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Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Schools

Maksymilian Woch, Ph.D.

Instead of Introduction

As teachers around the world check class attendance, children respond in various languages by shouting “I am present”, “I am present”. Everyone tacitly accepts that the child is in class. The child thinks so, the parents think so, and the teacher thinks so too. However, often only a child’s body is found in the classroom. This is due to the fact that the child looks out the window, seeing things only visible to her, and it lasts for years. Her thoughts wonder, or she is secretly experiencing nightmares, as a result of being disregarded, neglected, and even mistreated, she lives in inner darkness, unable to concentrate on her school assignments (Kabat-Zinn 2019).

I. MBIs (Mindfulness-based Interventions) in Schools

In today’s world, there is a rapid increase in the use of various „new” educational techniques applied at different levels of education. Its application is clearly visible both in higher education and at all levels of school education, even in the preliminary stage of it. They constitute a relatively fresh element of school curricula, which to a large extent is treated as a supplement to the core curriculum, implemented in many cases as a kind of experiment. However, an increasing number of school principals, teachers, parents and students are inclined to accept the purposefulness and effectiveness of the use of Mindfulness-based Interventions (MBI) in schools. Schools benefit from the expanding product offer of MBI educational protocols while looking for opportunities to organize appropriate training for school staff or to adapt the school environment to the needs of a specific program.

The growing interest in MBI in education may undoubtedly be related to the emergence of special needs connected to the ongoing contemporary civilization changes understood in its broadest context. There is an increasing awareness among teachers and educators of the need to adapt the whole idea of teaching to the effects of these civilization changes. The universally accepted model of culture, prevailing in highly developed countries, and at the same time, a commonly recognized paradigm towards the development of human civilization carries with it a wide range of phenomena previously unknown or occurring on a much smaller scale. In this case, it is worth mentioning the incredible acceleration of the pace of life with the associated to it the general shortage of time. It causes attention deficits and affects interpersonal relationships, including family relationships. Widespread implementation of new ways of communicating also contributes to this state by affecting the entire mental and physical life, including experiencing alienation from the natural environment of an individual, or the lack of contact with one’s own body. The prevailing obligation to be highly productive and to define life in terms of consumption, also affects the emotional side of the individual increasing the level of stress which becomes one of the inevitable components of life, leading to impoverishment of the inner life.

Of course, such regularities are common not only in the adult world but also apply to children and adolescents. The behavior of children in school, their relationships with their peers, and the effectiveness of the learning process are conditioned by factors resulting from civilization changes. Schools are the place where this harmful baggage of civilization changes appears fully. Therefore, the real task of schools is to face these challenges and at the same time, to reformulate educational principles in such a way that they are able to respond to emerging needs. Implementing mindfulness techniques in schools addressed to teachers and students is, according to the authors of MI, an effective method that allows to solve, or at least alleviate these problems. These techniques are based on the concept of mindfulness which draws from the philosophical and religious thought of the East, mainly Buddhism. The next paragraphs will discuss the Buddhist origin of modern therapeutic techniques and their emergence in the Western world.

II. Mindfulness as a Therapy

In the language of early Buddhism, Pali, the term mindfulness was rendered as „sati”. Buddhist doctrine invariably emphasizes the function of mindfulness as a means of achieving the goal of human spiritual development. It is the practice of mindfulness itself that allows for further meditation practices while being part of the “eightfold path” that Buddhists follow. Mindfulness in Buddhism is considered a technique, a useful tool to help in dealing with experiences of the body, feelings, mind, or any mental state. The definition of mindfulness from a Buddhist point of view can be formulated as a non-evaluative direct observation of the mind and body in the present moment (Draszczyk 2022).

According to the understanding of modern psychotherapy, the definition of mindfulness does not differ much from the Buddhist prototype. Mindfulness is described as awareness that arose from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally (Kabat-Zinn 2017), or in a simpler version as knowing what you are doing when you are doing it (Weare, Bethune 2021). The use of mindfulness techniques in psychological therapy coincides with a general increase in interest in mediation techniques in dealing with mental ailments. One of the pioneers in implementing mindfulness techniques in therapeutic treatment is Jon Kabat-Zinn, who in 1979 in one of the academic centers in the USA, invented the MBSR program. Since then, several basic therapeutic protocols within the framework of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have been developed, such as MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy), which initiated the next generations of new programs. These include, for example,  mindfulness-based eating awareness training, or Compassion Focused Therapy (Germer et al. 2015). Today’s heyday of the presence of therapeutic techniques is accompanied by a growing interest in science in the results of their application to the needs of psychotherapy clients.  The results of these studies largely support the effectiveness of those techniques in the area of improving mental and physical health, or in determining new areas of the functioning of the human mind and body which can be benefited in the future by the implementation of such means.

