Effects of Mindfulness Instruction on Children’s Cognitive and Behavioral Readiness for Learning (Grantee Research Outcome)

By Kathryn Eaton

    Effects of Mindfulness Instruction on Children’s Cognitive and Behavioral Readiness for Learning (Grantee Research Outcome)

    About the Practitioner-Researcher

    Kathryn Eaton
    Teacher
    Spring Valley, CA
    Kathryn Eaton

    I realized my lifelong dream of becoming a teacher in 2008 when I earned my teaching credential at Sonoma State University. I have taught in various capacities, ranging from substitute teaching, adult education in the medical field, teaching Chinese students English remotely, and being a classroom teacher in Grades EAK (Early Admission Kindergarten), 1, 5 and 6. I have worked diligently to create, model, and nurture a culture of respect and responsibility in my classroom. I appreciate the value of respect and responsibility to foster an effective and supportive learning environment for all students.

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    Project Summary

    Learning and practicing skills such as mindfulness and yoga have been shown to provide students with tools they needed to self-regulate and manage the increasing demands placed upon them in the classroom (Broderick, 2013).  This project examined whether incorporating mindfulness and yoga provide the opportunity to reduce problems in school such as inattentiveness or acting out, while fostering skills for positive mental health.  As integrating regular practice of yoga and mindfulness alongside academics was closely connected to the recent focus and implementation of Restorative Justice in the school where I am teaching, it was my project goal to see that by the end of each yoga session, students would feel relaxed, energized, centered, and ready to learn.  It was predicted that when children learned these skills, their classroom behavior and academic achievement would be improved with the mindfulness and yoga practices. As predicted, various indications of mindfulness effects began to show after several sessions; for example, when preparing for the rigors of state testing and students’ improved behaviors toward the end of the school year. The mindfulness exercises and deep breathing seemed to have allowed students to reduce their anxiety levels and focus on the tasks at hand.

    Project Context

    The project was directly related with the designated theme for LMSVEF research grants, “Improving student engagement in learning through diverse media.” Over half of students in the participating Elementary School located in Spring Valley are Hispanic and English Learners. Nearly 70% of our families are socio-economically disadvantaged.  Approximately 50% of students are reading 1-2 grades below grade level. Parental involvement in the school is minimal. The LMSV school district has worked diligently to train its staff in Restorative Justice and implement it district-wide. For example, in the fall, I attended a three-day conference from Solution Tree, a company that promotes Response to Intervention (RTI) and provides schools with tools to make sure ALL students succeed.  My project took restorative justice a step further by giving the student tools and strategies to manage stress, stay focused and communicate effectively through mindfulness and yoga.  This practitioner research provided me with an opportunity to plan for research systematically and collect necessary data to assess the effectiveness of the approach in relation to children’s learning and social-emotional development.

    Research Goal, Method, and Outcome

    Project Goal and Significance

    Studies have shown that approximately 10% of our young people suffer from a mental health condition that meets diagnostic criteria and about 20% suffer from problems that significantly impair day-to-day functioning, including academic achievement and social relationships (U.S. Public Health Service, 2000). According to Broderick (2013), mindfulness has the potential to be a useful component in prevention and treatment efforts due to its effectiveness in reducing emotional distress, improving attention span, and motivating students to learn. Further, school curriculum incorporating stress management programs, such as yoga and mindfulness, have been shown to improve academic performance, self-esteem, classroom behaviors, and concentration and decrease helplessness, aggression, and behavioral problems of students (Kiselica, Baker, Thomas, & Reedy, 1994). This practice-based research project implemented an approach based on this framework.  In addition, integrating regular practice of yoga and mindfulness alongside academics is closely connected to the school district’s recent focus and implementation of Restorative Justice.  It is my project goal to see that by the end of each session, students will feel relaxed, energized, centered, and ready to learn and that I produce data that can be used to examine the relationship between mindfulness exercise and children’s cognitive and behavioral readiness for learning.

    I predicted that students who attended mindfulness and yoga sessions would (a) use a mindfulness technique, such as breathing, chanting, and clearing the mind to reduce stress while increasing the level of self-soothing (b) improve learning by showing increased academic achievement levels.

    Research Method

    Participants

    There were 60 fourth graders, 40 fifth graders, and 50 sixth graders, with about 60 girls and 90 boys, totaling 150 students who participated in this project.  However, not all students consistently attended all sessions.  Originally, I planned to teach the same group of students during a 6-week window for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.  However, circumstances changed the schedule and the number of students, with the result that I taught a different group of students every week, for 20 minutes, 4 days a week.  The class sizes were anticipated to include approximately 40 students, girls and boys together, but that number varied from 28 to 36 students. About 70% of participating students came from socio-economically disadvantaged households where stress-relieving practices, such as yoga and mindfulness, had not been modeled.

