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Journal of Cognitive Enhancement

, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 84–95 | Cite as

Mindful Schooling: Better Attention Regulation Among Elementary School Children Who Practice Mindfulness as Part of Their School Policy

  • Ricardo Tarrasch
Original Article

Abstract

Mindfulness has been gaining greater support and interest from researchers, clinicians, and educators in the last two decades. However, the effects of mindfulness practice among children are still understudied. Effects of mindfulness practice on self-regulation of attention and emotions were assessed among 242 students in the 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades in a school that has integrated mindfulness practice as part of the school experience, and in a comparison school. Self-regulation of attention was assessed by using CPT and Stroop tasks. Mindfulness levels, anxiety, and affective experience self-reports were also collected. The results indicate that mindfulness practice was associated with earlier development of self-regulation among students in the mindful school, as reflected by a significantly lower proportion of commissions in the CPT task, and a marginally significant higher proportion of correct trials in the Stroop task, at 4th grade in the mindful school as compared to the comparison school. Research regarding early implementation of mindfulness and its effects on developmental trajectories is warranted. The feasibility and efficiency of mindfulness practice as a social emotional learning technique, suggested by this study, warrants further research into the early implementation of mindfulness and its effects on the development of trait mindfulness as part of children’s daily life. Furthermore, we show that mindfulness can be incorporated in significant ways within the public curriculum and does not necessarily have to be some elite practice reserved for children of alternative parents.

Keywords

Mindfulness Children Attention Impulsivity CPT 

One of the most widely accepted definitions of mindfulness nowadays is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn 2003, p. 145). The first part of this definition expresses the idea that mindfulness is an active process; it involves active attention which leads to awareness. The 2nd part highlights the fact that it relates to the present, rather than the past or future. The 3rd part emphasizes non-judgmental attention and accepting, without considering whether the experience in the present moment is good or bad, right or wrong, important or not. Mindfulness involves attending to the external environment, such as sights, sounds, and smells, as well as to internal bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings. In practicing mindfulness, one becomes aware of the current internal and external experiences, observes them carefully, accepts them, and lets them go in order to allow the attending of the next present moment experience (Hooker and Fodor 2008).

Mindfulness is considered a meta-cognitive process (Flavell 1979) and involves attention to distractions, thoughts, and feeling. Accordingly, many studies conducted with adults have shown that mindfulness meditation encompasses various aspects of attention, including reducing proneness to distraction (Moore and Malinowski 2009; Semple et al. 2005; Semple et al. 2010), improving working memory and response inhibition (Chan and Woollacott 2007; Zeidan et al. 2010), boosting self-control (Friese et al. 2012), and increasing emotion regulation (Baer et al. 2004; Brown and Ryan 2003). Furthermore, mindfulness levels were found to be correlated with processing speed, as well as attentional and inhibitory control (Moore and Malinowski 2009).

Examining specific aspects of attention regulation may assist in explaining these effects. For clarity purposes, as there are many taxonomies for attention subtypes (Ellis and Young 1996; Kahneman 1973; Petersen and Posner 2012; Posner and Petersen 1990), we chose to focus on the “Four Functions of Attention model” set by Tsal et al. (2005), an extension of the seminal “Attention Network Model,” set by Posner and Petersen (1990). This model defines four types of attention skills: (a) sustained attention—the ability to allocate attentional resources to a non-attractive task over time while maintaining a constant level of performance; (b) selective attention—the ability to focus attention on a relevant target while ignoring adjacent distracters; (c) orienting of attention—the ability to direct attention towards the visual or auditory field according to sensory input, and to disengage and reorient efficiently; and (d) executive attention—the ability to resolve conflicts of information and/or responses.

Various studies have shown positive effects of mindfulness in these processes. There is evidence that mindfulness training improves executive attention, through monitoring of conflict and inhibition of irrelevant information, as in the Stroop Color-Word Task (Mind and Life Education Research Network (MLERN) 2012; Jensen et al. 2012). Some studies have found improvements in sustained attention following mindfulness interventions via measurements such as the Internal Switching Task (Chambers et al. 2008), the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB) (Flook et al. 2013), the dichotic listening task (Lutz et al. 2009), the visual discrimination task (MacLean et al. 2010), and the Wilkins’ Counting Test (Valentine and Sweet 1999). With continued practice, mindfulness is hypothesized to become routine at the neural and mental levels and, subsequently, to regulate behavior relatively automatically by being highly accessible and available (Mind and Life Education Research Network (MLERN) 2012). For example, studies have found that short-term meditators exhibited increased performance in sustained attention tests and reduced anxiety levels, and that long-term meditators showed even better sustained attentional skills, and lower anxiety levels (Tang et al. 2007; Valentine and Sweet 1999).

