Impact on academic performance

Academic learning is seen by most schools as their core task, with well-being and mental health often being seen as of lower priority and as supports for learning, especially in secondary schools. Schools are often reluctant to take on what they see as “someone else’s business,” and if mindfulness is to increase in mainstream schools, the case has to be made for why efforts put into the promotion of well-being support academic learning.

Fortunately, making this case is becoming easier, for social and emotional learning in general and for mindfulness in particular. The evidence on the links between programs to support emotional and social well-being and school achievement is clear and definitive (Durlak et al. 2011; Zins et al. 2004). There is a growing body of neuroscience evidence about how the brain/mind/body works, which turns out to be as one interconnected organism in which emotion and cognition interact constantly, and where both acute and chronic stress inhibit healthy brain development and the ability of the higher parts of the brain to function effectively (LeDoux 1998). Brains need healthy social attachments in order to develop normally (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine 2000) and perform best when optimally stimulated but not overstressed (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

There is also growing evidence that mindfulness can impact directly on cognitive processes and school achievement. Schools are likely to be particularly attracted to this, and the underlying sense that mindfulness is about helping students focus and “pay attention," abilities central to all learning and often increasingly lacking in today’s distracted, multi-tasking youngsters. Indeed, Goleman (2013) argues that the ability to “focus” is for everyone a critical skill underlying emotional intelligence. The evidence is that mindfulness appears to enhance awareness and clarity (e.g., Zylowska et al. 2007) and develop metacognition (the ability to stand back from the thought stream and to appraise thoughts in a reflective manner) (Flook et al. 2010; Schonert-Reichl and Lawlor 2010).

Several programs in schools (e.g., Beauchemin et al. 2008; Franco et al. 2011) have been associated directly with improvements in academic learning, academic performance, and school achievement. An example is given in Case Study 6.

Case Study 6: Mindfulness improves academic learning in teenagers

A program called Meditacion Fluir was taught to first-year high school students in three schools randomly chosen in a province of southern Spain. It was evaluated in a robust randomized controlled study by Franco et al. (2011). Sixty-one students were allocated at random to experimental and control groups; the control group were offered the same program later. Students were taught a Ш hour session once a week for ten weeks and were expected to practice daily for 30 minutes. The course used the familiar MBSR practices of letting thoughts come and go, observing the breath, and body scan. Class discussion included exploring tales from the Zen tradition. Significant improvements were found in academic performance of the participants in Spanish language and literature, foreign languages, and philosophy (the three subjects examined). Students also improved their self-concept and had reduced anxiety.

The authors hypothesized that the academic improvements were causally related to students feeling better about themselves and having less anxiety when studying.

Mindfulness research increasingly includes measures of cognitive performance in the assessed potential outcomes, and school programs are increasingly looking to evaluate their results on academic achievements. Such results, if sustained, will be likely to make mindfulness a good deal more attractive to all mainstream schools, including secondary schools.

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