24 Jan Mindfulness can enhance academic performance and lower stress for middle school students
Mindfulness, by definition, is the ability to focus attention on the present moment, as opposed to being distracted by external things or internal thoughts. If you’re focused on the teacher in front of you, or the homework in front of you, that should be good for learning.
Along those lines, two new studies from MIT suggest that mindfulness can enhance academic performance and mental health in middle schoolers. The MIT researchers found that more mindfulness correlates with better academic performance, fewer suspensions from school, and less stress.
The researchers also showed, for the first time, that mindfulness training can alter brain activity in students. Sixth-graders who received mindfulness training not only reported feeling less stressed, but their brain scans revealed reduced activation of the amygdala, a brain region that processes fear and other emotions, when they viewed images of fearful faces.
Together, the findings suggest that offering mindfulness training in schools could benefit many students, says Gabrieli, who is the senior author of both studies as part of the daily curriculum in their classroom.
In the moment
Both studies were performed at charter schools in Boston. In one of the studies, the MIT team studied about 100 sixth-graders. Half of the students received mindfulness training every day for eight weeks, while the other half took a coding class. The mindfulness exercises were designed to encourage students to pay attention to their breath, and to focus on the present moment rather than thoughts of the past or the future.
Students who received the mindfulness training reported that their stress levels went down after the training, while the students in the control group did not. Students in the mindfulness training group also reported fewer negative feelings, such as sadness or anger, after the training.
About 40 of the students also participated in brain imaging studies before and after the training. The researchers measured activity in the amygdala as the students looked at pictures of faces expressing different emotions.
At the beginning of the study, before any training, students who reported higher stress levels showed more amygdala activity when they saw fearful faces. This is consistent with previous research showing that the amygdala can be overactive in people who experience more stress, leading them to have stronger negative reactions to adverse stimuli. And, there’s a lot of evidence that an overly strong amygdala response to negative things is associated with high stress in early childhood and risk for depression.
After the mindfulness training, students showed a smaller amygdala response when they saw the fearful faces, consistent with their reports that they felt less stressed. This suggests that mindfulness training could potentially help prevent or mitigate mood disorders linked with higher stress levels, the researchers say.
In the study, the researchers did not perform any mindfulness training but used a questionnaire to evaluate mindfulness in more than 2,000 students in grades 5-8. The questionnaire was based on the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale, which is often used in mindfulness studies on adults. Participants are asked to rate how strongly they agree with statements such as, “I rush through activities without being really attentive to them.”
The researchers compared the questionnaire results with students’ grades, their scores on statewide standardized tests, their attendance rates, and the number of times they had been suspended from school. Students who showed more mindfulness tended to have better grades and test scores, as well as fewer absences and suspensions.
The researchers now plan to do a full school-year study, with a larger group of students across many schools, to examine the longer-term effects of mindfulness training. But, shorter programs like the two-month training used in the previous studies would most likely not have a lasting impact, according to the researchers. The current thinking is that mindfulness is like going to the gym. If you go for a month, that’s good, but if you stop going, the effects won’t last. It’s a form of mental exercise that needs to be sustained.
Authored by: Dr. Kiara Moore
Reference: Clemens C. C. Bauer, Camila Caballero, Ethan Scherer, Martin R. West, Michael D. Mrazek, Dawa T. Phillips, Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, John D. E. Gabrieli. Mindfulness training reduces stress and amygdala reactivity to fearful faces in middle-school children. Behavioral Neuroscience, 2019