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                                                                              The Benefits of Mindfulness in Education

Research with adults suggests that mindfulness practices convey a variety of holistic mental and physical benefits. Increasingly, these practices are being introduced into childhood education in order to encourage the development of self-regulation abilities, essential for academic accomplishment and emotional wellbeing. Mindfulness teaches people to inhabit the present. Here we have more access to the wider mind when we are not restraining to the concepts of past and future. Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994), described mindfulness as, ‘‘Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally’’ (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4).

In the nineteenth century William James, observed that; “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui [master of himself] if he has it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence” (James 1961).

Mindfulness can add dimensions and value to education experience. In a society that is obsessed with doing, Mindfulness can add is to the equation. Garland explains that;

"While mindfulness practice is at the heart of ancient Buddhist traditions, and as such, has been practiced, analysed, and debated for centuries, it is only within the past decade that mindfulness has received significant attention in the medical and psychological literature. Indeed, there is mounting empirical evidence of the role of mindfulness in reducing stress and improving health” (Garland 2009 p1).

Mindfulness in schools is being applied to children and their teachers with encouraging outcomes. Research conclusions on mindfulness-based teacher training initiatives suggest that mindfulness techniques improve teachers’ sense of well-being, performance and ability to connect to the students. A study by Gold (2010) on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for Primary School Teachers; showed that there were also significant improvements in stress levels due to the intervention. Their results suggest that, “this approach could be a potentially cost-effective method to combat teacher stress and burnout” (Gold 2010 p1 ).

‘’Illustrative mindfulness-based teacher training initiatives suggest that personal training in mindfulness skills can increase a teachers’ sense of well-being and teaching self-efficacy and also the ability to manage classroom behaviour and establish and maintain supportive relationships with students‘’ (Meikle 2012 p.1).

Mindfulness may enable teachers to give emotional support to their students. Mindfulness is associated with empathetic responding, interpersonal and emotion understanding and anger management. This intervention has the potential to create teachers who are more responsive to the unique needs and characters of their students.

Although mindfulness is associated with living in the present moment it does have a positive effect on memory. “It becomes evident that what is meant is that once sati/mindfulness is present, memory will function well” Malinowski (2009). The importance of teaching children to focus their attention is obvious. Attention is a crucial part of learning. Mental health and happiness are shaped by our attention. How individuals feel, depends on where they place their attention. The mind creates an endless stream of internal narrative; perhaps due to primitive survival reasons, our attention often tends to go to what is wrong or lacking. Mindfulness techniques can change the rumination mode of thought to the quality of mind that is more nourishing.

”Evidence gained with a variety of methodological approaches clearly indicates that mindfulness meditation increases the efficiency of attentional functions, reflected in performance increases as well as changes in neural activity and underlying neural architecture“ Malinowski (2013).  A study by Moore and Malinowski demonstrated that attentional abilities and cognitive flexibility are improved due to meditation and mindfulness practices.Moore and Malinowski (2009). Malinowski (2013), states that; “Advances in understanding of these processes are required for improving and fine-tuning mindfulness-based interventions that target specific conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorders.” Napoli, Krech & Holley (2005) found that mindfulness interventions with 5-8-year-olds have produced substantial reductions in anxiety and ADHD behaviours. Sadly there are high levels of unhappiness in the youth population. “Low rates in the self-reported well-being of children and adolescents in the UK are alarming“ (UNICEF 2007). Intervention in schools is needed to help address this. Mindfulness training in the education systems could be a route to enhance children’s emotional well-being and so impact the health and happiness of future society. The development and implementation of mindfulness-based interventions in schools could create enhanced learning and boost self-esteem, in a cost-effective manner.

