MIT Researchers Make the Strongest Case Yet for Mindfulness in Schools

"It can help kids understand and reframe stress."

If the thought of a classroom filled with middle schoolers sitting cross-legged and chanting "om" makes you instinctively roll your eyes, we've got some news for you: leading mental-health professionals say that such mindfulness techniques could actually help save their lives.

A new study published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience found that meditation sessions can have the same profound effects on the mental health of children as they do on adults. And though the findings are to be expected, they're nonetheless important because they come at a time when the most recent mental-health statistics on America's youth appear more terrifying than ever.

One study, published in May in the journal JAMA, found that suicide rates among those aged 10 to 19 years in the United States had risen by 33 percent between the years 1999 and 2014. And, according to a March report by the American Psychological Association, the rate of teens and tweens with suicidal thoughts increased by 47 percent from 2008 to 2017. In the same report, the researchers found that there was a 52 percent increase in the number of adolescents who reported symptoms consistent with major depression within the same time frame.

Many mental-health professionals believe that there aren't more people experiencing mental illness these days so much as reporting it. But many experts argue that the trend is the result of social media addiction and other new issues associated with growing up in the age of the smartphone. Whatever the case, it's a problem that needs to be addressed.

"Like adults, children are susceptible to stress and distraction," Omri Kleinberger, a mindfulness expert and the founder of the wellness company Ometa, told Best Life. "In fact, kids these days have access to more stimuli than ever, on top of having to deal with developing emotional faculties and mitigating social pressure."

Kleinberger says that engaging in mindfulness can "help kids understand and reframe stress" and "build self-care mechanisms that will make them better aware of the various ways they can respond to negative stimuli."

For the study in Behavioral Neuroscience, a team from MIT placed several sixth-graders from a charter school in Boston into two separate groups for eight weeks. Some of the students took a class on computer coding, while others received mindfulness training designed to help them focus on their breath and concentrate on the present. Those who received the mindfulness training reported lower levels of stress and negative emotions relative to those who spent two months learning how to code. What's more, brain scans of the students trained in mindfulness showed reduced activity in their amygdalas.

"There's a lot of evidence that an overly strong amygdala response to negative things is associated with high stress in early childhood and risk for depression," wrote John Gabrieli, a neuroscientist at MIT and co-author of the study.

While further research on the subject needs to be done, Gabrieli believes this new research suggests that "mindfulness training would be beneficial for children as part of the daily curriculum in their classroom," especially since it needs to be practiced regularly in order to reap the benefits.

"Mindfulness is like going to the gym," he said. "If you go for a month, that's good, but if you stop going, the effects won't last. It's a form of mental exercise that needs to be sustained." And if you're looking to engage in mindfulness yourself, don't miss these 27 Amazing Mental Tricks for When You Don't Want to Pay for Therapy.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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