Is mindfulness the missing piece in education?


Meghan Krein

When students at Balsz Elementary School act out, they aren’t sent to detention. Instead, students are asked to focus on what they're sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. It’s called mindfulness and Balsz School District in east Phoenix is embracing it. 

The district, America’s fifth most economically segregated — approximately half of the district’s population lives at or below the poverty level — is embarking on a three-year initiative to become Arizona’s first mindful school district, in partnership with local nonprofit Mindfulness First, an organization dedicated to supporting trauma-sensitive, mindfulness-based social-emotional learning in K–12 schools. 

By infusing mindfulness into its curriculum, Balsz School District hopes to decrease mental health issues and behavioral problems, while improving overall well-being, coping skills, interpersonal relationships and performance, as students grow and develop.

Danah Henriksen, MLFTC associate professor, and doctoral student Natalie Gruber, are researching the results of the program. The goal of the research is to demonstrate the effect of mindfulness in the curriculum, and help the Arizona Department of Education, along with other school districts, see the potential of grounding schools in mental health well-being, Henriksen says.

It makes sense, right? Adults aren’t the only ones who have struggled since the pandemic set in, nearly a year ago. The lives of children have been upended as well, says Henriksen. And although the pandemic may have exacerbated mental health issues, these issues have been ignored for quite some time, says Sunny Wright, co-founder and executive director of Mindfulness First. 

She relays some sobering statistics from the 2019–’20 school year: Teen suicide in Arizona is up 25 percent and is the second leading cause of death in those aged 10 to 24; since Columbine there have been over 250 school shootings; half of all new drug users are under the age of 18. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” she says. 

Prior to signing on for the project, Mindfulness First provided a three-year mindfulness program to a Title I elementary school in the Balsz district: Crockett Elementary. Crockett is home to a large Somali population and the school district for the UMOM homeless shelter. Poverty is associated with high levels of ongoing stress, trauma and an inability to focus, all of which have a negative effect on child development, particularly the nervous system and emotion regulation, says Gruber. 

Through the program, students practiced mindful activities throughout the day, such as mindful walking and eating, breathing exercises, time outs and emotion regulation, while teachers provided support in lieu of punishment. The results were eye-opening, says Henriksen. 

Yearly suspensions decreased from a staggering 45 to a mere three. The school's state grade rose from a C to a B. The Arizona Educational Foundation ranking jumped from a C to an A+ (the foundation assigns schools a letter grade as a way to recognize exceptional public schools). In other words, the program was a success. The superintendent, teachers, families and school board members were all impressed and excited by the school’s cultural transformation, Gruber says. Students felt empowered which improved their moods, coping skills, attention and performance, she says. 

Henriksen says, “One of the things that has struck me, as an educational creativity researcher, is the fact that it's so unusual and special to see programs like this happening at the district level. So often in education, we see pockets of innovation and great practices or programs happening within a classroom or maybe in a school. So it's exciting to see an entire district implementing this program — at a time when it's so needed — and the well-being of students is in desperate need of support.”

As the research continues over the next few years, Henriksen and Gruber hope to see more positive results in addition to exploring the role parents and families play in supporting the mindfulness and well-being of their children. “We’d like to explore ways families can be supported and involved in this program to create change across the board,” Gruber says.

Henriksen and Gruber plan to publish the results of their research in 2024 in an effort to help the Arizona Department of Education determine which schools should implement the program.