August.1.2022

Is the cheery praise for mindfulness based on expert evidence?

By Christopher T. McCaw, Winky Lee and Nicholas Van Dam

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.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

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