Is the cheery praise for mindfulness based on expert evidence?

Educators, desperate to offset the mental health impacts of COVID on students, are taking up mindfulness programs to address the wellbeing needs of students. But is the cheery praise for mindfulness based on expert evidence?

It’s becoming a staple within Australian education – from preschool to universities. The Smiling Mind Primary School Program, for example, has been rolled out to 445 schools across NSW, including 13 specialist schools, and is gaining increased direct funding support from government.

Many in education – including educators, school leaders and policy-makers – have welcomed mindfulness and are excited about what mindfulness may hold for education. But is enthusiasm for mindfulness  outpacing the evidence in its favour? Do applications of mindfulness in education retain an overly narrow account of what mindfulness is? If we are using mindfulness with young people, what is it best used for?

Can mindfulness deliver on its promise for education, and what do educators really think of it?

While extensive research on the wellbeing benefits of mindfulness has been undertaken, recent, rigorous research on mindfulness for school age children has produced inconclusive findings. Findings just published from the UK’s MYRIAD trial, involving over 8000 young people, failed to show any mental health benefits of mindfulness training over regular SEL teaching. Importantly, very limited work has been done to understand how educators themselves understand and use mindfulness in their work.

 In light of this, the Contemplative Studies Centre at the University of Melbourne is running a national survey of educators (including Early Childhood, Primary, Secondary and Tertiary) to build a robust understanding of educators’ views of, and uses of, mindfulness. The findings will provide an important basis for evidence-informed discussions about what mindfulness might – and might not – be able to achieve in education.

Why definitions, purposes and practitioner understandings matter

Discussions of mindfulness in education rarely pose the question of what mindfulness really is (definition) or what it is actually for (purpose). But these are incredibly important questions to ask, as understandings of mindfulness and approaches to its practice have become highly diverse as they have evolved over time. From its 2,500-year history within Buddhism, contemporary mindfulness practices within education (and beyond) are often reduced to simply a breathing exercise for relaxation purposes. Likewise, meditation has increasingly been positioned as a form of ethically- and politically-neutral attention training to enhance focus and productivity. In the context of these (often highly reductive) transformations, it is necessary to re-ask what mindfulness is, and what value it has for education.

As the authors of the recent MYRIAD findings conclude, contextual and implementation factors – and especially the role of the teacher – may be highly important in moderating the impact of mindfulness-based interventions in education. Whether mindfulness is conceived primarily as a psychological training technique for increasing individual wellbeing, or as inherently embedded in a range of ethical and transformational aims (or some combination of the two) really matters. Educators who come to mindfulness primarily through its secular manifestations – such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or the Mindfulness in Schools Project – are likely to understand, practice and promote mindfulness in a very different way to educators who come to mindfulness through engagement with Buddhism or other contemplative traditions. Educators who see the purpose of mindfulness in terms of psychological training are likely to enact it with their students in a very different way to those who see it as part of a broader philosophical, ethical, and potentially religious process of living. Moreover, just because an educator, or school, is implementing Smiling Mind (or any other pre-packaged Mindfulness-inspired program) it doesn’t follow that their way of thinking or doing mindfulness remains identical to the program curriculum. Educators, as active agents of educational policy, will always implement and adapt programs on the basis of their existing values, commitments and priorities.

Some scholars have become concerned that as mindfulness practices are adapted for use in education, they have become detached from the ethical systems and philosophies that have underpinned them. While it might be possible to retain these richer philosophies behind the practice, experts indicate that this requires adapted procedures and considerable efforts on behalf of the educators, including establishing their own solid personal mindfulness practice. 

The importance of mapping the diversity of mindfulness in education

The point here is not for experts to decide which version of mindfulness is the ‘right’ or ‘real’ one. For educators pursuing brief stress relief and/or relaxation for their students, it may be that a simple breathing exercise is perfectly appropriate. For others interested in students developing emotional balance, compassion or insights into the nature of mind, other more comprehensive notions of mindfulness may be relevant. There is nothing wrong with using different practices for different goals. Ultimately, in different contexts and communities, mindfulness will be defined differently, practised differently, and used toward different goals. But, while these divergent definitions and purposes remain unexamined, and until there is open, clear conversation about this, there is the risk of confusion and misunderstanding as programs are implemented and evaluated.

Correspondingly, the Contemplative Studies Centre is seeking to build a rich, evidence-based picture of Australian educators’ understanding of and engagement with mindfulness in their work, through our national survey. This study is important because, despite the structure, curriculum and intentions of mindfulness programs in education, it is the views, practices and purposes of educators themselves that will ultimately determine the everyday experiences of young people and adults they work with. We invite readers to complete the survey – and to share it with your networks.

So – what do you think mindfulness is? What is it for? And how is it used in your educational setting? Please let us know!

From left: Dr Christopher T. McCaw is a lecturer in education at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, and is Education Fellow at the Contemplative Studies Centre. Ms Winky Lee is a PhD candidate (Educational and Developmental Psychology) at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Associate Professor Nicholas Van Dam is Director of the Contemplative Studies Centre at the University of Melbourne.