In contrast with these promising results, some studies have found no effects of mindfulness training on attentional functions including sustained attention (MacCoon et al. 2014), attention regulation (Jha et al. 2007; Semple 2010), orienting of attention (Tang et al. 2007), and alerting of attention (Jha et al. 2007; Tang et al. 2007). Furthermore, no significant differences between meditators with varying experience in meditation and non-meditators were obtained in executive attention levels (Josefsson and Broberg 2011).

Although there is a growing interest in the effects of mindfulness training, little research has been conducted on the introduction of mindful awareness practices and their effects on attention, emotion, and behavioral regulation in children or adolescents (Semple et al. 2005; Zelazo and Lyons 2011). Since the executive system (including self-regulation of attention, and emotion capacities) develops in childhood, mindfulness training may have different effects or mechanisms among children as compared to adults. Furthermore, different types of mindfulness meditation may be appropriate for different age subgroups in children (Greenberg and Harris 2012). The few studies conducted among children have yielded mixed results. Several researchers have reported that mindfulness training improved selective attention (Napoli et al. 2005; Semple et al. 2010) and executive functions (including behavioral and cognitive regulation; see Flook et al. 2010). These studies included programs such as the Attention Academy Program with 12 bi-monthly training sessions, involving paying attention to the breath, movement activities, and sensory stimulating activities used to facilitate “being in the moment”; mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for children with 12 weekly 90-min sessions, combining mindfulness-based theory and practices with cognitively oriented interventions (no effort is made to restructure or change existing thoughts and emotions); and mindful awareness practices, delivered twice a week over 8 weeks, involving sitting meditation, body scan, activities, and games that promote sensory awareness, attentional regulation, and awareness of other people or the environment.

Contrastingly, others have reported that mindfulness training did not decrease impulsivity among youth (Barnert et al. 2014). The study implemented the Mind Body Awareness Project that included a 7-h retreat and a 10-week meditation training, where participants spent approximately 30 min meditating and 60 min discussing meditation-related concepts. The sessions included mindfulness of the breath, body scan, non-judgmental awareness, walking meditation, mindful eating, and group cohesion activities.

Nonetheless, in addition to attention regulation, mindfulness practice among children has been shown to influence emotion regulation and anxiety (Napoli et al. 2005; Semple 2010; Semple et al. 2005; Wisner et al. 2010), as well as improving well-being, feeling of relaxation, and sleep (Wall 2005). It has been claimed that attention and anxiety are interrelated, and that attention training reduces anxiety, perhaps as a result of improvement in self-focused attention (Fergus et al. 2014). Although the mechanisms that underpin the changes observed after mindfulness interventions are unclear, many researchers agree that meditation practices taught during mindfulness courses cultivate awareness and acceptance, which lower levels of anxiety (Greeson 2009).

Regulation of attention is important, as decreased capacity for regulation of attention and/or emotions might result in decreased self-regulation, which in turn may lead to reduced academic skills, including emergent literacy, vocabulary, and mathematics (Willis and Dinehart 2014). Self-regulation can be conceptualized as (1) the ability to inhibit a behavior despite an impulse to act and (2) the ability to engage in an action despite the desire not to, which involves flexible attention, working memory, and inhibitory control (Willis and Dinehart 2014).

Contemporary psychology is increasingly adopting mindfulness as a method for enhancing awareness and responding skillfully to mental processes that contribute to emotional distress and maladaptive behavior (Bishop et al. 2004), thus promoting self-regulation. In the same vein, schools around the world have begun implementing mindfulness programs as an integral part of the school curriculum, including the “Sfat Hakeshev” (The Mindfulness Language), developed in Israel (Meiklejohn et al. 2012). Programs of this kind include a longstanding practice rather than an “intervention” lasting for a year or two, and hence the term “mindful school.”

This study examines the effects of mindfulness training, using the Sfat Hakeshev program, on impulsivity and self-regulation of emotions and attention (specifically sustained and executive attention), in children with increasing levels of experience in mindfulness meditation. The main hypothesis is that mindfulness affects impulsivity (i.e., lack of self-regulation) in both the emotional and attentional domains. Accordingly, it is hypothesized that children in the mindful school will show lower levels of impulsivity and higher levels of emotion and attention self-regulation, as compared to the comparison school. In addition, according to this hypothesis, the effects of mindfulness will increase as a result of practice, so that beyond the naturally expected improvement as a function of age, children in higher grades in the mindful school (having more experience in mindfulness meditation) will exhibit lower levels of impulsivity as compared to children of the same age in the comparison school.

