We all know of a student who struggles with emotional regulation and is overly emotionally reactive when challenged. We also know of other students who suffer crippling anxiety when put on the spot in class. Similarly, as adults, we face many daily challenges which require social and emotional regulation. Mindfulness and meditation are proving to be valuable tools for supporting self-regulation and helping adults and children to cope with everyday challenges. As such mindfulness and meditation are useful tools for our mental health toolbox. This article explores the reasons why mindfulness works to support social and emotional learning and reflects on recent research recommending a whole school approach to mindfulness and meditation.
Mindfulness can be simply defined as the mental skill of attention. To be mindful means to pay attention, or to focus or hold something in mind. Mindfulness is a shift from automatic, reactive thought to conscious, directed thought. In short, mindfulness enables us to regulate our thoughts or emotions by training us to stop, examine a situation and make an informed decision about the most appropriate response (otherwise known as self-regulation). Over time, this helps cultivate self-acceptance, compassion for others and promotes greater wellbeing.
When responding to external stimuli, the human brain utilises the sub-cortex region of the brain stem and the Limbic system. The brain stem controls many aspects of our basic functioning and the limbic system controls our emotional reaction to our experiences. At the core of these reactive processes is the intrinsic fight, flight and freeze reflex.
Over thousands of years the human brain has evolved to include a frontal cortex, including a pre-frontal cortex which allows for higher level conscious thinking that can override the basic stress response of fight, flight or freeze. As such, one of the main functions of the pre-frontal cortex is the ability to consciously regulate our emotions and behaviours, known as self-regulation. Self-regulation is not something we are born with and the child development literature has mapped the neural pathways required for self-regulation and found these are built and strengthened over time. As such, children who are exposed to healthy displays of love and appropriate attention, usually have adults around them who role model good self-regulation. These children then learn to practice self-regulation themselves from an early age, have better developed pre-frontal cortexes and are therefore better able to self-regulate their emotions and behaviours.
As the neural pathways for self-regulation are laid in childhood, there is increasing support for the role of mindfulness training for children and young people to help facilitate the development of the neural pathways for self-regulation. Mindfulness meditation helps children learn to calm their thinking, assess each situation and respond appropriately. In the neurological literature, adults who regularly practice mindfulness can also self-regulate their emotional responses and have larger pre-frontal cortexes than people who do not meditate.
Using this theoretical understanding of the role of mindfulness in helping children learn how to self-regulate, the international research on the effectiveness of mindfulness training in children and young people is rapidly expanding. This research indicates integrating mindfulness and meditation in a school setting can improve students’:
- overall mental health;
- levels of stress and anxiety;
- academic achievement and readiness to learn; and
- strength of interpersonal relationships.
Mindful Meditation Australia (MMA) is a recently established Western Australian not-for-profit organisation that is dedicated to developing evidence based mindfulness support for schools. MMA recently conducted case study research in WA schools to understand what contributes to a successful mindfulness initiative. The ground breaking research included a series of curriculum based case studies within schools known to be implementing mindfulness programs or strategies. The case studies involved interviews and focus groups with both students and key stakeholders at each school. The case studies helped MMA develop a holistic approach to implementing mindfulness and meditation strategies.
The research recommendation included a whole school approach to mindfulness tailor-made to each school’s specific need. One key research finding stated that when school leadership teams were supportive of the approach and modelled it with staff and students, the initiative was most successful. These schools also invested in training and support for their teaching staff and found time to plan for the approach.
For schools that wish to begin developing their own whole school approach, the following six steps, grounded in the Health Promoting Schools Framework, are recommended:
- assessing your school capacity;
- raising community awareness of mindfulness to dispel any misconceptions about the approach;
- addressing the school’s staff, leadership, training, time and funding capacity to implement mindfulness;
- implement strategies across the six domains of a whole-school including the classroom, policy and practice, school culture, physical environment, school-home-community links and school health services;
- seeking regular and ongoing coaching support; and
- evaluating the success of the approach.
Mindful Meditation Australia is developing an online hub with freely available mindfulness recommendations across all domains included in a whole school approach to mindfulness.
Mindful Meditation Australia also provides professional learning opportunities for the whole-school or individual teachers to support the implementation of a whole-school approach and continues to conduct research into its effectiveness on students’ social and emotional health as well as their academic achievement.
For more information on Mindful Meditation Australia’s unique whole-school approach to mindfulness, visit their website: www.mindfulmeditationaustralia.org.au