Teachers deliver powerful mindfulness programs for students. Now they might need space to strengthen their own minds.

Since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 appeared in Australia in late-January 2020, the country has been through various waves of community infections. Each cresting period has brought with it significant disruptions to the everyday lives of people through movement restrictions, workplace closures, and – not least – school shutdowns. Amidst the ongoing peaks and troughs of the pandemic, it is unsurprising that many young people are feeling anxious. And with good reasons: With tests and exams, family expectations, social pressures, and limited decision-making power, it’s tough enough being a young person without an apocalyptic sci-fi scenario playing out IRL – not to mention being stuck at home through it all! A range of services have thus sprung up to support young people’s wellbeing in these difficult times, many sponsored by Federal and State Government departments of education. And the practice of mindfulness meditation taught through online videos and popular apps like Smiling Mind are among these.

But what about teachers?

Well, aren’t teachers adults who can “fend for themselves”? They have some income (though not enough for the work they do) and some decision-making autonomy to, say, pick up an online fitness class, have their favourite comfort food delivered, or pick up some (18+) drinks to tide them over their woes. Ok, sure. But this fact should not preclude them from consideration and resourcing when it comes to wellbeing initiatives, including mindfulness practices that are tailored to their needs.

Many wellbeing trends that make their way into educational spaces tend to be focused on students. As I’ve mentioned, this is a vital thing given the pressures that they face. However, teachers have often been overlooked in wellbeing plans, except as the ones who will be responsible for the delivery of whatever program is decided to be of use to students (usually by someone who is not a teacher). Until recently, mindfulness in education has not been different. Of the numerous studies done to gauge its uses for enhancing wellbeing in educational contexts – and there have been plenty in the past two decades – only a small fraction has been dedicated to studying its effects on teachers. Thankfully, that is changing.

So then, in a nutshell, what’s mindfulness supposed to do for teachers?

Perhaps I am being a stereotypical academic here, but I find it very difficult to do nutshells. “It depends” is my usual go to. I know this is highly unsatisfying, especially from someone who has recently completed a small book supposedly addressing this very question. But to me, it depends on what teachers feel is at issue in their work and lives, or more specifically, how they frame the problems they face.

For instance, let’s say teachers were to name the main problem they face as stress. Apart from its everyday uses (e.g. “Ikea instructions stress me out”), “stress” is also a clinical term used in health circles to denote the “physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors”. By looking specifically at the ways the body, the brain, and the psyche respond to external pressures, clinically inclined researchers explore treatments that can intervene at these levels to help lessen internal stress responses, hence improving health outcomes. Mindfulness as popularly promoted today tends to draw from research along these lines. For teachers, the relatively small amount of research focusing on how mindfulness practices like meditation can have positive effects on their perceived work-related stress does appear promising.

Yet the question arises: what about those “external stressors”? Sitting still and focusing on my breathing for 10 minutes a day may well reduce cortisol levels in my body and stop unhelpful rumination, but won’t these come up again when the next pile of marking and paperwork floods in, or when I turn up to work at my understaffed childcare centre ravaged by low remuneration rates, or when teachers get hauled up yet again by politicians and the media as scapegoats? Yes, these are likely to bring back the stress. That’s why there is also an emerging tendency in mindfulness research to look at how practices like meditation can not only help to relax stress responses, but also heighten our awareness of social connectedness and the broader forces that try to tear us apart. Often written from the first-person perspectives of teachers themselves – many of whom are women, people of colour, and engaged in social causes – this newer type of writing on mindfulness looks not only at how it helps with personal coping, but also how it could facilitate broader social change to eliminate some of those “external stressors”.

Of course, even with significant personal and social changes, some things will continue to stress us out. Uncertainty, illness, ageing, death, decay, loss – these things loom over us, even without a global pandemic exposing the frailties of our social order to remind us. Life is precarious, try as we might to use power and privilege to temporarily shield ourselves from this fact. And it is to this deeper existential unease that Buddhist thought proposes mindfulness. It is an open secret that Buddhist thought represents the longest running body of work on mindfulness and how to cultivate it through meditative practices, much as clinically oriented mindfulness researchers and promoters may try to dissociate from this history. No doubt such “secularising” efforts have made mindfulness practices more appealing to wider audiences beyond any requirement to subscribe to Buddhism. This isn’t a bad thing per se. But it would be a shame for teachers (and people in general) to lose sight of how mindfulness can help unknot the suffering tied up with those unavoidable aspects of life – plus offer guidelines on how not to be a jerk while we work things out mindfully.

What is mindfulness supposed to do for teachers? It it depends on what you think the problem is. Perhaps an easier question might be: can mindfulness help teachers to work and live better? In different ways, I believe it can.

Remy Y.S. Low is Lecturer in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney, Australia. He is also a recipient of the University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Early Career Teaching for his use of contemplative pedagogies (including mindfulness) in teacher education.