Everyone on mindfulness at school? Little effect

Many young people struggle with somber feelings, stress or anxiety symptoms. In a large-scale study, with support from the Fund for Scientific Research Flanders (FWO) and in the context of Red Noses Day (now "Jez!"), KU Leuven investigated whether mindfulness at school could help. For eight weeks, several class groups in eleven Flemish secondary schools followed mindfulness training. Would this have positive effects on their mental well-being?

The results of this study suggest that this is not the case. The youth in class groups (4th, 5th and 6th year secondary) who took the training were surveyed at different times and, on average, they did not have fewer symptoms or deal with difficult feelings in a more helpful way than the youth in class groups who did not take mindfulness training.

Importance of self-interest

The KU Leuven researchers also went looking for the causes of the lack of a positive effect of mindfulness training in the classroom in Flemish adolescents. Because previous research showed that mindfulness outside the classroom can indeed be an effective tool for young people with symptoms of depression, for example.

"One possible major cause is that outside of the classroom sessions, the youth continued to practice the material provided only to a limited extent. As with other skills, training and practice is very important for mindfulness to bring about positive changes in mental well-being," says researcher Liesbeth Bogaert. "Moreover, there were also significant differences in the extent to which the young people were interested in the content of the training."

Not a one size fits all approach

So a one size fits all approach does not immediately seem to be the best one. "The advantage of a classroom approach is that we can reach large numbers of young people at once, but the flip side of the coin seems to be the large variation in preferences and needs within existing class groups," the researcher said.

Future research should focus primarily on tailoring mindfulness training to the needs and desires of as many young people as possible. In this way, it increases the likelihood that more young people will feel attracted to the content of the training and also adopt a more active attitude such as, for example, practicing their mindfulness skills on a regular basis.

"Based on the results of these and other recent studies, we can conclude that ’all young people to mindfulness’ in the form as we currently know mindfulness training does not seem appropriate or desirable. However, other forms of offering mindfulness at school, for example as an open offer during lunch break or as an elective for interested young people, remain meaningful avenues for young people to support their mental well-being," concludes Professor Filip Raes.

The study "The effect of universal school-based mindfulness on anhedonia and emotional distress and its underlying mechanisms: A cluster randomized controlled trial via experience sampling in secondary schools" by L. Bogaert, F. Raes et al. was published in Behaviour Research and Therapy.