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Mindfulness and the fourth- and fifth-grade brain

Maths Homework

As a parent, this Time headline immediately grabbed my attention: “Mindfulness Exercises Improve Kids Math Scores." But as I read the article, I learned that math scores were just one facet examined by the researchers and that mindfulness training was also shown to help children be less stressed and more caring.

The study, which was published in this month's issue of Developmental Psychology, looked at a group of 99 fourth and fifth graders in British Columbia. For four months, half of the students were taught a pre-existing “personal responsibility” curriculum, while the rest learned about mindfulness through a program called MindUP that focuses on breathing exercises, mindful smelling and eating, and gratitude. The researchers then looked at cortisol levels, behavioral assessments, self-reports, along with those math scores. The article describes the results in more detail:

The results were dramatic. “I really did not anticipate that we would have so many positive findings across all the multiple levels we looked at,” says study co-author Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl, a developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia. “I was very surprised,” she says—especially considering that the intervention took place at the end of the year, notoriously the worst time for students’ self-control.

Compared to the kids in the social responsibility program, children with the mindful intervention had 15% better math scores, showed 24% more social behaviors, were 24% less aggressive and perceived themselves as 20% more prosocial. They outperformed their peers in cognitive control, stress levels, emotional control, optimism, empathy, mindfulness and aggression.

What caught my attention was the impact the program had on cognitive and emotional control and stress levels. Congitive control (or executive control) is the term psychologists use for control of cognitive functions like working memory, problem solving, reasoning and planning. Executive control is what allows students to concentrate on not-so-fun tasks like doing homework, or delaying eating a sweet treat (what the famous Stanford Marshmallow test measured). Moreover, the kids were calmer in the classroom.

The results made me wonder, what’s really going on with these kids? Is the mindfulness training helping them concentrate more in class? Were the breathing exercises making them calm enough to pay attention to the teachers? Were the kids just better behaved after the breathing exercises? A 15 percent improvement in math scores is nothing to sneeze at, but would researchers see similar increases in vocabulary building and reading comprehension if they measured those things as well? What would the effects be on kids who have been diagnosed with conditions like ADHD?

We're really only beginning to understand how mindfulness training can influence brains of all ages, and it will take more studies to learn more and to answer my questions. I hope other researchers will follow up on this study's intriguing results.

Previously: Mindfulness training may ease depression and improve sleep for both caregivers and patientsUsing mindfulness-based programs to reduce stress and promote healthHow mindfulness-based therapies can improve attention and health, and Stanford researchers to study effectiveness of yoga-based wellness program at local schools
Photo by Michael

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