    Preparation and Implementation of Research Activities

    The practice-based research occurred in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grade PE classes during the 2017-18 school year, where the focus was learning and practicing yoga and mindfulness daily.  Although I planned to implement all components laid out in “Learning to Breathe:  A Mindfulness Curriculum for Adolescents to Cultivate Emotion Regulation, Attention and Performance” (Broderick, 2013), I was unable to complete all activities with my students and still have time for yoga. Due to the reduced time from 30 minutes a day to 20 minutes, and having a new group each week, the implementation of the original research plan needed to be altered.  The 2-day Kids Yoga Teacher Training I attended at the beginning of the semester (September) was incredibly useful and practical.  It provided knowledge and ideas to create captivating and fun yoga experiences for children.  I used songs in yoga class that students and I could sing along with, while incorporating many poses in each song.  For example, the song, “Jogging Through the Jungle” included crocodile, cobra, and lion poses.  Although slightly different mindfulness and yoga lessons were provided in each session, the following describes a typical 20-minute session.   We began each class sitting in lotus position and welcomed each other to yoga class.  I rang the tingsha bells 3 times to focus the group. Then we learned or reviewed poses and began our yoga song(s) for the day.  The last few minutes of class were spent in shavasana or secret garden, where students lay quietly while calming music plays.  Finally, we return to lotus position, place our hands in Namaste, and repeat after the teacher, “May the whole world be filled with peace and joy, love and light, and lots of peaceful children.  Namaste.”

    Session Activities

    Students in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade were placed in groups of 28 – 36 and spent 20 minutes, 4 days a week, with the instructor for a period of 1 week, rotating every 6 weeks. The following activities took place:

    • Before starting the first mindfulness/yoga class, the baseline data (pre-assessment) was collected on each student’s levels of stress and ability to self-soothe.
    • Norms and routines were established, modeled, practiced, and reinforced.
    • Instructor modeled and students practiced mindfulness techniques and yoga poses.
    • After implementing activities, instructor surveyed all students as to whether they noticed benefits from practicing yoga and mindfulness in relation to the categories shown above (i.e., levels of stress to self-soothing).
    • The instructor selected 6 students with behavior and/or academic challenges for individual interviews. The interviews were conducted in June.

    Assessment

    The pre- and post- assessment data collected before and after the intervention were compared to examine if there was improvement.  Sample items on Stress and Self-soothe include “How often do you feel stressed in class?” (Stress) and “When someone makes you mad, do you know how to calm yourself?” (Self-soothe).  Students rated themselves on 5-items using a 5-point Likert scale (Always, A lot, Sometimes, Hardly Ever, and Never).

    Questionnaires for the pre- and post-session assessments were the same, as I wanted to examine the difference between before and after intervention. After gathering all data, I, as the practitioner researcher, compared the student responses from the pre- and post-assessment to examine if there was an improvement after mindfulness and yoga sessions.

    Further, a list of interview questions were used for interviews with a select group of 6 students to understand better what students thought and experienced before and after the mindfulness intervention.  The following questions were asked of each student:

    1. What did you know about yoga/mindfulness before you began the class? What do you know about it now?
    2. Do you think yoga/mindfulness is helpful to you? Why or why not?
    3. What is your favorite yoga pose and mindfulness activity and why?

    In addition, achievement scores from California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) were used to analyze overall achievement after intervention. The CAASPP was administered in May of 2018, and scores were reported in August of 2018. The CAASPP assesses student achievement in reading comprehension, writing, and mathematics.

    Results and Discussion

    Stress and Self-soothing:  Comparing Before and After the Intervention

    Based on the pre-assessment and mid-session-assessment, students overall felt slightly less stressed and slightly more focused at school.  For example, many students indicated in September that their level of stress on average was 4 (stressed a lot) out of 5 (always stressed).  When asked again at the end of February, their level of stress had been reduced to 3 (sometimes) on average.  Similarly, the same could be said for a change in a student’s ability to self-soothe, or calm down.  For instance, many students indicated in September that their ability to calm themselves was 3 (self-soothe sometimes) out of 5 (self-soothe always).  When asked the same question in February, students’ responses had increased to either 4 (a lot) or 5 (always), averaging about 4.5.