III. State of Art and Research in regard to the MBIs in Schools

To understand the purpose of implementing mindfulness protocols in schools, the first thing you need to do is look at the values in such programs. In the scholarly literature commenting on these issues, several such values are emphasized which become in this way a kind of general pedagogical principles such as empirical, interactive, participatory, student-centered, relationship-oriented education (Crane et al. 2016). As you can see, these are general assumptions about some teaching methodology accepted in mindfulness-based programs in schools. However, the anticipated learning effects are related to the specific outcomes achieved by implementing a particular mindfulness-based protocol. At this point, quoting an excerpt from one of the mindfulness-based protocols in schools regarding the anticipated effects of its implementation would be an appropriate illustrative source for us. The author of the program assumed that as a result of its implementation, program participants will be able to better cope with difficult reactions, such as aggression, anger, or fear. In addition, their ability to self-control, learn during classes and consciously focus attention will increase significantly. Finally, understanding yourself and your own experiences will help to calm emotions and other reactions (Ołtarzewski 2017).

Certainly, the question arises to what extent such educational effects are confirmed by the results of scientific research. The rapidly growing number of publications proves the scientific interest in these issues. However, at the moment, no one can reasonably say that scientifically proven results have been definitively achieved. According to the authors of one of the scientific reviews on the implementation of mindfulness-based techniques in schools: The heterogeneity of MBI implementation in schools and mixed research results mean that we do not yet have an established view of the effectiveness of such programs (Emerson et al. 2019).

On the other hand, there are many specific-subject research findings showing the positive impact of mindfulness-based techniques on various aspects of student well-being. In one of the articles, we can find such a comparison: A growing body of research has shown positive effects on executive functions, mental health, academic performance, and socio-emotional outcomes (e.g., self-regulation, stress reduction). Research has also suggested that mindfulness programs are feasible and acceptable for diverse groups of youth. However, the same article highlights the weaknesses of the so far research into the effectiveness of mindfulness-based protocols, i.e. ambiguity in the conceptualization of mindfulness, lack of comparisons with active control groups, reliance on self-report measures, the results of studies of mindfulness-based school programs are influenced by various ways of their implementation (Sciutto et. al 2021). Such accusations are repeated by much fewer studies in which the negative effects of implementing mindfulness-based techniques are presented (Gunther Brown 2019).

Leaving aside the question of the effectiveness of mindfulness programs in the context of their educational goals, or the methodology of researching the effects of these techniques, some authors raise the issue of how to implement these programs in the school environment. In one article expressing a critical assessment of mindfulness-based programs in schools, the author, who is in any case an advocate of mindfulness techniques as a therapeutic meaning, notes that several problems with their implementation in the school setting need to be addressed. For example, she points to the need to thoroughly establish ethical standards related to the implementation of MBI in schools, taking into account the protection of children particularly vulnerable to emotional hurts. The next few paragraphs comment the critical approach presented in this article (Arthurson 2017).

From a Buddhist point of view, the purpose of mindfulness techniques was not therapy, nor was it treated as an educational tool. The Buddhist conception of mindfulness techniques differs significantly from the contemporary understanding of mindfulness by the existence of an ethical sphere deeply embedded in the soteriological purpose of these practices. Leaving aside a religious dimension of mindfulness techniques, deprivation of its ethical connotations brings an obvious danger of some malpractices in this area. Of course, the implementation of mindfulness practices in their secular form implies giving up its religious connotations, which should not be the same as a lack of ethical considerations. It is connected with showing the dependencies between an action and its effects. Without this aspect, mindfulness techniques allow you to perfect your attention, which can be used for any type of activity, without considering ethics in the context of the goals set. As such, they can be used to train soldiers to increase their ability to eliminate enemies on the battlefield.

