Teenagers struggling through this summer’s exam season take note – the secret to academic success could be achieving inner peace.
A new study from three leading universities has revealed the benefits of teaching “mindfulness” in schools, providing the first evidence that mental exercises akin to Buddhist meditation improve children’s attention spans, lower their stress levels and contribute to better exam performance.
More than 250 pupils at six schools, aged 12 to 16, were given a nine-week course in mindfulness, which included breathing exercises, “striking visuals” and “film clips” all aimed at allowing them to train their minds to control their own thought processes.
After being followed up during the summer exam period, the pupils displayed “fewer depressive symptoms, lower stress and greater wellbeing” than a control group who did not receive the special lessons, the study’s authors said.
“What we’re teaching is the ability to have better attention and to be able to deploy that attention in ways that are useful emotionally, academically and socially,” said Professor Willem Kuyken from the University of Exeter. “It’s like going to the gym and doing reps with the arms and seeing the arms getting stronger, but instead you’re using meditative practices to train the mind to better hold the attention on an object you want to hold it on.”
One technique sees pupils trained to see thoughts as buses that they can choose to get on to or not: rejecting negative thoughts and holding on to useful ones.
“If a young person is sitting outside an exam hall 10 minutes before an exam and gets preoccupied with thoughts like ‘I’ve not revised enough, I’m going to fail,’ mindfulness training can train them to see their mind creating these thoughts, to step back and to choose not to put more fuel on the fire,” Professor Kuyken said.
The lessons are already being used in several schools around the UK, under the auspices of the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP), which took part in the study. Academics from Oxford and Cambridge were also involved.
Eighty per cent of the young people in the study said that they continued using practices taught in MiSP’s mindfulness curriculum after completing the programme. Teachers also rated the curriculum as worthwhile and very enjoyable to learn and teach, the study’s authors said.
Mindfulness practitioners say that although the techniques have roots in ancient Eastern meditation, the programme had no spiritual content and was focused on improving attention.
Dominic Morris, a modern foreign languages teacher at Bethnal Green Academy, which offers mindfulness lessons, said: “It’s largely about giving them something to deploy – to centre themselves, calm themselves and to respond to situations, rather than simply reacting. There is a whole field of human experience besides the realm of thought which schools are not introducing to our students.”