  • The mindfulness practices for the MYRIAD study were based on ten, 30-50 minute sessions from the ".b” (Dot b) curriculum by the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP).

  • The teachers who taught the mindfulness lessons were required not to have taught mindfulness in the past 12 months. In addition, they were not required to have their own personal practice (The Mindfulness Initiative, 2022).

  • The study was not a voluntary "opt-in" model for students or staff (The Mindfulness Initiative, 2022).

  • The study stated that the vast majority of students (more than 80%) did not complete the at-home components, which are essential for ongoing mindfulness skill development (MYRIAD, 2022).

  • The students with teachers who embodied the mindfulness practices reported better results and had a higher engagement rate with the practices outside of the classroom (MYRIAD, 2022).

  • This is only one study amongst the numerous meta-analysis studies and future studies in the field (Mindful Schools Research Compilation).

An Invitation Into Reflection:

Below are questions to consider and to spark wonderings as you interpret the results. The questions may also serve as a guide to conversations around mindfulness in schools. We encourage you to journal as you process your ideas. Take a moment to set your intention prior to engaging in this reflection. Read from a mindful heart with openness and curiosity. If you find a strong emotion or judgment come up, write it down, validate it, pause for a moment, and allow it to exist prior to continuing to read. Invite your reflection to reside in the space of possibilities.

  1. The main research question was not "Does mindfulness work?", it was asking, "Could thousands of teachers be trained up from a standing start – teachers who don’t yet practise mindfulness and may not even have an interest in it – so that it can be swiftly and cost-effectively implemented for the benefit of children and young people?” (Burnett, 2022).

  2. What are your initial thoughts about the guiding research question in relation to supporting mental health?

  3. Is it possible to have quality learning from an adult who does not embody the practices? What has been your experience?

  4. The MYRIAD study shared that “Mindfulness is a natural and trainable capacity to bring awareness to both inner (eg, thoughts, feelings, body sensations) and outer (eg, stressors, relationships) experiences with qualities of curiosity, kindness and responsiveness.”

  5. Have students developed a self-awareness vocabulary to articulate what they notice? How can we support students in developing a rich inner vocabulary?

  6. Do students feel that their mindfulness experiences are validated and that there are no right or wrong experiences? What are ways to support students through misconceptions?

  7. Would a child’s response change moment-by-moment based on their awareness, conditions, and circumstances during a mindfulness practice?

  8. Is it possible to accurately measure and assess the results of a personal inner experience?

  9. Mindfulness practices are more than an "intervention," they are a way of being that requires a mindset shift. This takes time and is ongoing throughout someone’s life.

  10. Is an 8-10 week intervention experience going to yield a lasting impact of an ongoing practice?

  11. Given the diversity of mindfulness practices and engagement strategies, are 30-50 minute long experiences an accurate reflection of what mindfulness could be in the classroom?

  12. How can we build the capacity of teachers to continue developing their mindset, infuse the practices into their classroom climate, and shift away from a short-term intervention lens?

  13. What supports are needed to empower teachers to facilitate differentiated mindfulness opportunities that are not solely a video or a script?

  14. Based on different life circumstances, how do we know that mindfulness skills won't grow in the future?

  15. When sharing mindful practices within a classroom (or any setting), we need to be aware that our students come with their own stories and life experiences. Therefore, we need to be facilitating mindfulness with culturally-validating, equitable, and trauma-sensitive approaches.

  16. What additional training, supports, feedback, and structures are needed to ensure that culturally-validating and trauma-sensitive practices are embedded when facilitating mindfulness?

  17. Does there need to be a continuum of care built within the school system to support students as they become more self-aware? What could this look like?

  18. How can student agency, leadership, ownership, voice, and choice be included in developing engaging and meaningful mindfulness experiences for students?

  19. Although the purpose of the research was children’s resilience, a subsequent finding was an improvement in teachers’ mental health and school climate. Instead of starting with students, what if future research focuses on developing and sustaining a mindful school climate through teacher/leader well-being first? Well-being grows with supportive conditions; how could school climate directly benefit our students and the learning community as a whole?

