Similar research is getting underway in the United States. Susan Smalley, a geneticist and the director of the new Mindful Awareness Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, has found that a modified version of MBSR can help teenagers with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) by reducing their anxiety and increasing their ability to focus. She is continuing to work with ADHD teens, but her encouraging results have prompted her to wonder if MBSR might help other groups of children particularly preschoolers, who must learn to regulate their emotions and behaviors to be successful throughout school. She contacted Kaiser and together they launched a program with children attending a preschool run by UCLA. They adapted a version of Kaiser’s curriculum to see if it could be taught to such young kids; their results so far indicate that it can. Now they’re embarking on a series of studies over the next year that will compare a control group to the UCLA preschoolers, as well as to second and fourth graders at Toluca Lake.
“We want to find out if mindfulness can help children over their entire lifespan, and if it might help inoculate them against psychological problems later in life,” says Smalley.
Patricia Jennings, a researcher at the Garrison Institute, finds much of this research encouraging but says more work is necessary to prove the effectiveness of mindfulness programs. In particular, she hopes studies will focus on specific components of these programs and control for other factors that might be operating on the kids. This will give researchers and practitioners a better sense of which aspects of the programs have the most positive effects on children. “If we found something, like breath awareness, that is effective at reducing stress and requires very little in terms of teacher training or cost, we would have a lot easier time getting it into school curricula,” she says.
Despite these concerns, teachers have encountered little resistance to introducing mindfulness to their students, and they report generally positive results. Though some expressed initial concern about how parents might react to the programs which, after all, grew out of spiritual traditions practitioners and researchers say they have successfully removed mindfulness from any religious context. I don’t even like to use the word Meditation when I talk about Mindfulness, since it has religious connotations for some, says Smalley. The programs we are studying are about stress reduction and increasing awareness and are totally secular.
Still, there’s likely to be controversy around these programs as they expand, says Goldie Hawn. “There will always be people who see this as scary, or as some kind of Eastern philosophy that they don’t want for their kids,” she says.
But, she adds, most people find research results convincing, and she believes research will eventually show that mindfulness helps kids in much the same way it’s already been shown to help adults. “Mindfulness gives kids a tool for understanding how their brain works, for having more self-control,” says Hawn. “If we know it also has the potential to decrease stress, decrease depression, and increase health and happiness like the research on adults shows wouldn’t it be selfish to withhold it from children?”
At Toluca Lake Elementary School, the students make their own arguments in favor of mindfulness. “Last week, I made a picture of a heart to give to a special friend of mine, but my little brother ripped it up. I was really mad at him,” says Emily, of Daniel Murphy’s second grade class. She pauses a moment before adding, “Breathing helped me to calm my anger. I realized, Hey, I can just do it over again.’ I never would have thought like that if I hadn’t taken the class.”
— Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good’s book review editor and a freelance writer. Copyright Greater Good. Greater Good Magazine, based at UC-Berkeley, is a quarterly magazine that highlights ground breaking scientific research into the roots of compassion and altruism.