Method

Participants

Participants were 2nd, 4th, and 6th grade children, in two elementary schools in the same urban area in Israel (N = 242). One hundred thirty-three children from the mindful school (46, 39, and 48 in the 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades, respectively; 60 boys and 73 girls) and 109 from the comparison school (33, 41, and 35 in the 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades, respectively; 68 boys and 41 girls). The distribution of boys and girls significantly differed between the two groups (chi(1) = 7.17, p = .007).

Importantly, reported methylphenidate intake in the mindful and non-mindful schools was marginal (five and nine students reporting the use of methylphenidate, respectively).

The Israeli Ministry of Education publishes a comprehensive status about many aspects of school environment including an assessment, based on students’ reports, regarding feelings of safety, school violence, and students’ perceived feelings of closeness and empathy from teachers. The mindful school and the comparison school in this study were mentioned in comprehensive reports in 2013 (the mindful school) and 2014 (the comparison school) (Israeli Ministery of Education 2013, 2014). Both schools are based in the same socio-demographic area and provide services to the same population (the distance between the schools is 1.1 km/0.7 miles). The schools have similar socio-economic distributions: 8% low, 64% intermediate, and 28% high SES in the mindful school and 4, 64, and 32%, respectively, in the comparison school. To our regret, no historical data is available on performance of the two schools from the time when the program was introduced in the mindful school. Notable differences are evident between the two schools in terms of exposure to violence and teacher–student rapport. The comparison school students reported cases of exposure to violence nearly twofold more than the mindful school students. With respect to teacher–student report, 85% of the mindful school students vs 55% of the comparison school students reported feeling that their teachers care for them.

The Mindfulness Language

The mindful school is a public school (“Tel-Hai” School) located in a low-income area in Tel Aviv, Israel. About 12 years ago, the school principal decided to integrate mindfulness training into the school’s policy. At first, only the teachers practiced mindfulness. After 2 years, a program titled Sfat Hakeshev (The Mindfulness Language) was adopted, and since then has been practiced starting at the 2nd grade, and throughout all grades, once a week for 45 min. The training takes place in front of a full class with its teacher, in a quiet room with mattresses. Each training session includes various mindfulness techniques, such as attention to breathing, attention to sensations or thoughts, and guided imagery. Sessions begin in a supine position, followed by exercises while sitting, then standing, and ending in a relaxed supine position. Sessions are instructed by a trainer with more than 10 years of experience teaching mindfulness. Also, teachers are encouraged to begin their regular lessons with short guided visualizations and many but not all follow these recommendations.

After years of applying a mindful school policy, the school atmosphere has become far less aggressive, and children’s achievements have profoundly improved, as reported several times in the written and TV media in Israel. To our regret, historical data from the ministry of education, from the time before the implementation of the program in the school, is not available.

Research Plan

Since children in the mindful school practice mindfulness as part of their curriculum, conducting a randomized study was not possible. Because of several threats to the internal validity of such a study, the prudent option would be not to perform it. However, because of the exceptionally unique nature of this school, at the international level (Meiklejohn et al. 2012; M. Greenberg, personal communication, March 11, 2015), assessing the cognitive and emotional regulation of children studying in such a setting seems warranted. In order to allow for the best possible comparison, another school located in the same social–economical area was selected.

Comparing between children in both schools could leads to differences which stem from the practice of mindfulness, but also from school climate, or other existing differences between the schools. Therefore, comparing across grades between the two schools may reflect greater exposure and training in mindfulness, and accordingly provide a good estimate of the unique effects of mindfulness training, beyond other differences between the schools.

A quasi-experimental field design was used. Children studying at the 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades were recruited from both schools. Since children in the mindful school are gradually exposed to mindfulness, year after year, it was hypothesized that the cognitive and emotional regulation skills of the two school populations would be similar in the 2nd grade, modestly differ in the 4th grade, and largely differ in the 6th grade.

Data was collected during the month of December, 3 months after the beginning of the academic year. The attention tests were performed between 9:00 and 13:30, in the school’s computer room, and administered to eight children at a time with two experimenters, each in charge of four children. Questionnaires were administered in a separate session in the classroom, to all children of each class together. The questions were read by the experimenter, one after the other, allowing enough time in between for the children to write their adequate answers. Children were asked to raise their hand if they did not understand a question, and further explanations were given.

Measures

Attention Assessment

In order to assess cognitive regulation, we used two computerized attention tasks (for measuring sustained and executive attention) that were developed along with the four functions of attention model, proposed by Tsal et al. (2005). Each attention task was initiated with a short practice block. The length of each task was approximately 12 min. The sustained attention task was administered first.