  20. Would addressing the well-being of teachers and leaders have a significant positive impact on student growth, learning, and mental health?

  21. How can the systems within education transform to support the development of embodied practices for teachers and leaders?

  22. Could mindfulness be a powerful modality to develop a lasting positive school culture, and potentially expand into our world?

What questions have come up for you to further this conversation? We invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section below. As an organization, we have also created a processing space for our members.


Closing Thoughts and Next Steps:

We have the collective responsibility to support our children in developing the necessary social and emotional skills to be healthy and successful. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identifies core competencies that include developing strong relationships, fostering self-awareness and self-management, expanding social awareness, and discovering healthy ways to work through conflict and decision-making. MYRIAD states that the prior SEL program the schools were using and the mindfulness program had comparable results, that neither one was superior to the other. This finding is essential in our work because it is not mindfulness or SEL; the two work together and need each other for lasting change. The connection between mindfulness and SEL is what inspired the Coalition of Schools Educating Mindfully (COSEM) to develop our Mindfulness-Based SEL (MBSEL) Micro-Credential. We need to simultaneously work from the inside-out (mindfulness) and the outside-in (SEL). Mindfulness-based SEL is not a top-down, one-size-fits-all, large-scale approach, it must be a tailored experience within each diverse learning community.


MYRIAD validated the benefits of teacher well-being, showed a reduction in teacher burnout, and revealed an improvement in school climate through mindfulness. As mindful teachers and leaders, we create the conditions to foster a mindful culture within schools. Since COSEM’s foundation in 2018, one of our core purposes has been to support the well-being of teachers and leaders so that they develop their resilience and have an opportunity to make a lasting difference in students' lives. COSEM founder, Tracy Heilers, shares:


“Educators are often working in systems that don’t yet value well-being while they tirelessly advocate for systemic change. That’s one of the reasons we are so passionate about our mission of equipping them and their students with skills to heal and thrive. By joining together through a coalition, we support each other in transforming educational systems and intentionally co-create a more equitable and compassionate world.”


As an organization, we support developing teacher well-being by offering Communities of Practice through our COSEM Chapters, events, and conferences. Additionally, our MBSEL Micro-Credential requires a minimum of six months of personal practice and exploration in mindfulness. Within our book, Educating Mindfully: Transforming Schools Through Mindfulness, authors consistently shared the prerequisite of an embodied mindfulness practice in order to share mindfulness with our students and colleagues. On page 337, SEL Equity Leader and COSEM’s Past President, Tovi Scruggs-Hussein, shares:


Words don’t teach; only experience truly teaches. You can read all about mindfulness and you can hear all about it, but until you experience it yourself, it’s all living in your intellect versus an embodiment experience that you can begin to speak to. We have to embody what we are talking about. We have to be the mindset or else our strategies will not work; they will be as futile as they have been for the last several decades because of user error…If we are not embodying it, then we cannot bring it into our classroom.”


After reflecting, we hope that the MYRIAD research study empowers you and creates a sense of hope for our schools. As a COSEM community, we will continue to join together to advocate for wellness within education as we propel our vision forward in this work and are grateful for every step on this journey with you.


 

Lindsey J. Frank, M.Ed. is the President of the Coalition of Schools Educating Mindfully (COSEM), is a children’s book author, and is a Mindfulness-Based SEL Specialist who partners with teachers and school communities to develop heart-centered classrooms. Additionally, she is a part-time special educator in Illinois. Her experience includes collaboratively developing the SEL department within her school district as the former districtwide Climate and SEL Coach. She has been a Learning Behavior Specialist, interventionist, and educator working with ages ranging from early learning through junior high. Her master’s degree is in Educational Leadership and Supervision and has an ELL endorsement. She is a certified trauma-informed yoga, meditation, and mindfulness teacher for adults and children with an inclusive healing-centered focus. She developed her company, The Butterfly Within, LLC to support schools on their resilience wellness journey and is dedicated to being a changemaker within education.


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References and Further Exploration: