THE BLOG

Can Mindfulness Improve School Grades?

26/10/2015 13:55 | Updated 22 October 2016

There were three school children at the Mindful Nation UK report launch in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

The Mindful Nation UK report is the first policy document of its kind, and contains recommendations for using mindfulness interventions to address mental health concerns in four areas: health, workplaces, criminal justice, and education.

The three pupils explained to the audience what practicing mindfulness means to them. What they had to say was as heart-warming as it was profound.

13 year old Haroun was one of them. He said this: Even after he had learned about mindfulness as part of the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP, a non-profit organisation dedicated to bringing mindfulness to pupils, teachers and parents), he still gets into trouble sometimes. But, he continued, mindfulness has helped him open up a 6th Sense in his head, to see more clearly what is right and what is wrong. The audience smiled and then applauded.

Clearly, mindfulness training has helped these pupils be, and also do well.

But how much do we know scientifically about the potential of mindfulness, beyond wellbeing?

To date, surprisingly little "hard" evidence exists on this.

There are only three peer-reviewed studies in the scientific literature that specifically deal with the link between mindfulness training and academic attainment.

We need more such evidence.

This is because policy makers and educators appear very interested in valid indicators that can help persuade sceptics to invest well over the £1 million proposed in the Mindful Nation UK report, in order to help many more pupils be and do well.

Here are the insights from the three scientific papers linking mindfulness with school grades.

Their insights are cautious yet optimistic.

First, a team of Canadian scholars led by Kimberly Schonert-Reichl at the University of British Columbia in Canada examined a social and emotional learning programme developed by Goldie Hawn's MindUP foundation.

The researchers found that fourth and fifth graders who practiced mindfulness exercises over four months had 15% better math scores than their peers.

Second, Kath Bennett and Dusana Dorjee, a researcher team at Bangor University in the UK, conducted a feasibility pilot study examining the effect of a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course for 16-18 year olds studying for a General Certificate of Education (GCE).

They followed up with course participants 3 months later, and detected a significant improvement in academic attainment amongst the course participants, equating to nearly one GCE grade difference per subject.

And finally, an exploratory research trial led by Laura Bakosh and Janice Houlihan who founded the United States-based non-profit organization Inner Explorer examined whether technology-based mindfulness training can help raise school grades.

I had the privilege of helping to co-author this last study, and believe it may be particularly interesting for policy-makers and for those concerned with building capacity in bringing mindfulness to schools - rapidly and affordably, yet with fidelity to the ancient wisdom and scientific rigour that underlies many evidence-based mindfulness interventions such as MBSR.

This is for two reasons.

One, the pilot consisted of audio-guided mindfulness training tracks that had been pre-recorded by experienced MBSR trainers. Hence no expert mindfulness trainers were needed to run the mindfulness training programme, and teachers said they benefited from the mindfulness practices alongside their pupils.

And two, it only took 10 minutes each day. This meant that it could fit around the schools' existing curriculum and reportedly did not significantly impact daily classroom operations.

All three of these articles conclude their reports by urging scholars and educators to help increase the evidence base in this important yet still rarely studied area.

We need larger and more rigorously controlled trials to more fully understand the potential of mindfulness for schools, and then add investment to the current heap of enthusiasm around mindfulness.

There are many school children out there who would thank us for it.