Mindfulness Practice in Schools? Slow down.

Meditation, my teacher used to say, is a vacation that you can give to yourself every time you tune in. For me, it’s a relief from stress and worry, a chance to hear the whispers of my own intuition, and space for my feelings that have not yet formed into words. More and more people are using contemplative practices, including educators who want to prepare their students with “21st century skills.” But a review in the June issue of the prestigious journal Child Development Perspectives warns that we should wait before adopting contemplative practices in schools: there just isn’t enough evidence on the benefits of contemplative practices for children to justify its widespread adoption.

There are many forms of contemplative or mindfulness practices—like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, and the newer Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction—and they vary widely, but all have in common an important way of concentrating attention. Practitioners are guided to focus on the emotions, thoughts or feelings that flow through their awareness, without judging or getting caught up in them. For adults, these practices have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, alleviate pain and illness, and change areas of the brain that are related to regulating emotions, attention and mental flexibility. Meditation practice is even associated with the lengthening of the DNA telomeres, suggesting that it may slow aging at the cellular level.

The research on contemplative practices with schoolchildren, however, is a different story. According to Penn State researchers Mark Greenburg and Alexis Harris, there hasn’t been enough research on the subject, and what studies have been done lack scientific rigor. The majority of studies suffer from design flaws: small numbers of children, a wide range of practices, different kinds of control groups, and varying periods of practice, which makes it difficult or impossible to compare or draw conclusions. Many measures rely on self-report—where the children themselves describe the effects they experience—which yields questionable data since children often want to please adult questioners. Sometimes reports come from teachers or parents who, themselves, know about—or even participate in—the programs, another potentially biased source of feedback. And no studies look at the long-term effects of mindfulness practice in kids.

This is not to say there isn’t reason to hope that contemplative practices can benefit children.

There is promising research to show that meditation and yoga can have profound effects on certain groups of children. Among children who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders, or behavior problems in school, both meditation and yoga have been shown to improve anxiety, attention, behavior, and academic performance. Two studies found that yoga practice helped children who suffer from asthma and respiratory problems to breathe better. A study of teens who had high blood pressure showed that practicing transcendental meditation improved their cardiovascular health and even some negative school behaviors like hostility, breaking rules, and absenteeism.

As for research on children in a general school population, a handful of studies on yoga with middle and high school kids hints at some favorable results. In a study where the yoga practice was modified to be developmentally appropriate for fourth- and fifth-graders, the students in the yoga condition had lower stress and better emotional health—less rumination, fewer intrusive thoughts, and lower emotional arousal—than students in the control group. A study with high school students found that the control group who received a physical education training actually got worse over the period of the study, while yoga participants stayed the same on measures of emotional health. In that case, yoga seemed to at least prevent deterioration. But these are small, pilot studies and more work needs to be done.

The few studies on meditation in school children are also hopeful – showing some improvement in social skills – but again contain too few children or too many design and measurement problems to be conclusive. In fact the authors point out that there are no studies of meditationamong children in a general school population that are designed well enough to meet the standards of the gatekeeping organizations—like CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), the Department of Education, or the Society for Prevention Research—that would endorse program changes in schools.

Children are not simply small adults, and they may be affected differently by a contemplative practice. For example, preschool children are just beginning to learn to control their impulses so it would be inappropriate to expect them to be still and focus for extended periods of time. Children’s power to direct their attention in purposeful ways gradually improves over the middle school years well into the late teens, and we don’t yet know how contemplative practices might interact with that arc. Older children, because of cognitive and neurological growth, can be excessively self-conscious and inwardly-focused, and in one study, fourth and fifth grade girls who learned a yoga-based mindfulness program said they experienced more stress as a result of the program. In another study, self-concept improved in fourth and fifth graders who received training in attention and mindful breathing but not among sixth and seventh graders.

We’re a long way from understanding what kinds of practices might benefit children at different ages. Are there unique windows of opportunity, and how long might the benefits last? What are the best adaptations for different ages, how often should the practice occur, and for how long? What is the cost-benefit analysis of program implementation? Greenberg and Harris conclude that well-designed studies that are grounded in developmental theory must answer these questions before such programs can be enthusiastically promoted for school adoption.

Contemplative practices bestow great benefits on adults who practice regularly. It is understandable that enthusiasts wish to offer children the same benefits in hopes of preventing poor mental and emotional habits from developing later and perhaps optimizing well being over their lives.

But let’s all pause—take a breath—and let the evidence come in.