    Interviews on the Mindfulness Intervention

            Students’ knowledge about mindfulness.  The six students I interviewed knew nothing to very little about yoga and mindfulness when the year started.  When asked what they know about yoga/mindfulness at the end of the year, responses included: “When you stretch, you calm yourself”; “Yoga can help you relax.”; “It’s good for your body and healthy for you.”; “Peace would begin with me.”; and “I feel like it’s ok if you make mistakes.”

            Helpfulness of the intervention. When asked if yoga and mindfulness were helpful and in what way, responses included:  “Yeah.  Helps me when I’m stressed, when I get frustrated, I walk away.”; “I take a few breaths and that calms me down.”; and “I feel more calm and enlightened.  I feel connected with the earth a bit more.”

            Favorite yoga pose and mindfulness activities. I asked students what their favorite mindfulness pose was and why.  Everyone mentioned that Secret Garden (shavasana) was their favorite, and following are some reasons why:  “You get to lay down and it feels nice.”; “I imagined stuff, like laying on the grass with my dad, like he was still here.  It made me feel happy inside.”; “Relaxing.  Helps me get ready for the day.”; and “I could just make anything I want in there and I could feel like I could fit in.”

    Responses to these questions supported my prediction that use of a mindfulness technique (breathing, chanting, and clearing the mind) reduces anxiety and students showed a sign of ability to self-soothe when faced with a stressful situation. For example, we learned a chant, “Peace begins with me” coupled with finger gestures which helped us calm down during stressful situations.  As we prepared for testing, students and I sat in a circle, and each child had an opportunity to ring bells.  This was meaningful for them, and the concentration in the circle was palpable.

    Academic Achievement

    The CAASPP scores indicated that before the intervention (occurred in early 2017-2018 school year), over half of the 4th graders were reading 1-2 reading levels below grade level, 38% of 5th graders were 1-2 reading levels below grade level, and 23% of 6th graders were 1-2 reading levels below grade level.

    By the end of the 2017-2018 school year, the number of students in grades 4-6 needing reading intervention has been cut in half, from over 60 to 34 students since the beginning of the 2017-18 school year. As of June 2018, the achievement scores (CAASPP) were increased as follows:

    • Fourth grade:  40.5% of students were at or above grade level in 4th grade.  Only 10 (20%) students were 2 or more grade levels behind.
    • Fifth grade: 60% of students are above grade level.
    • Sixth grade:  50% of students made it to level Z (7th grade reading level).  Only 6 (10%) students left for middle school two or more grade levels behind.

    In addition to the CAASPP results, various indications of mindfulness effects began to show after several sessions. For example, when preparing for the rigors of state testing and students’ improved behaviors toward the end of the school year. The school principal and teachers administering the state test saw the difference in student conduct and were amazed at the focus and perseverance students exhibited during the testing window.

    Although the increased achievement levels in reading are not due to the Yoga intervention alone, it is reasonable to surmise that the mindfulness techniques they learned throughout the year could have helped with students’ reading performance.  The research outcome suggests that Yoga and mindfulness can have a positive effect on children’s readiness to learn.

    Conclusions

    As I reflect on introducing yoga and mindfulness and whether it was effective in strengthening children’s cognitive and behavioral readiness for learning, my observations indicate that these practices were successful.  I observed improvement in students academically, emotionally, and behaviorally.  I am looking forward to continuing this program in the 2018-19 school year. I will have an opportunity to delve deeper into mindfulness practices by incorporating them throughout the school day, rather than just during PE.  I would also like to focus more on explaining the benefits of various yoga poses, and taking the time to ensure students are practicing the poses correctly.  In conclusion, introducing and practicing yoga and mindfulness is effective and beneficial for a student’s mind and body.

    References

    Broderick, P. C.  (2013). Learning to breathe:  A mindfulness curriculum for adolescents to cultivate emotion regulation, attention, and performance. Oakland:  New Harbinger Publications.

    Kiselica, M.S., Baker, S.B., Thomas, R.N., & Reedy, S.  (1994). Effects of stress inoculation training on anxiety, stress, and academic performance among adolescents.  Journal of Counseling Psychology, 41(3), 335-342.

    U.S. Public Health Service.  (2000). Report of the surgeon general’s conference on children’s mental health:  A national action agenda.  Washington, DC:  Department of Health and Human Services.

    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Eaton, K. (2018). Effects of Mindfulness Instruction on Children’s Cognitive and Behavioral Readiness for Learning on our website. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge-base/effects-of-mindfulness-instruction-on-childrens-cognitive-and-behavioral-readiness-for-learning/

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