Besides these doubts, there are several other questions related to the adoption of MBI in the school environment. Assuming that its implementation should be closely related to the achievement of a specific educational goal, then in the absence of clear effects in the short term, should it make it pointless with regard to further performance? On the other hand, when looking at this problem in the context of the level of attention of students, it is worth being aware of the difficulties related to the objective measurement of this aspect of mental life in the school environment. Also, the idea of ​​using MBI to deal with “difficult children” should be carefully considered before applying it to a specific situation. If such techniques were to be only a means of changing the child’s perception and response to a difficult school situation while ignoring the context of family and social conditions of the child, the effects of such mindfulness intervention would be limited.

Mindfulness teachers should know not only the techniques of conducting mindfulness classes, but also have the appropriate proficiency to adequately respond to the needs of children, especially those who are susceptible to emotional harm. Research on mindfulness interventions in schools shows that for some students the effects of participation in classes may be difficult. According to reports of some students, they experienced a state of being overwhelmed by traumatic memories and emotions triggered by their previous experiences, which then appeared fully. On the other hand, mindfulness instructors are not able to correctly recognize this type of reaction of participants in the classes.

This state of affairs is the result of the way in which mindfulness classes are organized. Teachers and instructors conduct multi-person classes, having no chance to properly recognize the reactions of all participants. Moreover, most of the instructors do not know the students well, at least not to the extent that they can properly assess their family and environmental conditions, which may directly impact their experiences in the classroom. Another issue is the question of the appropriate qualification of the instructors conducting the classes, which is particularly important in the era of escalating growth of the market offer of mindfulness courses, and thus the frequent disappearance of the “canonical version” of secular protocols.

The answer to such problems is the proper organization of mindfulness classes in schools. Due to possible negative reactions of some of the participants in the classes, it is recommended that not only the instructor but also the school psychologist and the teacher, be present during the class. Their presence should help notice any negative student reactions that may be revealed during mindfulness practice. Moreover, it seems obvious that the student should have the right to consent to participate in particular mindfulness classes or to refuse such acceptance. In this case, it is important that such a refusal is not conditioned by the student’s stressful feelings related to its public expression.

The author draws attention to the lack of a sufficient number of studies on the use of mindfulness techniques in schools where students are from a heterogeneous group in terms of culture and socio-economy. There is also a lack of sufficient research on the issue of the possibility of reinforcing mindfulness interventions in schools with a set of ethical values. In addition, he advocates doing more qualitative research, not just relying on the results of quantitative research. This would provide information on students’ perspectives on mindfulness interventions used in school curricula.

Adding to what has already been said, several issues can be identified related to the fidelity of implementing the Mindfulness Intervention in schools. In order to assess whether the mindfulness-based program has been implemented faithfully, the method of its implementation is analyzed in terms of adherence to the protocol, dosage, i.e. the appropriate amount of time, quality, i.e. the way the content is implemented, and the level of student involvement. In addition, an account should be taken of the overall “acceptability” of MBI by teachers and students and the amount of time they can devote to such activities in schools. Another issue is home practice as an integral part of the school curriculum. Research shows that better results are achieved when students also practice some tasks at home. This level of student involvement is a determinant of the range of positive effects of the program applied. The level of teacher involvement also correlates with the effectiveness of mindfulness-based programs.

IV. Mindfulness-based Interventions in Schools

The growing interest in mindfulness practices in schools translates into a constantly growing offer of MBI programs targeted at school-age children. In Western countries, there are many such well-developed and widespread programs, incl. Mindful Schools in the USA, Smiling Mind in Australia or Mindfulness in School Project in the UK, to name a few. The last one includes several protocols directed to children of all ages and aimed at solving different sorts of emotional and cognitive problems. They are based on the reformulated and age-appropriate assumptions of the MBSR protocol. Among them, the leading protocol is „.b”, which should be interpreted as „stop and be”. The protocol is designed as a series of nine several dozen minutes long lessons for students aged 11 to 18. Its subject matter covers various aspects of mindfulness, both those related to the body and the psyche. The starting point here is the idea of changing the way students perceive their own experiences and understanding that mindfulness is a key point in such changes. The mind is compared to a puppy preoccupied with a multitude of environmental stimuli, without being able to focus on any detail. It is emphasized, however, that the mind, just like a puppy, can successfully undergo appropriate training.

