Mindfulness Plus Reflection Training Improves Thinking in Pre-School Children

Mindfulness Plus Reflection Training Improves Thinking in Pre-School Children


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“When we teach mindfulness to children, we are sharing with them skillful ways of relating to life’s uncomfortable and challenging moments. The earlier we do so in their young lives, the greater the opportunity to help them cultivate resilience and develop and refine their mindfulness practice as they mature.” – Scott Rogers


Childhood is a miraculous period during which the child is dynamically absorbing information from every aspect of its environment. This occurs almost without any intervention from the adults as the child appears to be programmed to learn. It is here that behaviors, knowledge, skills, and attitudes are developed that shape the individual. But, what is absorbed depends on the environment. If it is replete with speech, the child will learn speech, if it is replete with trauma, the child will learn fear, if it is replete with academic skills the child will learn these, and if it is replete with interactions with others, the child will learn social skills.


Pre-School and elementary school are environments that have a huge effect on development. They are also excellent times to teach children the skills to adaptively negotiate its environment. Mindfulness training in school, at all levels has been shown to have very positive effects. These include academic, cognitive, psychological, and social domains. Importantly, mindfulness training in school appears to improve the student’s self-concept. It also improves attentional ability and reduces stress, which are keys to successful learning in school. Since, what occurs in these early years and in school can have such a profound, long-term effect on the child it is important to further study the impact of mindfulness training on the development of thinking skills in pre-school children.


In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness Plus Reflection Training: Effects on Executive Function in Early Childhood.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00208/full?utm_source=F-AAE&utm_medium=EMLF&utm_campaign=MRK_556427_69_Psycho_20180301_arts_A ), Zelazo and colleagues recruited preschool children (4-5 years old) from two schools with predominantly children from low-income families and randomly assigned them to either Mindfulness + Reflection, Literacy, or Business as Usual conditions. Mindfulness + Reflection and Literacy training occurred daily for 6 weeks for 24 minutes per day. Mindfulness + Reflection training was adapted for young children and involved mindfulness and relaxation exercises, attention to thoughts and emotions, and cognitive enrichment programs; particularly attention training. The literacy program was adapted from the OWL (Opening the World of Learning) program.


The children were measured before the 6-week training period for vocabulary, math skills, IQ, and reading readiness. The children were measured before and after the 6-week training period and 4-6 weeks later for executive function, theory of mind, and literacy with measures adapted for young children. Teachers also rated the children for behaviors indicating surgency, negative affect, and effortful control and for attachment/relationships, behavioral concerns, initiative, and self-control.


They found that after training most of the children in all groups showed significant improvements on many of the measures. But, the children participating in the Mindfulness + Reflection program had significantly greater increases in overall executive function scores including working memory measures. The literacy training group had significantly greater improvements in effortful control reflecting improvements in inhibitory control, attentional control, low intensity pleasure, and perceptual sensitivity. Hence, they found evidence that mindfulness training can improve thinking while literacy training can improve behavioral control in very young disadvantaged children.


Early childhood is a time of rapid brain development and cognitive abilities. Since, it’s been shown that mindfulness training can produces changes in the brains of adolescents and adults, it is likely that the training in early childhood also changes brain development, This is a very important period of development and improvements here may well affect the children for the rest of their lives. This may be particularly important for disadvantaged children potentially altering the trajectory of their lives,


This study is laudable as working with and measuring very young children is challenging and requires insight and creativity. But, research conducted during this dynamic phase of development is particularly important. Of course, much more work is needed. But these results are promising and lend support to conducting further work.


“There is an emerging body of research that indicates mindfulness can help children improve their abilities to pay attention, to calm down when they are upset and to make better decisions. In short, it helps with emotional regulation and cognitive focus.” – Sarah Rudell Beach


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


Zelazo PD, Forston JL, Masten AS and Carlson SM (2018) Mindfulness Plus Reflection Training: Effects on Executive Function in Early Childhood. Front. Psychol. 9:208. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00208


Executive function (EF) skills are essential for academic achievement, and poverty-related stress interferes with their development. This pre-test, post-test, follow-up randomized-control trial assessed the impact of an intervention targeting reflection and stress reduction on children’s EF skills. Preschool children (N = 218) from schools serving low-income families in two U.S. cities were randomly assigned to one of three options delivered in 30 small-group sessions over 6 weeks: Mindfulness + Reflection training; Literacy training; or Business as Usual (BAU). Sessions were conducted by local teachers trained in a literacy curriculum or Mindfulness + Reflection intervention, which involved calming activities and games that provided opportunities to practice reflection in the context of goal-directed problem solving. EF improved in all groups, but planned contrasts indicated that the Mindfulness + Reflection group significantly outperformed the BAU group at Follow-up (4 weeks post-test). No differences in EF were observed between the BAU and Literacy training groups. Results suggest that a brief, small-group, school-based intervention teaching mindfulness and reflection did not improve EF skills more than literacy training but is promising compared to BAU for improving EF in low-income preschool children several weeks following the intervention.



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