There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that mindfulness-based interventions not only improve school-aged children’s executive functioning and emotional regulation, but also their academic performance. Voltmer et al. [Scientific Reports] tested the effects of teacher-led meditation breaks on primary school children’s performance on a standardized arithmetic test.
The researchers randomly assigned nine 3rd and 4th grade classrooms containing a total of 140 students (51% male) in six German elementary schools to either a meditation or active control group. Teachers in the mindfulness group received 15 hours of instruction in mindfulness. They then led up to three 3- to 5-minute Breathing Break Intervention (BBI) sessions for their students per school day. These BBIs were selected from a set of 15 exercises designed to teach breath and body awareness, relaxation and self-calming, present-moment attention, and letting go. Control group students engaged in up to three 3- to 5-minute periods of coloring a mandala with crayons each school day.
Students completed standardized arithmetic tests at baseline assessment , 9 weeks into the intervention, and 5 month follow-up. Arithmetic test scores were reported as age-normed T-scores with a mean of 50 and standard deviation of 10.
Teachers also rated student arithmetic ability on a five-point scale at all three assessments. Parental educational level and children’s working memory (measured using a test of repeating digit span backwards) were used as covariates in predicting intervention effects on arithmetic performance.
The research was conducted during the second year of the COVID pandemic. The previous school year had been interrupted by COVID-related shutdowns, and school administrators, anxious about student performance, had the 3rd graders take the 2nd grade test and 4th graders take the 3rd grade test at baseline. At week 9 and follow up assessments, however, students took the test appropriate for their grade level. The week 9 and follow up assessment interval was disrupted by further COVID shutdowns, and by shortened school weeks. Teachers during this interval stopped performing the interventions on any regular basis.
About 40% of the BBI group students continued sporadically taking breathing breaks on their own while engaging in distance learning from home, but rarely more than once a week.
The results showed the BBI group had considerably higher arithmetic T-scores than controls prior to intervention (50 vs. 42). After nine weeks of intervention, both study groups’ performances dropped, but the BBI group had a steeper drop so that their T-scores were now only marginally higher than controls (41 vs. 39).
At 5 months, the BBI group showed a steeper increase in scores so that their T-scores were again substantially higher than controls (49 vs. 41). Teacher-rated arithmetic ability did not differ between groups.
Breathing Break Interventions are an age-appropriate way to introduce mindfulness to grade schoolers. The researchers attributed the BBI group’s steeper improvement in arithmetic scores from baseline to 9 weeks to the intervention, but this interpretation does not account for the BBI group’s initially higher pre-intervention scores. At five months both groups essentially returned to their pre-intervention baselines.
Given the shifting use of grade-appropriate tests and COVID-related complications, the results are difficult to interpret and may reflect a null effect between groups.
Voltmer, K., Hondrich, F., & von Salisch, M. (2023). Daily breath-based mindfulness exercises in a randomized controlled trial improve primary school children’s performance in arithmetic. Scientific Reports.
Link to study