The Mindful Educator

Exploring the current data on mindfulness in the classroom

Posted Jan 28, 2015

Mindfulness is everywhere. From the halls of academia to the cover of Time magazine to the self-help section at Barnes and Noble.  

Earlier this month, professor of English and writer James M. Lang published a blog post for the Chronicle of Higher Education called Waiting for Us to Notice Them. This blog post extolled the virtues of applying mindfulness in one's daily life, but also issued a call to arms for educators to be more present in the classroom, to truly engage with one's students in authentic moments of connection - something he called a pedagogy of presence. He asks, "while we stand up at the front talking, are students sitting out there in the seats, waiting for us to notice them and to step into their presence?"

I found this idea intruiging. Judging by the response in the comments and on Twitter, so did many others. But as a social scientist, my next question is: what do the data say? Does mindfulness improve teaching effectiveness?

What is mindfulness?

Clinical psychologist and founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) classes Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). 

I believe part of the mindful revolution—if you can call a resurgence of practices that can be traced back to the 4th century BCE a “revolution”—is that the doctrines of these age-old practices seem a natural antidote to the kinds of frenzied, technologically-aided multitasking we are worried might be frying our brains*. Imagine turning off your best friend texting you for relationship advice, your next-door neighbor hitting you up on Facebook to support her child’s fundraiser, and the sixty emails that have swarmed in over the time you’ve taken to read this blog post and just … being. In the present moment. Feeling your breath cycle in and out of your chest in rhythmic waves. Letting the “I should be…”s and “I should have….”s float through your mind and then releasing them without judgment or feeling their stickiness.  Actually smelling the heady aroma of your coffee as you bring the warm cup slowly to your lips. Actually hearing the crackle of the fire in fireplace next to you. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? 

Mindfulness classes typically train people to regularly enter a state of mindfulness through a variety of practices including body scans and yoga, focus on the breath as a means of continually returning attention to the present moment, and accepting and then letting go any self-judgmental thoughts. 

What evidence is there that mindful pedagogy is effective? 

Turns out, there actually isn't a whole lot of data on whether training teachers in mindful practices might inform their ability to lead meaningful classes. Perhaps not surprisingly, since this research is so new, most of the studies have focused on elementary and secondary education rather than higher education. After all, one can imagine that the stress-reduction piece of mindfulness-based stress reduction would be a few orders of magnitude more relevant in classrooms where you can’t rely on your students to refrain from throwing spitballs or pulling each other’s hair.

For instance, Associate Professor Maria Napoli and colleagues studied three elementary school teachers trained in mindfulness over a year’s time. The teachers reported that the mindfulness training helped them to be present in the classroom; to focus their curriculum planning around decisions of quality and core ideas rather than quantity; and to manage conflict in a peaceful and less stressed manner. In a similar design, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Health Behavior Nirbhay Singh and colleagues enrolled three preschool teachers in an MBSR class and found that compared to the pre-study baseline, the children in these teachers’ classrooms exhibited reductions in maladaptive behaviors such as challenging the teacher and engaging in negative social interactions. Putting these two studies together, it appears that training teachers in mindfulness can yield benefits for the teachers, benefits for classroom planning, and benefits in student behavior.

While certainly interesting, both of these studies only examined a few teachers and neither used a control group for comparison, so it is difficult to interpret their results too strongly. In a much more controlled study, Lisa Flook and colleagues at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds adapted an MBSR course specifically for teachers by changing the format slightly and including specific activities and practices related to school. They used a waitlist control design, in which half of the participants were studied while they waited to enroll in the MBSR class and half were studied during training. The behaviors they studied included cortisol levels (a hormone known to be implicated in the stress response), ratings of psychological distress and burnout, responses on computerized tasks assessing emotion and cognition, and most importantly for our purposes, classroom behaviors. These behaviors were coded by trained coders blind to the study’s hypotheses and the teacher’s condition (current mindfulness or waitlist control). These classroom behaviors included emotional support (negative or positive climate in the classroom, teacher sensitivity to students, teacher respect for diverse perspectives), classroom organization (behavior management, classroom productivity, and instructional format), and instructional support (teacher assistance with problem solving, quality of feedback, etc.).

The results were compelling. They indicated significant changes in the MBSR group in psychological symptoms, self-compassion, and burnout. They also exhibited lower biases in attention toward emotion and improvements in classroom organization. In sum, teachers were feeling emotionally better, more satisfied with their work, better able to manage their attention to emotional matters, and conducted better classes.

Thus, the data are early but extremely promising. There are many open questions and avenues for future research, but for the moment, entering into a pedagogy of presence seems as valuable as reading up on the latest tips and tricks of the educational trade - and may result in a more meaningful experience for you as well.

* Our brains are probably going to be ok.

References/Further Reading

Bush, M. (2011). Mindfulness in higher education. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(1), 183–197. doi:10.1080/14639947.2011.564838

Flook, L., Goldberg, S. B., Pinger, L., Bonus, K., & Davidson, R. J. (2013). Mindfulness for teachers: A pilot study to assess effects on stress, burnout, and teaching efficacy. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(3), 182–195. doi:10.1111/mbe.12026

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress. Delacorte, NY: Delta.

Napoli, M. (2004). Mindfulness training for teachers: A pilot program. Complementary Health Practice Review, 9(1), 31–42. doi:10.1177/1076167503253435

Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Winton, A. S. W., Karazsia, B. T., & Singh, J. (2013). Mindfulness training for teachers changes the behavior of their preschool students. Research in Human Development, 10(3), 211–233. doi:10.1080/15427609.2013.818484

Note: I also share some of these same (and more elaborate) thoughts in my upcoming book on applying affective science principles to the higher education classroom, due out in 2016 by the West Virginia University Press.

Another note: If you have or know of new data of mindfulness and teaching effectiveness, please send it my way!