For sustained attention and impulsivity, we used a Continuous Performance Test (CPT). Participants were presented with a long series of stimuli and instructed to respond to a single reoccurring pre-specified target (a red square), while withholding responses to all other, non-target stimuli. There were four possible shapes (square, circle, triangle, and star) and four possible colors (red, blue, green, and yellow). Once a target appeared on the screen, the participants were instructed to press the spacebar. With the use of a low-rate target stimuli (30%) at varying intervals of 1000, 1500, 2000, or 2500 ms, this task is consistently highly demanding of sustained attention, while minimizing the involvement of other cognitive factors (Shalev et al. 2011; Stern and Shalev 2013). Four measures were calculated from this task: two reflecting sustained attention (standard deviation of reaction time and proportion of omissions [high values indicating low sustained attention]) and two reflecting impulsivity/lack of attention regulation: (proportion of commissions [high proportion = high impulsivity] and average reaction time [low RT = high impulsivity]). Participants with more than 45% omission or commissions were discarded; as such, a large proportion of mistakes reflects either not understanding the aim of the task or performing it with little care.

For executive attention, we used a Location–Direction Stroop-like task (Stroop 1935) with a spatial component. Participants had to respond either to the location or to the direction of an arrow (in different blocks) appearing on the screen, while ignoring the other, incongruent dimension. Half of the stimuli were congruent trials (i.e., the location on the screen and the direction of the arrow matched; an arrow presented below fixation pointing downwards) and half of them were incongruent (i.e., an arrow presented above fixation, pointing downwards). In the first two blocks of the tasks, participants were requested to judge the location of the arrow (relative to the fixation point; if it was presented above the fixation point, they had to press “L,” and if it was presented below, they had to press “A”) while in the last two blocks, they were requested to determine its direction (Tsal et al. 2005). The interference effect in this task reflects the extent to which conflicting irrelevant information is effectively suppressed. The most informative measure in this test is the location of the arrow in incongruent trials, as its direction is the salient feature, considered to be processed in an automatic manner. Therefore, the measure of executive attention was defined as the proportion of correct answers in the location task for incongruent trials. This measure reflects the ability to ignore the interfering information (direction of the arrow) while trying to determine its location.

Separately, for each attention task, and for each child, experimenters conducted behavioral observations, and took two measures: physical and verbal behavior. Physical behavior was rated for unrested behaviors such as legs swinging, stomping or drumming, shifting the chair back and forth, and getting up from the chair. Verbal behavior was rated for talking, laughing, and commenting while performing the task. Rating values were 0, 1, and 2 (lack, moderate, and high levels of physical/verbal behavior, respectively).

Mindfulness Levels

In order to assess mindfulness, we used the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ; Baer et al. 2006). The questionnaire is composed of 39 items, which are based on five factors assessing mindfulness content: observation, description, aware activity, non-judgment, and non-reactivity. Participants were asked to rate their level of agreement with the phrases, on a 1–5-point Likert scale (1—never or almost never, 5—always or almost always). The internal reliabilities of the factors range between 0.81 and 0.87, and the correlations between them are between 0.31 and 0.67 (Baer et al. 2006). For the present study, we translated the questionnaire into Hebrew, using simple language, adapted to children. For this purpose, we prepare two independent forward translations, followed by a reconciled language/adaptation version, and then a backward translation. The last step included changes in the reconciled Hebrew version. The reliability of the full Hebrew questionnaire was 0.76, and the factor reliabilities were 0.63, 0.64, 0.77, 0.71, and 0.66 for the observe, describe, aware, nun-judgmental, and non-reactivity factors, respectively.

Anxiety

We used the trait section of the State-Trait Anxiety in Children (STAIC) (Spielberger et al. 1973) to measure anxiety levels. STAIC is a self-report questionnaire developed to assess state and trait anxiety in children. Twenty short self-statements are rated on a 3-point Likert scale, rating the frequency (hardly ever, sometimes, and often) of several statements (e.g., upset, jittery). The STAIC has established reliability and validity for elementary school-aged children (Platzek 1970). The internal consistency is 0.78 for boys and 0.81 for girls (Walker and Kaufman 1984). Test–retest reliability over an 8-week interval is 0.65 for boys and 0.71 for girls, and converging validity with other questionnaires examining anxiety is between 0.29 and 0.49 (Spielberger et al. 1973). In the present study, the internal consistency reliability was 0.89.

Positive and Negative Affect

To assess affect levels and regulation, we used the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) (Watson et al. 1988). The questionnaire is composed of 20 items assessing positive and negative affects. Participants were asked to rate on a 1–5-point Likert scale how much of the specific affect they had felt in the past month (1—“little or almost never,” 5—“almost always or always”). Internal reliability of the questionnaire is between 0.83 and 0.90 for positive and negative affects. Converging validity correlations are between 0.89 and 0.95 for positive and negative affects (Watson et al. 1988). In the present study, a single scale was calculated averaging the positive with the recoded negative items. The internal reliability of this scale in the present study was 0.77.

