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”.