Perhaps teens are too cynical to benefit from mindfulness, say authors of latest negative school trial

SfidaBy Christian Jarrett

In the UK, more and more of our children are learning mindfulness at school. The Mindfulness in Schools project claims that over 4000 of our teachers are now trained in the practice. However, some experts are concerned that the roll-out of mindfulness has raced ahead of the evidence base, which paints a mixed picture.

Following their recent failure to find any benefits of a school mindfulness programme for teenagers (contrary to some earlier more positive findings), a research team led by Catherine Johnson at Flinders University has now reported in Behaviour Research and Therapy the results of their latest school trial, which included new features in the mindfulness intervention, such as parental involvement and better designed homework materials, intended to maximise the programme’s effectiveness. However, once again the mindfulness programme led to no observable benefits.

The nine-week Mindfulness Programme used in the current trial was based on the popular .b Mindfulness in School’s curriculum, which features various elements, including: the eponymous “stop and be” (.b) technique that involves stopping, feeling your feet, feeling your breathing and being present; training in how to be more mindful in everyday activities; and relaxation practices. Daily practice at home was encouraged.

Three hundred and seventy-eight teenagers from four urban schools in Australia were allocated to take part in the weekly 40- to 60-minute training sessions. About half of this group took part in a version of the programme that actively involved their parents, through an initial parents’ evening session and the receipt of weekly Youtube clips of their child’s training sessions. Another 182 teens from the same schools acted as controls and did not participate in any of the mindfulness classes. The average age of the participating pupils was 13 years.

Compared with earlier trials, the mindfulness programme included additional elements designed to maximise engagement and the chances for the programme being a success. This included asking teachers to participate alongside their pupils, providing teachers with audio files for practising techniques with their pupils outside of the formal sessions, and improved course materials such as colourful classroom posters and quizzes. The mindfulness training was delivered by the trial’s lead author who is a highly experienced mindfulness practitioner and trainer.

The participating pupils completed a wide range of psychological measures at baseline, after the nine-week programme was complete, and again at six- and 12-month follow up, including questionnaires tapping their levels of anxiety and depression, their concerns with their weight, their overall wellbeing, and their levels of everyday mindfulness.

Participants who completed the mindfulness programme showed no benefits on any measure, either immediately or after the programme or at follow-up. It made no difference whether they were in the version of the programme that included parental engagement (participation by parents was extremely poor – only 8 per cent attended the initial evening session – prompting the researchers to suggest this approach may be a poor use of resources).

These results may not surprise readers who are sceptical of all the hype around mindfulness. The researchers, who are mindfulness enthusiasts, wonder if perhaps the early teen years are not the optimum time to teach mindfulness. “Despite the added capacity [compared with younger kids] for abstract thought to allow skills such as metacognition to unfold, perhaps more ‘cynical’ early adolescents require increased life challenges before the relevance of socioemotional tools becomes evident,” they said, adding: “Further research is required to identify the optimal age, content and length of programs delivering mindfulness to adolescents”.

A randomized controlled evaluation of a secondary school mindfulness program for early adolescents: Do we have the recipe right yet?

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

30 thoughts on “Perhaps teens are too cynical to benefit from mindfulness, say authors of latest negative school trial”

  1. I researched mindfulness and cancer sufferers in 2016 when my husband was seriously ill with cancer, which included several meta- analyses and reviews.What he has to say about the subject is too rude to go here.

    I concluded that not only was ‘mindfulness meditation’ of no discernable/ measurable benefit to this group of people, it actually harmed patients by unrealistically distorting the sense of control patients felt they had over their illness and outcome. It led people who were terminally ill or who were mentally vulnerable either prior to their diagnosis or who became so in response to it, to believe that their symptoms, pain and even the cancer itself could be overcome by using ‘mindfulness techniques’ not only as adjunctive alternatives to conventional medicine, but as a cure in it’s own right.

    I argued that recommending this popular intervention on the basis of such poor evidence was ethically unsound and that it was irresponsible to start rolling ‘mindfulness meditation’ out as a panacea for all ills.

    The essential variable for any ‘treatment’ is BELIEF in effectiveness (placebo effect). In short, if you believe mindfulness will work for you, then that increases the chances that you will participate in a study where mindfulness is offered, be more inclined to give positive feedback(having invested time and mental effort in the mindfulness intervention and having made friends on the course who exert positive normative pressure), AND,be less likely to drop out of the study, thus distorting the positive results of the study.

    In none of the studies up to Jan 2016, was any baseline measure undertaken of the beliefs held by either the participants who took up the offer, or of the beliefs held by the non-participants who declined or dropped out of the study or of their reasons for doing so. Of course, some of the patients in longitudinal studies died during the study period which would seem to indicate they were beyond the stage in their illness where benefit could be expected.

    Studies without exception, excluded other variables which are KNOWN predictors of wellbeing for cancer sufferers e.g. stage of illness, age of onset, pain control, opiate- induced positivity, whether this cancer was a recurrence, type of chemotherapy/radiotherapy and response to side- effects, religiosity/ beliefs in an afterlife and social support.