Individual classes concern, among others, focusing attention on bodily experiences, moving consciously while being aware of our mental processes, such as thoughts and emotions. One of the goals of these classes is to learn to consciously “responding” to the emerging stimulus, instead of automatic “reacting”. The Mindfulness in School project includes a full range of educational materials dedicated to both students and teachers while being a professional curriculum devoted to various aspects of mindfulness techniques at different levels of education. The authors of the program, relying on the assumptions of MBSR, widely refer to the results of research on the use of mindfulness protocols in schools, but it should be noted that the published training materials do not comment on the limitations presented above, to which such studies are susceptible.

V. Instead of Conclusions. How are MBIs related to the WSST Assumptions?

strengthen young people’s competencies in the area of conscious and active participation in social life;

As the understanding of the role of mindfulness practices in human development grows, there is more and more emphasis on its effects related to the pro-social attitudes and behaviors resulting from these techniques. It should be strongly emphasized here that the practice of mindfulness does not separate the practitioner from the outside world, creating some kind of a state of ideal egocentric or autistic alienation, like a perfect cyborg, but on the contrary, a person who is aware of the principles of social life while being energetically engaged in its currents, having the cognitive and emotional ability to positively influence their social environment.

teach them how to find themselves in relation to the world, nature and their own body;

Inevitably, one of the main advantages of mindfulness-based techniques propagated by its followers is the ability to train mindfulness in order to increase the individual’s ability to experience all possible stimuli coming from the mind, body of the observer, and also from his close environment. It involves learning to respond to feelings of anger, anxiety, boredom, or any other harmful state of mind you experience that is getting out of control.

show them how to plan their own life path and manage inevitable changes;

Of course, mindfulness practices do not provide answers to all life challenges, nor do they immediately solve all the problems of everyday life. Such an understanding would even be contrary to the essence of being attentive to life, which is fully present at the moment. Our mental continuum contains many different mental factors of varying intensity at any given moment. By being present with all this mixture of thoughts, emotions, and experiences, you have the potential to recognize them and, as a result, distance yourself from momentary events. Thanks to this, you have the opportunity to look at each situation from a much wider perspective. As a result, you gradually build an understanding that change is a “natural” part of our life, and you shed your fear and anxiety as you see life as a process of change that we are a part of.

enable their self-development in terms of personality, intelligence, sensitivity, and worldview;

Mindfulness practices not only allow the practitioner to gain control over the various stimuli experienced, but also contribute to how we treat ourselves, others, and the whole environment. Exercising mindfulness has a transformational dimension as it leads to a change in perception of one’s own personality, which in turn causes a cognitive change in how other people are perceived. It deepens our understanding of human psychology, re-evaluates cognitive and behavioral schemas, allowing at the same time us to build a state of internal independence and a feeling of a closer bond with other people.

familiarize them with the idea of science and learning through the ability to manipulate data and formulate conclusions;

The practice of mindfulness contributes to the clarity of the thinking process while allowing us to perceive the various factors that influence our thoughts. As a result, our thinking becomes more organized and its elements are treated as data. It influences our understanding of the world as we perceive it in terms of causes and effects, creating a model of reality based on cause-and-effect relationships. It brings us closer to the scientific understanding of the world we live in.

give them the tools to deal with the aggression of the world and redefine what it means to be successful;

Mindfulness techniques influence the way we respond to experiences. In confrontation with hostile or aggressive attitudes of the social environment, thanks to the use of mindfulness techniques, we are able to cultivate an attitude of rejecting our automatic reactions to them and a feeling of being overwhelmed by such negative behaviors of other people. Mindfulness allows you to keep an appropriate distance to a specific situation, sober thinking, and the ability to skilfully solve such difficult experiences. Mindfulness also influences our ability to redefine our life goals or reformulate an individual’s assessment of well-being in life. We are able to better perceive the influence of the environment on our worldview and consciously choose values that are really dear to us.

Mindfulness in Schools: Richard Burnett at TEDxWhitechapel (video):


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About the author
Maksymilian Woch, Ph.D.
Maksymilian holds a doctorate in antropology. His interests relate to the study of various aspects of human culture, mainly those related to changes in the area of spirituality and religiosity, both in its individual and social dimensions. He collaborates with KPSC JU (Cracow, Poland), where he conducts academic classes in various subjects. Maksymilian admits: "I think the key to a more meaningful life is a greater openness to mutual understanding, which is intercultural and goes beyond individual worldviews. This way, there is a chance to find what binds us together in one global community".
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