I admit that until a few years ago, learning that a school asked their students to meditate prompted me to roll my eyes. It struck me as faddish and meant to appeal to parents rather than something meant to help students. But I’m not sneering anymore.
The last five or ten years has seen a burgeoning research literature on the cognitive benefits of mindfulness meditation—that style of meditation in which one focuses one’s thoughts on the present moment and emphasizes a open, non-judgmental attitude towards thoughts and sensations.
Most practitioners engage in mindfulness meditation for its effects on overall feelings of well-being. From a cognitive point of view, the daily practice in the management and control of attention might yield benefits for students. This sort of attentional control is positively associated with academic outcomes. (An article I wrote on the topic can be found here.)
What do the data on meditation and attentional control look like?
The truth is that it’s a bit early to tell. A recent review (Chiesa, Calati, & Serretti, 2011) concluded that meditation training did lead to improvements in controlled attention, but the authors warned that the effects were inconsistent.
The results might be inconsistent because the benefits to attention only accrue after significant practice--more practice then volunteers are willing to engage in for the sake of a study. But even when examining long-time meditators, the benefits to attention are inconsistent.
Another possibility is that meditation doesn’t make attentional control any more effective, but it does make it less taxing, which might be consistent with reports of improved well-being. There are electrophysiological data (e.g., Moore, Gruber, Derose & Malinowski, 2012) indicating that meditation training leads to changes in how the brain deals with attentional challenges, and that these changes reflect easier, smoother processing.
Most of the work has been done with adults, not kids. There are at least a few studies that have used mindfulness mediation interventions with kids of middle-school age, and the authors of these studies claim these kids can learn the practice (e.g., Wall, 2005).
So at this point, the benefits of mindfulness mediation are not clear enough to make a claim that there is scientific backing for the practice in schools, if the hoped-for benefit is academic. But this is a research literature worth keeping on the radar.
Chiesa, A., Calati, R., & Serretti, A. (2011). Does mindfulness training improve cognitive abilities? A systematic review of neuropsychological findings. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 449-464.
Moore, A., Gruber, T., Derose, J., & Malinowski, P. (2012). Regular, brief mindfulness meditation practice improves electrophysiological markers of attentional control. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 18.
Wall, R. B. (2005). Tai chi and mindfulness-based stress reduction in a Boston Public middle school. Journal of Pediatric Health Care. 19, 230-237.