Mindfulness was assessed in order to confirm differences in mindfulness levels between the two schools, as a function of mindfulness practice. Anxiety and positive and negative affects were used as measures of emotional regulation.

The study was conducted in accordance with ethical guidelines for human participants at Tel Aviv University and approved by the chief scientist of the Israeli Ministry of Education. Participants’ parents provided signed consent for their children’s participation in the study, and children were told that they could cease their participation in the study at any time. No children participated in the study without parental consent. Parents were given contact information to obtain further details about the study. The numbers of children whose parents did not provide approved consent were four, five, and four in 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades in the mindful school and six, five, and one in the comparison school, respectively. These children were not included among study participants.

Statistical Analyses

Because differences in the proportion of boys and girls between the two groups were observed, data were initially analyzed using three-way analyses of variance with the between-subject factors of gender, school (“mindful” vs control), and grade (2nd, 4th, and 6th), separately for each of the dependent measures. In these analyses, although main effects of gender were obtained (girls exhibited shorter reaction times in the CPT task and higher overall scores in the mindfulness subscales: observe and aware), no significant interactions with gender were observed (all p > .20). Accordingly, for simplicity purposes, data were reanalyzed using two-way analyses of variance with the between-subject factors of school and grade, for each of the dependent measures. Significant effects were followed by Tukey honest significant difference (HSD) tests.

The analyses of physical and verbal reactions while performing the attentional tests were performed using Mann–Whitney U tests comparing between the two schools separately for each grade. Alpha was set at 0.05.

Results

Overall, 15 participants were discarded due to high levels of omissions or commissions, 11 in the comparison school (7 in 2nd and 4 in 4th grade), and 4 in the mindful school (3 in 2nd and 1 in 4th grade). These participants were omitted from all statistical analyses. In addition, 37 children did not answer the questionnaires, 8 in the comparison school (1 in 2nd, 6 in 4th, and 1 in 6th grade), and 29 in the mindful school (3 in 2nd, 4 in 4th, and 12 in 6th grade).

Impulsivity

The analyses of impulsivity and sustained attention were based on 43, 38, and 48 children in 2nd, 4th, and 6th grade in the mindful school and 26, 37, and 35 in the comparison school, respectively.

The analysis for the proportion of commissions yielded a significant main effect of school (F(1221) = 4.86, p = .029, η p 2 = 0.02), a significant main effect of grade (F(2221) = 18.33, p < .001, η p 2 = 0.14), and a significant interaction between school and grade (F(2221) = 4.06, p = .019, η p 2 = 0.04). As can be seen in Fig. 1, Tukey HSD post hoc comparisons revealed that the difference between the schools stems from a lower proportion of commissions at 4th grade in the mindful school as compared to the comparison school (p = .004).
Fig. 1

Interaction between school and grade for the CPT analysis of commissions

The analysis of reaction time yielded a significant main effect of school (F(1221) = 16.72, p < .001, η p 2 = 0.07), a significant main effect of grade (F(2221) = 11.80, p < .001, η p 2 = 0.10), and a significant interaction between school and grade (F(2221) = 3.06, p = .049, η p 2 = 0.03). As can be seen in Fig. 2, Tukey HSD post hoc comparisons revealed that the difference between the schools stems from a higher reaction time at 4th grade in the mindful school as compared to the comparison school (p = .0002).
Fig. 2

Interaction between school and grade for the CPT reaction time

Sustained Attention

The analysis for the standard deviation of reaction time yielded only a significant main effect of grade (F(2221) = 35.68, p < .001, η p 2 = 0.24). As expected, post hoc comparisons revealed a lowering as a function of age in the standard deviation of reaction time (2nd grade mean = 139, std. dev = 45, 4th grade mean = 107, std. dev = 37, 6th grade mean = 90, std. dev = 24; 2nd vs 4th p = .00002, 4th vs 6th p = .005).

The analysis of the proportion of omissions yielded only a significant main effect of grade (F(2221) = 23.78, p < .001, η p 2 = 0.18). Post hoc comparisons revealed a lowering in omissions as a function of age (2nd grade mean = 0.11, std. dev = 0.11, 4th grade mean = 0.05, std. dev = 0.07, 6th grade mean = 0.03, std. dev = 0.04; 2nd vs 4th p = .00002).

Executive Attention

Five participants did not complete this task, three from the mindful school (one from each grade), and two from the comparison school (one from 4th and one from 6th grade). Accordingly, the analysis was based on 42, 37, and 47 children in 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades in the mindful school and 26, 36, and 34 in the comparison school, respectively.

