The effects of mindfulness on schoolchildren

A multidisciplinary team from Bordeaux has recently published the results of the first French study on the effects of mindfulness meditation on primary schoolchildren. The study coordinator, Grégory Michel, professor of clinical psychology and psychopathology at the University of Bordeaux and a researcher at the French Institute of Criminal and Legal Sciences, gives an overview of the findings.

  • 11/07/2019

© Andrey / Fotolia © Andrey / Fotolia

Over the past few years, meditation has been popularized by the media; it has travelled through the walls of Buddhist temples and reached out to both the public and private spheres. The form of meditation known as “mindfulness” was launched in the 1980s by the American doctor Jon Kabat-Zinn and its secular, pared-down approach has given it a wide appeal.

This form of meditation is scientifically recognized and used in 250 hospitals and clinics all over the world. It involves discovering self-awareness as well as awareness of your body, your feelings, your breathing, and other people,with the goal of understanding and living in the present moment, whether it is positive or negative.

The University of Bordeaux has recently published the results of the first French study on the effects of mindfulness on academic success and schoolchildren’s well-being. The study was carried out in partnership with the Bordeaux Population Health Center (BPH- Inserm and University of Bordeaux research unit), the French Institute of Criminal and Legal Sciences (ISCJ) and the Enfance et attention (childhood and awareness) association.

Over 8 weeks, children aged 4-11 were introduced to Eline Snel’s “Sitting Still Like a Frog” (Calme et attentif comme une grenouille: l’attention ça marche !) method.The study assessed the sessions dispensed in class by a trained instructor, with the aim of studying the children’s behavior and interactions in class as well as how their concentration and learning abilities progressed.

Eline Snel method

How did mindfulness come to be the subject of the study and how did you put the research team together?

Grégory Michel

Grégory Michel: After studying high-risk, violent behavior and mental health problems for over 20 years, I wanted to turn my research in a more interventional direction by developing programs for children prior to their behavioral difficulties. Therefore, from a translational research perspective, we wanted to establish an early prevention program by adopting a positive approach towards health. This tends to develop skills, positive experiences and protective factors rather than just reducing vulnerability factors.

Since I have been familiar with meditation techniques for over thirty years, I wanted to work on a program based on the practice of mindfulness. We chose a program based on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction(MBSR) which was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts. We used Eline Snel’s program “Sitting Still Like a Frog”, which was developed for children over the age of 4.

The team was made up of students and postdoctoral fellows specialized in clinical psychology and psychoepidemiology, research engineers, and researchers from the University of Santa-Barbara. We worked with the “Enfance et attention”association which allowed us to work in several schools in France and Belgium.

What are the initial findings?

G.M.: Our study allowed us to collect a large amount of data from over 300 children, as well as from their parents and teachers. Although our statistical analyses are not yet finished, we have highlighted first and foremost that for all of our students, from those in their second year (ages 4-5) up until fifth grade (ages 10- 11), 8 weeks of mindfulness intervention has had a positive effect on emotional problems such as anxiety, stress and negative emotions. 

However, the results are particularly significant when we look at the effects on children that had strong emotional and behavioral difficulties before the intervention. For example, these children, mostly 6-9 years old, manage to become more attentive and improve their relationships with their friends. When they’re old enough to answer questions (9-10 years old), children also report higher physical, psychological, familial and academic well-being, as well as a greater propensity for happiness and a significant decrease in anxiety.

We also observe that our work seems to demonstrate that mindfulness is more effective for children between the ages of 6 and 8 years old and that it has a greater impact on their emotional and psychological well-being.

The studies’ positive outcomes having been proved, are the results resonating with public authorities?

G.M.: Interest in children’s well-being is important, in terms of both health and academic success. Good health, with the acquisition of psychological resources which can confront adversity and life’s trials and tribulations, is an important resource for both human development and good economic development in society… With this in mind, French public authorities are beginning to take an interest in the positive effects of meditation on students.

For example, this spring, an initial meeting was held with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. More recently, in June we were part of a hearing conducted at the National Assembly by the Health at School working group. There, along with the Mindfulness France Initiative, we presented the initial findings of our study in order to demonstrate the effects that mindfulness has on students. We hope that this is the first stage of the development of a new approach to promoting health and learning amongst young people, which could be part of a strategy that reduces social inequalities in health and academic achievement.

Mindfulness comes from the Sanskrit word Smrti which means “memory”, “awareness” and “attention” all at once.