    All this sounds very negative. I am not against meditation per se as a means of ‘re- focussing’ the mind to temporarily ‘take time- out’ from a stressful situation. But, as with so many psychology interventions such as CBT, unless you can change the physical aspects of the situation causing distress, then the only alternative is to change attitudes (which may be irrevocably entrenched and habitual) towards the situation. Enter Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Even then, relapse rate is often high if the environment and circumstances remain unchanged.

    It comes as no surprise to me that cynicism or lack of belief in the effectiveness claims for mindfulness confer a lack of discernable benefit. A good relaxation session, Buddhist-chanting, African drumming session, listening to your favourite music or running is probably of just as much benefit when it comes to focussing on something other than what is distressing you.

    It makes me angry that psychologists sometimes embrace and get all fired -up about ‘magic bullets’ before they have critically evaluated the evidence available and introduce them to a gullible public without thought of the consequences. It grants crackpot pseudo- scientists and those who might exploit vulnerable people for profit, a degree of unwarranted legitimacy.

    Sorry for the essay. My disbelief in ‘Mindfulness’ almost cost me my degree because it was very popular amongst researchers and our lecturers at the time.

      1. I agree. Yet another hype, whilst we refuse to examine the root causes, e.g. the way we live and the way our societies function, which create the distress and mental problems in the first place.

      2. I’m not quite sure why any good experienced mindfulness teacher would make such a claim to cancer patients and it seems to have been a misunderstanding on the cancer patients part if they believed these things. I question your research considering your comment.

    1. Agree. Mindfulness is ONE tool out of thousands. Right now the psychologists are jumping up and down about it. A few years ago, the magic phrase was Cognitive Behavior Therapy (or as my friend calls it, “crock-and-bull-therapy).
      It’s all about finishing your masters and your doctorate, getting published, and getting known in the field of psychology.
      I do hypnosis, but I never BS people about what it is. When people start to get overexcited about it’s potential, I calm them down and explain what it can, and what it *can’t* do for them…
      Haven’t heard/read any psychologists taking that tack about mindfulness yet. Most still are trying to sell it to everyone for curing everything.

      1. In some ways, you could call mindfulness a form of CBT though more comprehensive since it works to address your entire experience of reality as opposed to just cognitions. Your friend does not sound like a good candidate for any type of therapy. Mindfulness is about trying to take possession (in some ways) of the precise moment which you use to interact within your mind and within the environment. People certainly can improve without it, but I would say, by definition, if you practice mindfulness you could improve in virtually any activity which requires concentration and awareness. The trouble is it’s very difficult and much more difficult to measure practice in others. The problem is not in the technique. Unfortunately, it’s effectiveness in anyway shape or form relies solely on the individual who practices it.

  2. I wonder if attempts at wholesale importation of one component of an entirely different culture’s philosophy raises any issues. There was a programme on mindfulness on Radio 4 a while back which said British doctors had learnt about mindfulness in the East, brought what they learned back, packaged it into a form of treatment, and then sold it back to hospitals in the East! It’s difficult to think of a more depressing example of globalisation’s effect on the value attached to spirituality!

    1. If the researchers had asked the students why the programs had not been successful , they would have gained some useful insights into the problems . They are not just research subjects or adolescents but will have ideas of their own which may well be worth following up. As a working Educational Psychologist , I have successfully taught relaxation skills to groups of 15 – 16 year olds who were very interested in what I was doing and why.

    2. I don’t see why that’s depressing. I’m currently teaching mindfulness to a group of Chinese A level students. They elected to take this course it and none of them have any religious background (indeed they know very little about any religion). I feel privileged to be re-introducing them to ideas about ways of being that came from their own ancestral culture.

  3. The photograph of the “cynical” adolescent is very , very annoying also. There seems to be an element of sensationalism creeping into these research digests which I don`t find helpful or supporting the ethos and aims of psychology , apart from perhaps gaining a wider audience , but at what cost ?

  4. Mu daughter took part in a study at her school run for a university research programme. She found the whole thing boring and wasn’t engaged with it at all – probably more to do with it being ‘extra’ work and missing breaks/lunches so that she could attend sessions. She really liked the idea of it but it was on their terms, not hers.

  5. I have been sceptical about the ‘mindfulness hype’ for quite a while. We had so many hypes – e.g. NLP; CBT; Meditation – and whilst I am not disputing that certain approaches work for certain people, I am disputing that ‘one approach works for everybody’. I personally think that it might be just too boring for young people. Young people need to move, engage physically, mentally and creatively. Has anybody actually asked the participants what they thought / experienced / felt and why they think it hasn’t worked? doesn’t look like it.