The analysis of the proportion of correct answers in the location task for incongruent trials yielded a significant main effect of school (F(1216) = 6.51, p = .011, η p 2 = 0.03), a significant main effect of grade (F(2216) = 5.79, p = .004, η p 2 = 0.05), and a significant interaction between school and grade (F(2216) = 3.87, p = .022, η p 2 = 0.04). As can be seen in Fig. 3, Tukey HSD post hoc comparisons revealed that the difference between the schools stems from a marginally significant higher proportion of correct trials at 4th grade in the mindful school as compared to the control school (p = .07).
Fig. 3

Interaction between school and grade for the proportion of correct answers in the location task for incongruent trials

Physical and Verbal Behavior

Children from the two schools were compared in terms of their physical and verbal reactions while performing the tests, separately for each class using Mann–Whitney U tests.

At 2nd grade, no differences were obtained (z = −0.324, p = .75, and z = −0.401, p = .69, for physical and verbal reactivity, respectively). At 4th grade, children in the control group were significantly more physical and more verbal as compared to children in the mindful school (z = −3.139, p = .002, and z = −2.269, p = .023, respectively). At 6th grade, children in the control group were significantly more verbal as compared to children in the mindful school (z = −0.051, p = .959, z = −1.991, p = .046, for physical and verbal reactivity, respectively).

Questionnaires

The analyses of the questionnaires were based on 43, 25, and 36 children in 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades in the mindful school and 32, 35, and 34 in the comparison school, respectively.

Mindfulness scale and subscales

Among the children that performed the attention tests, 22 did not attend school at the day of administration of the questionnaires, 10 from the comparison school (6, 2, and 2 from 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades, respectively), and 12 from the mindful school (2, 5, and 5 from 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades, respectively).

The analysis of the overall mindfulness score yielded a significant main effect of school (F(1199) = 6.53, p = .011, η p 2 = 0.03), a significant main effect of grade (F(2199) = 4.66, p = .011, η p 2 = 0.05), and a significant interaction between school and grade (F(2199) = 4.27, p = .015, η p 2 = 0.04). As can be seen in Fig. 4, Tukey HSD post hoc comparisons revealed that the difference between the schools stems from higher mindfulness scores at 6th grade in the “mindful” as compared to the control school (p = .04).
Fig. 4

Interaction between school and grade for the mindfulness score

The results of the ANOVAs for the mindfulness subscales are presented in Table 1. As can be seen, a significant interaction was obtained for the “describe” subscale and an approaching significance interaction for the “non-reactive” scale. Analyses of the results showed a similar pattern to that obtained for the overall mindfulness scale.
Table 1

Results of ANOVA’s performed on mindfulness subscales

Subscale

School F(1199)=

Grade F(2199)=

School × grade F(2199)=

Observe

7.23, p = .008**, η p 2 = 0.04

4.38, p = .014*, η p 2 = 0.04

2.04, p = .133, η p 2 = 0.02

Describe

6.64, p = .011*, η p 2 = 0.03

5.66, p = .004**, η p 2 = 0.05

4.00, p = .020*, η p 2 = 0.04

Aware

0.85, p = .358, η p 2 = 0.00

6.84, p = .001**, η p 2 = 0.06

1.70, p = .185, η p 2 = 0.02

Non-judgmental

0.70, p = .404, η p 2 = 0.00

4.14, p = .017*, η p 2 = 0.04

1.16, p = .316, η p 2 = 0.01

Non-reactive

0.03, p = .956, η p 2 = 0.00

0.46, p = .632, η p 2 = 0.00

2.91, p = .057, η p 2 = 0.03

*p < .05; **p < .01

Anxiety

The analysis of the anxiety score yielded only a significant main effect of grade (F(2199) = 3.40, p = .035). Tukey post hoc comparison revealed a lowering in the anxiety level between 2nd and 6th grades (p = .02).

Positive Feelings

The analysis of positive feelings yielded no significant results.

Discussion

In partial accordance with our hypotheses, we found lower levels of impulsivity in the mindful school, namely, in the 4th grade, and lowering levels of impulsivity as a function of grade, as measured by the proportion of commissions and reaction time in the CPT task. In addition, observed physical and verbal activity while performing the attention tasks among 4th graders and verbal activity among 6th graders were higher in the control school as compared to the mindful school. No significant differences between the schools were found in the 2nd grade.

