‘Mindfulness doesn’t help me,’ says Tyler, a 13-year-old student in a deprived area of southwest England. ‘Some people it helps, some it can make ’em feel worse.’ Gathered around a table in a large, cluttered classroom, five other students nod. Kayleigh cuts in: ‘Sometimes other things help me more. But they don’t listen to us, they just tell us to do mindfulness.’ Sharp, eloquent, indignant, the students explain what does help them when they are stressed or upset: talking to people they trust, being listened to, having fun. To them, mindfulness practices of feet-feeling and belly-breathing feel abstract, irrelevant and counterintuitive. They have many ideas about what their school can do to help them, but it seems like no one is listening.
Over the past decade, schools across Europe and North America have begun teaching mindfulness meditation to their pupils. In these classes, students learn to pay attention to their immediate experience (sensations, thoughts, emotions) with a friendly and nonjudgmental attitude. The goal is to help them develop resilience, improve their attention and self-regulation, and prevent everyday stress spiralling into major psychological problems. Addressing mental health and wellbeing in this way is part of the current ‘therapeutic turn’ in education. In the United Kingdom, a £6.4 million trial is assessing whether school mindfulness training is ‘effective and cost-effective’ for improving mental health in 11- to 14-year-olds.
We are researchers at the intersection between cognitive neuroscience, sociology and education; as such, we investigate the cultural contexts of mindfulness interventions and the subjective experience of young people learning mindfulness at school. Our work has involved interviews with teachers, policymakers, researchers and students, and we have observed numerous lessons of the leading programmes in the United States and the UK. We have found that, while mindfulness improves educational attainment and reduces emotional problems in some young people, for others it has no obvious impact. Worse than that, for some students, mindfulness lessons can fuel disaffection and resentment.