Committee for Children Blog

How Can Mindfulness Benefit Students?

Dr. Cailin Currie, a developmental psychologist and senior research scientist at Committee for Children

This fall, the Second Step® Elementary digital program will be updated to include optional access to a library of mindfulness sessions. We sat down with Dr. Cailin Currie, a developmental psychologist and senior research scientist at Committee for Children, to talk about this new resource and its potential classroom benefits.

Dr. Currie, thank you for offering your perspective to educators who want to learn more about these mindfulness sessions and how they can benefit students. Let’s start by finding out more about you. What is your background and experience with social-emotional learning (SEL) and mindfulness?

I’m so excited about making these mindfulness sessions available, and happy to offer information educators may find helpful. I began studying mindfulness while working on my doctorate in developmental psychology. I was intrigued that something as simple as tuning into what’s happening in and around you with compassion and curiosity could be an effective way to treat clinical disorders, combat teacher burn-out, and increase student emotional and attentional control.1, 2, 3, 4  

Why is adding mindfulness to the Second Step Elementary digital program significant?

Mindfulness-based programs have become increasingly popular in schools as a way to support key mental-health, well-being, and cognitive outcomes for students and teachers.5, 6, 7 The Second Step Elementary digital program is designed to provide research-based SEL direct instruction and skill practice. The new mindfulness sessions can be used as a supplemental resource to enrich the program: educators can choose which mindfulness sessions to use and when to offer them, such as to help start the day, refocus the class, practice kindness or gratitude, or help students feel calm.   

Can you tell us more about the mindfulness sessions library that educators will be accessing?

This resource is a library of Mind Yeti® mindfulness sessions. The sessions follow a character called Yeti as he learns to focus, calm his thoughts, and prepare to learn. The Mind Yeti product was developed by the Innovation Team at Committee for Children. Educators can visit this page to view some sample Mind Yeti videos.

Before we talk about the research behind mindfulness practices, let’s take a step back and define what mindfulness is. 

Mindfulness is intentionally paying attention to the present moment with kindness and curiosity.8, 9 It can be developed by practicing moment-to-moment awareness of our sensations, emotions, and what’s going on around us, and accepting them without judgment and without trying to change them.10

It’s important to understand that mindfulness is an experience, not a lesson. In the moment, mindfulness can help us pause and reflect on our current experience from a higher vantage point, allowing us to better connect our physical, emotional, cognitive, and social experiences and react deliberately and thoughtfully instead of reflexively.9

What do we know from research about the value of mindfulness for students?

The gains in popularity of mindfulness-based programs are well-deserved. Research suggests participating in mindfulness practices and programs can help students increase their attention, self-regulation, and mental processing skills.11 Elementary students who participated in weekly mindfulness sessions had decreased levels of impulsivity and increased levels of attention.12 Research shows how mindfulness programs can help decrease student stress and emotional problems and increase resilience, so incorporating mindfulness into the classroom can be a valuable addition.6 This is especially true given that pandemic-related declines in child mental health have reached endemic levels.13 Overall, research suggests that school-based mindfulness can be an effective approach to supporting student success.  

How do mindfulness practices and SEL work together? 

They are complementary. Like SEL programs, mindfulness-based programs can also improve students’ emotion regulation, executive function, and academic performance, as well as decrease emotional problems such as anxiety.14, 6 Yet while mindfulness and SEL aim to support many of the same key student competencies, they do so in different ways. SEL lessons teach students specific skills that students then need to internalize (a process that goes from the outside in), while mindfulness starts with students’ inner experiences and helps them connect those experiences to what’s happening around them (a process that starts inward and moves out).15  

These different approaches to achieving student well-being and success can be mutually reenforcing, as both approaches teach students how to remain self-aware and in control so they can thoughtfully manage their attention, emotions, and behaviors to make responsible decisions when faced with challenges. In fact, SEL programs that include mindfulness components have been shown to be especially effective at increasing students’ emotion regulation, attention skills, perspective-taking, prosocial (behavior that helps others) goals, and optimism.10 When combined with the social-emotional knowledge and skills learned in the Second Step Elementary digital program, Mind Yeti sessions can contribute to increases in students’ prosocial behavior and executive-function skills, such as self-control.16, 17  

Do you have any personal observations about the value of mindfulness sessions in classroom settings?

For me, practicing mindfulness helps me stop over-identifying with how I’m feeling (for instance, “I am angry”) and gives me the space I need to better understand what and why I’m feeling before I respond (for instance, “I feel frustrated and hurt because I interpreted her comment as dismissive of my hard work. Why else might I feel so upset? What else might she have meant?”).