In accordance with the assumption regarding the direct effects of mindfulness practice, we found higher mindfulness scores in the mindful school and higher mindfulness scores as a function of grade. This difference stems from significantly higher scores among 6th graders in the mindful school. These results suggest that, between the 2nd and 6th grades, mindfulness levels do not rise as a result of age, but of mindfulness training. The change in mindfulness possibly also allowed children to be more attentive to their own feelings and thoughts. Neuroimaging studies have found that mindfulness practice consistently alters gray matter volume in areas related to emotional experience (Fox et al. 2014), and that the volume in such areas is correlated with the interoceptive awareness of emotions (Critchley et al. 2004). Furthermore, individuals exposed to their emotions show a larger tendency to share the emotions of others (Wicker et al. 2003). Perhaps, this potential protective effect of mindfulness training preserves, and later enhances, children’s capacity for emotional understanding and identification with others. One can postulate that this might contribute to the non-violent atmosphere in the mindful school.

As this was a quasi-experimental field study, the lack of randomization precludes the reliable determination whether the mindfulness training was responsible for the evident decreased impulsivity among the 4th graders in the mindful school. Nonetheless, the pattern of increased mindfulness, already observed in the 4th grade, and continuing through the 6th grade, which mirrors the inter-group differences in impulsivity, suggests that the mindfulness training possibly contributed to this difference.

As the percentage of girls in the two schools differed, one possible artifact explaining our results could have been gender; however, the lack of interactions between gender and school and/or class rules out this alternative explanation.

In line with our hypotheses, we found higher levels of executive attention as a function of grade. The analysis of the interaction between school and grade revealed an approaching significant higher level of executive attention, in the 4th grade in the mindful school. It seems that this effect was influenced by a significant initial difference between the schools, as the improvement from 2nd to 4th grade was similar in both schools. In concordance with this observation, higher levels as a function of age were also observed in sustained attention.

In contrast to our hypotheses regarding more emotion regulation, anxiety levels were not lower in the mindful school, and no significant differences were obtained in positive/negative feelings. It may well be possible that the positive effects of mindfulness practice become noticeable only after critical training time has accumulated, as supported by the difference in reported mindfulness between the schools as children reach the 6th grade. The effects on anxiety may manifest at a later stage. This is in line with Saltzman and Goldin (2004), who found that the outcomes of mindfulness training are a function of the amount of formal and/or informal training.

The fact that the levels of distractibility (as reflected by decreased physical and verbal activity during testing) in the mindful school are lower than those of the comparison school in the 4th grade, and to some extent in the 6th grade (less verbal activity), together with lower levels of commissions among the mindful school students, suggests that children in the mindful school mature earlier in terms of impulsivity, reaching impulsivity control levels in the 4th grade which are similar to those of the comparison school children in the 6th grade.

The fact that no differences in the CPT or the Stroop task were obtained in the 6th grade may stem from the fact that impulsivity and executive attention as measured in the present study have a “ceiling effect.” In addition, CPT reaction time was higher in the mindful school in the 4th grade. Taken together, these results may indicate that, following mindfulness practice, children learn to work more slowly but meticulously, changing the trade-off between accuracy and reaction time.

This shift is in attunement with the basic concepts of mindfulness (i.e., paying attention to the present moment, suspending judgment, and enhancing perception). Interestingly, no previous study utilizing a CPT task had demonstrated extended response time concomitant with better accuracy. Thus, this study is the first to demonstrate such a correlation in the context of mindfulness research. Future research is needed in order to further examine this finding.

The fact that no differences were obtained between the schools at 6th grade, when children are already 12 years old, is in accordance with Anderson (2002) who notes that, at this age, children already reach relatively mature levels of executive functions. Furthermore, our results are in line with Flook et al. (2010) who found no significant effects of mindfulness meditation on executive functions of children enrolled in regular education programs aged 7–9, yet also reported that meditation affected children with lower baseline levels of executive functions.

Our present findings suggest that mindfulness may help regulate impulsivity and executive attention, and in turn help children cope with social, emotional, and academic obstacles (Byrne et al. 2013; Schonert-Reichl et al. 2015).

In the mindful school which was the focus of this study, mindfulness meditation is an integral part of the school’s environment, as children start practicing mindfulness in the 2nd grade. This means that by the 6th grade, they reach 5 years of experience in mindfulness practice. The fact that mindfulness levels were shown to rise supports the claim that longer practicing “exposure” leads to higher levels of mindfulness among children. Introducing mindfulness to children at such a young age not only seems feasible but also integrates and facilitates the development of mindfulness as part of children’s daily life.

As mentioned in the “Method” section, the comparison school students reported twice more violence as the mindful school students, and 30% more students in the mindful school reported feeling that their teachers care for them. While other differences might account for the above influential differences between the schools, implementing mindfulness as part of school policy seems to positively influence a more caring and less violent school environment.