Mindfulness techniques have indicated a range of social cognitive and psychological improvements to school students of all ages. Suicide is a risk factor for young people and is the most common reason for death in men under the age of 35 (Department Of Health, 2005). Mindfulness may be an effective way to mitigate the factors contributing to suicidal behaviour. Treatment programs that feature Mindfulness, and also Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT); Segal, Williams, & Teasdale (2002), have shown effectiveness across numerous studies in connection to suicidal behaviours. Shapiro (2014) showed that results from their research indicated that meditators were much less inclined to engage in suicidal thoughts or behaviours. In addition, meditators became less inclined to self-harm than those in the control group. These results indicate that training in mindfulness techniques; have powerful effects on negative and self-harming thoughts and behaviours.

Preliminary research on using meditation and mindfulness techniques with adolescents have found that a cluster of negative behaviours can be improved due to this intervention including; anxiety, worries, stress, bad behaviour, and sleep issues. The young people reported enhanced relaxation and over all well-being .Broderick & Metz, 2009; Huppert & Johnson( 2010).

Stress is an impediment to learning; relaxed teachers and students teach/learn more efficiently. Managing stress is considered to be an important concern in the workplace and in educational environments. A study that measured cortisol response (a stress hormone) as an indicator of academic stress in young males showed that, “MBSR improves psychological functioning among urban male youth” Sibinga (2014).

There is evidence that mindfulness practice creates positive brain changes. As the brain is the instrument we think with, it seems like a ‘no brainer; to introduce a technique into education that can improve the thinking organ. Davidson and colleagues (2003) discovered that beginner meditators showed considerably more activity in the left prefrontal cortex, which is associated with positive emotion. Malinowski (2013) has recognised a change in emphasis regarding research. Recently there has been an increase of interest in deconstructing the neurophysical and psychological mechanics of meditation.

Neuroimaging research has illuminated how the brain behaves during the meditative state (Garland 1991).

“Such changes include alterations in patterns of brain function assessed with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Changes in the cortical evoked response to visual stimuli that reflect the impact of meditation on attention, and alterations in amplitude and synchrony of high-frequency oscillations that probably play an important role in connectivity among widespread circuitry in the brain’’ (Flook 2010 p1).

Davidson and colleagues (2003) discovered that even novice meditators showed significantly more activity in the left prefrontal cortex, which are related to positive feelings. “A growing body of neuroimaging literature begins to describe brain activity during the meditative state as well as changes in neural structure and function connected with meditation practice” Garland (1991). Posner & Rothbert (2009) have also recognized the attentional functions of meditation and mindfulness as being associated with activity in numerous interrelated networks in the brain.

 The brain is a product of consciousness and there is no conflict between the attempts of neuroscience to explain what is happening in the brain when it is being used as the vehicle for consciousness.  Evidence from neuroimaging can give validity to mindful practices, as it provides quantifiable evidence for its efficiency in improving brain function. However, it does not mean consciousness comes from the brain. Mindfulness meditation alters the function and structure of the brain in adults, improving thoughts and feelings. Increased blood flow and thickening of the cerebral cortex are associated with emotional integration and attention (Davidson 2008).

 Secular mindfulness helps people,  decreasing aggression and improving focus and mood. It is important to create a non-secular approach in schools so that the techniques of mindfulness are used in a pragmatic way, so it is appropriate for people of all (or no) faiths. I agree with religious schools as I believe that children need to be inculcated with ethical and spiritual principles. However, sometimes religious schools teach children to be sectarian or give false information such as creationism. In non-denominational schools, mindfulness philosophies could provide an input that improves ethical outlooks, as well as improvements in relationships and behaviour. Importantly the calmer and more egalitarian, compassionate outlook that mindfulness techniques seem to instigate, are received internally, not from religious indoctrination. Ricardo (2014) states that; “It is imperative to provide a secular alternative as a basis for moral, ethical and spiritual concerns rather than a commitment to nurturing specific religious beliefs.“ Hyland also argues for a “secular interpretation of spirituality to place against more orthodox religious versions which are currently gaining ground in English education as part of the government policy designed to encourage schools to apply for ‘academy’ status independent of local authority control” Hyland (2013 p1). Perhaps mindfulness interventions in education would require a standardisation of practice and technique so that the most successful methods are used. This would entail an agreement about what mindfulness is. The present mindfulness-based interventions display great variances in the way mindfulness is practiced and theorised.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which was developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is usually the type of mindfulness applied in schools. Chiesa and Malinowski (2011), argue that large inconsistencies exist between Buddhist notions of mindfulness and modern psychological varieties. However, there is an agreement that a mental training in the form of meditation is required for the development of mindfulness.