  6. I wonder whether we have turned Mindfulness into something too special. I started using it twenty years before the concept got even a name. I had read of the value provided by learning how to relax. The methodology was simple: You started by tensing your hands, and then noting the feeling of relaxation as you released them. You then worked up: forearm, upper arm, shoulders, face — right down through the body to the toes. Every so often you checked that your muscles hadn’t tensed up unconsciously.This took less than ten minutes, which I followed with undemanding music for a bit. My hands became my trigger. Whenever I was in a tense situation, e.g., at the dentist or demanding social situation, I would deliberately relax my hands, and everything else would follow. As a marriage counsellor I would teach it to clients whose knickers were in too much of a twist to think and communicate usefully. It could help enormously. The only disadvantage was when I was speaking in public. I had to reverse the relaxation in order to prompt the adrenalin needed to project my message effectively.

  7. I’m a (now retired) clinical psychologist and found myself up against an incoming tide of resistance when I insisted that mindfulness did not work for everyone. It doesn’t work for me and neither does meditation upon which it’s largely predicated, nor hypnosis (people have tried and I have tried to make it work), nor am I generally suggestible. In short, I’m quite cynical, sceptical, and I need a clear rationale before I’ll accept the value of something. Also, as with NDavies’s daughter, it bores me. Maybe I never grew up but maybe I’m not alone in that and there needs to be a rethink regarding the assumed universality of efficacy of what is more likely to be a horses-for-courses treatment option.

  8. It is not surprising that mindfulness does not work for everyone. At the same time, it would be unwise to dismiss it as it can be very helpful for many. With the current study, the purported improvements could have been part of the problem (i.e., training teachers, making colorful learning material, trying to involve parents). This may have put mindfulness into a different class mentally (like just another assignment or something adults are trying to push on us to make us behave and pay attention). Whereas having an outsider come in for a brief period of time to teach mindfulness may be perceived as a break and more interesting.

  9. I am a long retired psychiatrist but I am still fascinated by our joint fields. No psychotherapy is a classic effective treatment for ‘mental’ disorders and diseases. Most may have some effect sometimes and may also cause problems rather than benefit. This means that psychotherapies will be subject to fashion and the current fashion includes mindfulness. A retro fashion? Shades of the days of the Beatles. I have watched psychotherapies come and go for 60 years. This is not nihilism but rather a realisation that we have so far yet to go in the joint enterprise of the relief and possible cure of inappropriate human distress.

  10. Great Article and comments. If the parents are unmotivated to participate in helping the children develop emotional management techniques then a 1 hour weekly session (even with additional teacher assistance) will not over-ride the greater habitual influence of the prolonged time the children spend in their normal family environment. Children increasingly need to be entertained and meditation is a difficult “ask” for them. They will find it boring and requiring too much self-discipline – especially when the greater part of their time is spent in a more familiar world of more lively stimulation.

    We clearly want to help people cope with the increasing pressures of daily life – but not so much that we are willing to dedicate the required time and funds to achieving the required behaviour/belief changes needed. Quick, cheap fixes will only ever really work for mild/moderate problems in highly motivated people. Meditation is a way of life you have to grow up with or learn as a highly motivated (and therefore already stressed) adult. Most children do not fall into this category. However, given the link between child abuse and subsequent mental ill health, we need to spend our poor financial resources more effectively and therefore selectively. Quality should not be compromised. Wishful thinking is not enough.

  11. Mindfulness is simply learning to pay attention on purpose, to what is happening in the present moment within your brain, body, and environment, without judgment. I say simply but it is anything but simple. To do so more consistently takes considerable practice. Basically, it is an exercise for the mind. Most people are really not willing to put in the time and effort required to benefit from an exercise program or a mindfulness program. It’s even harder with mindfulness since who knows what people are doing with their minds in this type of research. I question the validity of almost any research on mindfulness as you can never actually measure if participants are “receiving” the treatment variable.

  12. Some really interesting comments on the latest mindfulness research. Thank you.

  13. I frequently find myself defending psychology when research studies seem to tell us what we already know. It always seems unfortunate when such studies merely reinforce common stereotypes – as highlighted here by the illustration chosen for the article about one study. As a teacher of mindfulness to 15 to 18 year olds my experience has been some are cynical, some aren’t. Let’s face it, there are a lot of cynical adults too – we need look no further than these postings… As well as teaching psychology I also teach mindfulness, using the structured programme of the Mindfulness in Schools Project. It isn’t just about relaxation as many people seem to think. Students learn to use mindfulness to improve attention and concentration, to sleep better, to cope with worrying thoughts and feelings and to savour the good things in life more. It is not a panacea but a way of cultivating an attitude of mind that helps cope with life better. My students also do yoga, which as well as being a great companion practice to mindfulness, gives access to some exercise for those who are ‘unsporty’ and avoid other physical activities. Like any intervention mindfulness requires some commitment and belief but most of my students are able to supply those and ‘get with the programme’. No, it may not be for everyone and it may not be the answer to everything but there is abundant evidence for its benefits now. When we seem to be continually hearing statistics about a ‘mental health epidemic’ among young people, we do none of them any favours by rejecting such potentially helpful and enjoyable interventions while fretting pessimistically that some teenagers might be too cynical or that we might not have quite enough evidence.

Comments are closed.