Limitations

Our study has several notable methodological limitations. First, the lack of randomization opens several possible explanations for the observed effects. As discussed above, randomization was not feasible as all children in the mindful school practice mindfulness as part of their curriculum. In addition, common policy of elementary schools in Israel is to maintain equality between students. As a result, it is impossible to initiate a study in which, simultaneously, only some of the children will receive mindfulness training and the others will not. An additional shortcoming was that many children were discarded from the analysis because of high levels of errors. In fact, the tests that the children performed are normally administered at the individual level, while in this experiment, because of the large number of participants, the tests were administered in groups of eight children at a time in a computer room. Furthermore, the measures used may have “ceiling effects” not allowing for the demonstration of cognitive effects accompanying the rise of mindfulness levels as a function of training. In addition, the distribution of boys and girls between the groups differed significantly as the mindful school students had a larger share of girls, a circumstance which might also have affected our results. In addition, the fact that children in the mindful school became less impulsive might have been influenced, not only by direct training but also by the more relaxed and school environment. At last, although we used an adapted version of the FFMQ questionnaire, it may not be the most appropriate measure for children. Future studies may benefit from other mindfulness scales such as the Child and Adolescent Mindfulness Measure (CAAM).

Conclusion

Taken together, our findings suggest that mindfulness meditation, practiced as part of school policy, is associated with decreased impulsivity. Accordingly, introducing mindfulness meditation in elementary schools may help children cope with various difficulties related to attention regulation skills and enhance emotional regulation. Longer periods of meditation may lead to more robust effects.

For many children, childhood is not a carefree time. In a materialistic, competitive world, they are subject to many stressors and strains, some of which are underappreciated by adults (Ryan-Wenger et al. 2005).They are bombarded by an information overload of words, images, and sounds (Rideout et al. 2010; Roberts and Foehr 2008). They are also prey to the frustration and anger of others (Aluede et al. 2008; Israeli Ministery of Education 2013, 2014), while still not proficient as adults in regulating their own emotions (McRae et al. 2012; Tottenham et al. 2011). Targets, tests, and exams increase pressure, with many children reporting sleepless nights of worry as they prepare for SATs (Fisher 2006). No wonder so many find concentrating in class difficult and behave impulsively.

Until recently, elementary schools focused mainly on teaching specific knowledge and learning skills in well-defined fields of study (e.g., mathematics, language, geography). Nowadays, a trend of expanding the fields being taught in school is forming, and schools are starting to teach social emotional learning techniques alongside the “classic” subjects (Greenberg and Harris 2012; Wisner et al. 2010). One such technique is mindfulness meditation (CASEL 2013; Greenberg and Harris 2012), and the effects of mindfulness on social skills, emotional regulation, and academic abilities have been previously shown (for a review, see Durlak et al. 2011).

Researchers report that people have a strong interest in mindfulness meditation and enjoy practicing it. For example, in a study with teenagers, most students reported enjoying and benefiting from the mindfulness training, and 74% said they would like to continue with it in the future (Huppert and Johnson 2010). Furthermore, mindfulness training programs are reported to have high completion rates (Baer 2003). The practice of mindfulness for children is similar to that for adults, but with shorter and more concrete exercises (Weare 2013). Several reviews have lately shown its positive results (Black et al. 2009; Burke 2009; Harnett and Dawe 2012; Meiklejohn et al. 2012; Waters et al. 2015; Weare 2013). Schools seem to be ideal settings for introducing mindfulness techniques: the school psychologist or counselor could consult with teachers to design or adapt mindfulness training to be appropriate for each classroom, level, and school setting. Over time, mindfulness training could be incorporated into the curriculum and used throughout the school day. In the mindful school assessed in this study, mindfulness incorporation into school policy seems to have positively influenced school atmosphere in profound ways.

An important contribution of this paper, which adds promise to its results, is the fact that there are hardly any studies of mindful schools. Hence, we do not know much about the effects of mindfulness on children who practice for years. Our study is based on a program that is substantially different from the mindfulness-based intervention (MBI) studies, which constitute most of the research in the field. In many cases, MBI programs report significant problems of sustainability once the program ends. Thus, the rarity of the current school, as opposed to the MBI path, has also to do with the fact that there is always a substantial group of teachers that sustain the meditational culture of the school. It is also important to mention that the mindful school in the present study is not an alternative school: it is a public school that somewhat stands as a beacon in adopting a mindful culture, which transformed it in significant ways. This suggests that mindfulness can be incorporated in significant ways within the public curriculum, and does not necessarily have to be some elite practice reserved for children of alternative parents.

Notes

Acknowledgments

I am enormously grateful to Itay Ricon, who helped in the preparation of the manuscript, and to Einav Ginesin who administered the tests to the children.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Jaime and Joan Constantiner School of Education and Sagol School of NeuroscienceTel Aviv UniversityRamat AvivIsrael

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