“Currently applied mindfulness-based interventions show large differences in the way mindfulness is conceptualized and practiced. The decision to consider such practices as unitary or as distinct phenomena will probably influence the direction of future research” (Wiley 2011p.21). Furthermore, many studies into mindfulness, in general, and MM/MBI, in particular, have been criticized for their lack of scientific rigor. A major criticism concerns the lack of high quality, randomized control studies comparing MM and MBI to adequate comparators, which include the expectation of a benefit but exclude the claimed ‘‘active ingredient’’ of the majority of mindfulness-based approaches” (Chiesa and Malinowski 2011,p3).

Many have voiced concerns about the move away from the core root teachings of Buddhist based mindfulness, that have occurred in the popular dissemination of mindfulness techniques. Who then should teach mindfulness in education and would they do it in the correct spirit? Would they be experienced meditators themselves? Would it become an ego trip for some? Many have expressed concerns about the credentials of some people he had met who teach mindfulness, and also what happens when the practice gets too far removed from its Buddhist roots. The popularity of mindfulness seems to have created a ‘dilution’ in standards. However, I think this should be weighed up with the massive benefits of the increase in people who are now meditating. I hope it indicates a general shift in our society towards more meaningful and spiritual concerns. However, to be assessable to all faiths, I feel it could only be ‘sold’ in education in a secular fashion.

Studies in this subject have been criticised for lacking rigor and the popularity of mindfulness courses appears to have given some unsuitable individuals a platform to teach meditation. However, there is a copious amount of evidence to support mindfulness as being an activity that should be taught in schools. If this happens I am sure, it will have a profoundly positive effect on our society. For mindfulness to become a part of the school curriculum, there would have to be a consensus of what it is and also research that is convincing to the funding authorities.

Many children today, live in a dark world that is fed to them by the capitalist system. They are hypnotised into consumerism and encouraged to live in a digital world, full of virtual violence. Many have, shallow, unrealistic expectations of future careers, often dreaming of becoming famous for being famous. This does not encourage a focus on academic attainment. The practice of Buddhism from (where mindfulness originates) can create a decrease in longing after fame, wealth, and approval (Malinowski 2009). The future is uncertain; our world is in flux. All children (not just an elite few) need to be prepared for what is coming. Knowing the nature of the mind may prove to be the saving of humanity.

Mindfulness provides the ideal conditions for learning and teaching and supports all pedagogical approaches. These interventions create profound feelings of connection. Insight derived in this way – from an enhanced state of presence and awareness, does not just impact our own wellbeing, but also all those whom we engage with. The integration of Mindfulness into current psychological theories continues to have profound effects on a variety of physical and mental problems. However, perhaps a more progressive inspection of Buddhist psychology may be able to greatly inform the way we understand the human psyche.

I have always thought meditation should be integrated into the school curriculum. After considering this subject in depth, I feel the current application of mindfulness in some schools is an encouraging sign. Although studies in this subject have been criticised for lacking rigor, there are copious amounts of research evidence accumulating; brain imaging and interviews, to support mindfulness as being an activity that improves the performance of students and teachers in educational establishments. If mindfulness was taught in all schools it would have a profoundly positive effect on society. Teaching a technique (however imperfectly), which initiates self-knowledge and compassion must be an overall positive move. Mindfulness has the potential to help create future leaders, artists, visionaries, scientists and teachers that have compassion, interconnectedness and sanity. I taught my daughter to meditate when she was five she is now 21. She amazes me with her calm, intelligent, ethical and happy character. Mindfulness in education is a step in the right direction to build a more egalitarian and heart-based society.