The Mindfulness Movement and Adolescent Behavior
Over the past four decades, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Techniques have been proven effective in alleviating a wide variety of emotional and psychological challenges in adults, adolescents, and children. In the medical and scientific world, MBSR was first legitimized by research performed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts in the late 1970s. Since then, studies have shown activities such as yoga, meditation and mind-body practices like taiji and qigong have positive effects not only on stress-related issues, but also on the general health and well-being of the public at large.
A recent study performed at Harvard University showed that short-term courses in meditation result positive physiological changes in brain structure related to attention, impulse control and anxiety, which is great news for teachers and parents navigating the tricky waters of students going through adolescence. Despite all the evidence connecting the positive relationship between MBSR activities and stress, as well as research connecting decreased stress with increased academic performance, there has been very little scientific evidence showing a direct link between mindfulness meditation and improved test scores, until now.
Meditation, Academics, Attention and Self-Regulation
In an article entitled “Short-Term Meditation Intervention Improves Self-Regulation and Academic Performance” published in the July 2014 Journal of Child and Adolescent Behavior, researchers in Beijing, China documented the effect of mindfulness exercises on the attentional attributes and test scores of a group of 208 students between the ages of 13 and 18.
The students in the study were split into two groups. Twenty minutes a day over a period of six weeks the students practiced two separate types of mindfulness exercises. One group was taught a series of Integrated Body Mind Training (IBMT) lessons and the other group was taught a series of Relaxation Training (RT) exercises.
IMBT Exercises vs. RT Exercises
The IBMT exercises stressed “making no effort, or less effort, to control one’s thoughts and promote[d] a state of restful alertness that allow[ed] a high degree of awareness of one’s body, breathing, mind and of external instructions.”
The RT exercises focused on “the relaxing of different muscle groups over the face, head, shoulders, arms, legs, chest, back and abdomen.”
In short, the IBMT group focused on the meditative aspects of mindfulness training, while the RT group focused on the physical aspects of mindfulness training.
Researchers compared the scores on pre-training and post-training tests for both groups in academic and attentional/emotional areas. They then subjected the results to rigorous statistical analyses. The researchers observed that the IBMT group achieved higher scores than the RT group in both academic and attentional/emotional areas. Specifically, the IBMT group showed higher scores on the following academic subjects:
- Second Language (English)
The IBMT group also showed higher scores on tests that measured the following emotional/attentional areas:
- Executive Attention
- Perceived Stress
- Classroom Behavior
Meditation for Schools in the United States
If you take into consideration the recent data from Harvard University documenting the measurable changes in brain structure after eight weeks of meditation training, the Beijing Study underscores the potential positive effects of including mindfulness meditation training in middle schools and high schools across the U.S.
It Doesn’t Take that Long
It’s especially important to note the short time—twenty minutes a day over a period of six weeks—it took for researchers to observe significant improvements across a wide range of areas that are crucial for adolescents.
Teachers and school administrators might understandably bristle at first at the addition of yet another element to their seemingly endless list of daily responsibilities. However, their reservations might be alleviated by pointing out that increases in student attention, self-regulation, and academic performance resulting from meditation might actually support their efforts across all areas.
If twenty minutes a day can help students in all of these areas, it stands to reason that the overall classroom environment would become more efficient and productive. This could lead to what might be the holy grail of classroom education: the creation of more time for teachers to teach and for students to learn.