As anyone who has spent time in public school knows, the mental health of students is alarmingly poor and the efforts of faculty to curb this problem have historically been even worse. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one in five children in America have anxiety, and the nonprofit Child Trends claims that “almost half experience at least one serious stressor at home — like divorce, poverty or a parent’s addiction.” In response to this crisis, many school systems are attempting to change how they respond to unruly, anxious and depressed students, using mindfulness principles to help children center and calm themselves. While these techniques show great potential to improve the lives of many students, it is important to note the limitations of these methods and the demographics that are less likely to see improvements.
Mindfulness is a general term that encompasses activities aiming to promote awareness, compassion and presence through mental exercises such as focusing on the breath or the senses. It is inspired by religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, but is secularized in the mainstream context.
Some schools that have integrated these techniques have achieved overwhelmingly positive results. Warner Arts Magnet Elementary School, a high-poverty school in Nashville, Tennessee sends disruptive kids to the “BeWell” room where they can center themselves through meditative activities and focus on self-care. The institution’s mindfulness program also includes one-on-one sessions, yoga classes and classroom support. According to Principal Ricki Gibbs, behavior referrals have decreased by 80% compared to last year.
However, critics note that the only clinical research that has clearly demonstrated the consistent efficacy of mindfulness programs focuses on curricula that requires extensive participation and intensive, regimented sessions. According to Erica Sibinga, a professor of pediatrics at John Hopkins School of Medicine, mindfulness can be beneficial when presented “in a highly structured program … [but] we can’t immediately assume it’s effective when delivered in other ways”. In addition, some companies are taking advantage of the mindfulness trend by selling videos and audio tracks that are supposed to promote mindfulness in children even though they supposedly only need to be played for five minutes a day.
Skeptics also point out that mindfulness has historically been associated with more affluent, white communities. As mindfulness programs spread across the country, it is important to make deliberate strides so that these resources are available to all communities, especially poorer regions where children often face trauma and may only receive therapy through public resources such as their school. Efforts to promote “equitable mindfulness” are already under way via organizations such as the Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience and Arizona State University, but these initiatives need as much support as they can get to break down the walls of deep-rooted socioeconomic division.
In addition, while mindfulness may prove to be a useful tool to promote student health when practiced in line with clinical research, it is important to recognize its limitations. Statistics from schools across the country show that black and Hispanic students tend to be disciplined more harshly and more often in their classes. This can partially be explained by subconscious (or conscious) biasers from teachers, which can cause a student to feel stuck and continue to lash out. Trying to center these kids with breathing exercises will do nothing to fix this underlying problem.
It is also important to ensure that, should these resources be made available, there be no associated stigma. Students should not feel judged by their peers or their teachers for reaching out. Childhood and adolescence can be a difficult time when a student is suffering from a mental health condition but does not want to be seen as different or weird. If mindfulness resources are not normalized, they will not serve the very communities that could benefit most from them. By the same token, it is also important they are not viewed as a foolproof cure for mental illness. Mental disorders such as anxiety, depression and ADHD often require more intense therapy and medication to manage. If students and teachers believe that mindfulness alone will improve these conditions, they will only be left with disappointment.
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Katherine Lee is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.