In my work in classrooms this year, many teachers have said they feel students are coming to school less prepared to manage and discuss their emotions and less able to manage their behavior, both of which can translate to students being less ready to learn. This could stem from pandemic-related schooling interruptions or the recent increases in youth mental health challenges.18 We want to offer teachers as many ways as we can to help their students develop the skills they need to be successful inside and outside the classroom, and Mind Yeti sessions are part of this effort. Our initial investigations with educators and students suggest that teachers found it easy to adopt Mind Yeti sessions into their SEL practices, and students reported the sessions taught them new ways to feel calm and slow down.16 It’s this kind of feedback, along with compelling research, that makes me so excited about giving educators this tool.

Are there other resources you’d recommend on this topic?

This article, co-written by Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) Senior Program Advisor Linda Lantieri, does a good job of describing how the outside-in approach of SEL works together with the inside-out approach of mindfulness. Educators who are curious about research and impact as foundational to Committee for Children and its Second Step programs can learn more here.


References

1. Creswell, J. D. (2017). Mindfulness interventions. Annual Review of Psychology68(1), 491–516. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-042716-051139

2. Luken, M., & Sammons, A. (2016). Systematic review of mindfulness practice for reducing job burnout. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy70(2), 7002250020p1–7002250020p10. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2016.016956

3. Carsley, D., Khoury, B., & Heath, N. L. (2018). Effectiveness of mindfulness interventions for mental health in schools: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Mindfulness9(3), 693–707. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0839-2

4. Felver, J. C., Celis-de Hoyos, C. E., Tezanos, K., & Singh, N. N. (2016). A systematic review of mindfulness-based interventions for youth in school settings. Mindfulness, 7(1), 34–45. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-015-0389-4

5. Emerson, L. M., Leyland, A., Hudson, K., Rowse, G., Hanley, P., & Hugh-Jones, S. (2017). Teaching mindfulness to teachers: A systematic review and narrative synthesis. Mindfulness, 8(5), 1136–1149. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0691-4

6. Zenner, C., Herrnleben-Kurz, S., & Walach, H. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions in schools—A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, Article 603. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00603

7. Zoogman, S., Goldberg, S. B., Hoyt, W. T., & Miller, L. (2015). Mindfulness interventions with youth: A meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 6(2), 290–302. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-013-0260-4

8. Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144–156. https://doi.org/10.1093/clipsy.bpg016

9. Roeser, R. W., & Zelazo, P. D. (2012). Contemplative science, education and child development: Introduction to the special section. Child Development Perspectives, 6(2), 143–145. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1750-8606.2012.00242.x

10. Maloney, J., Lawlor, M.S., Schonert-Reichl, K.A., & Whitehead, J. (2016). A mindfulness-based social and emotional learning curriculum for school-aged children: The MindUP program. In K. A. Schonert-Reichl & R. W. Roeser (Eds.), Handbook of mindfulness in education (pp. 313–334). Springer.

11. O’Toole, C., Furlong, M., McGilloway, S., & Bjørndal, A. (2017). Preschool and school‐based mindfulness programmes for improving mental health and cognitive functioning in young people aged 3 to 18 years. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2017(1). 
https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD012518

12. Tarrasch, R. (2018). The effects of mindfulness practice on attentional functions among primary school children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27, 2632–2642. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-018-1073-9

13. Shim, R., Szilagyi, M., & Perrin, J. M. (2022). Epidemic rates of child and adolescent mental health disorders require an urgent response. Pediatrics149(5), e2022056611. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2022-056611

14. Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: a meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01564.x

15. Lantieri, L., & Zakrzewski, V. (2015, April 7). How SEL and mindfulness can work together. Greater good magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_social_emotional_learning_and_mindfulness_can_work_together

16. Mihic, J. (2020). Effectiveness of Mind Yeti in preventing behavioral problems of students in elementary schools [Unpublished manuscript]. Faculty of Education and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Zagreb.

17. Ritter, A., & Alvarez, I. (2020). Mindfulness and executive functions: Making the case for elementary school practice. European Journal of Investigation in Health, Psychology and Education, 10(1), 544–553; https://doi.org/10.3390/ejihpe10010039

18. Lebrun-Harris, L. A., Ghandour, R. M., Kogan, M. D., & Warren, M. D. (2022). Five-year trends in US children’s health and well-being, 2016-2020. JAMA Pediatrics, 176(7), e220056. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.0056