January 30, 2020

Mental Health and Safety: Product Approaches to Pressing Issues Facing Students

Prannoy Nambiar
A man sitting on a chair with his legs crossed and his eyes closed in a meditative pose

A brand new decade brings with it many aspirational tones and resolutions. It is hard to pinpoint where the education sector might be looking to improve in the next decade, but when nearly one in three adolescents will be with an anxiety disorder by the age of 18 and spend an average of nine hours per day on digital entertainment, perhaps the most pressing intention is to enhance the mental wellbeing for all students.

Luckily, schools and teachers have slowly begun to address these concerns through positive shifts in mental health education—the practice of mindfulness being at the forefront of this attack. Concurrently, technology has offered quite a bit of hope in helping schools implement mental wellbeing initiatives through mindfulness applications.

With all of these changes and trends, what are the purported benefits and actual results of mental health training in a classroom setting? There remains plenty of skepticism around the return of investment on these programs in schools. Furthermore, how does technology play a role in increasing mindfulness practices? Although meditation, for example, is an ancient practice that is well over 3,000 years old, the implications technology has on it and the effectiveness therein remains unanswered.

All of these questions can hopefully be addressed by the recent research, but the reality is this: technology will play an increasingly important role in supporting and regulating the mental health of our students. It becomes an absolute imperative for schools and technology companies to implement programs that address the mental health epidemic facing their students, and mindfulness and social-emotional learning (SEL) are perhaps the largest opportunities to tackle from the beginning.

What mental health problems would we seek to address?

Research from a variety of sources shows that mental health has become a serious concern in the education system, and there should be more urgency to address it head on. Focusing on the student population alone, there are several factors negatively affecting mental safety and security:

  1. Anxiety: Nearly one in three adolescents will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder by the age of 18.
  2. Trauma: 46 percent of all children in the U.S. have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE).
  3. Attention: On average, U.S. teens spend nine hours a day on digital entertainment, excluding school work.
  4. Loneliness: Nearly 40 percent of high school seniors report that they often feel lonely and left out.

What benefits does a mental health training focus, particularly in mindfulness, bring to a classroom setting?

Mindfulness has been identified as a practice that can touch on several problems that are currently plaguing schools, both from a student and teacher perspective. Mindful Schools has done phenomenal work on addressing the goals and research-backed benefits of implementing mindfulness programs in the classroom. Through their research, they have identified several positive impacts from mindfulness education that address factors like improvements in self-awareness, empathy building, self-regulation techniques, and communication.

These findings are indeed backed up by research; a 2015 study on mindfulness education in schools conducted by a group of child psychiatrists (and referenced in Positive Psychology) found that:

  1. Mindfulness helps students manage their stress more effectively and efficiently.
  2. Mindfulness programs can bring about increased cognitive performance and higher resilience.
  3. Incorporating a mindfulness program in schools is relatively simple, as long as there is sensitivity to the various developmental needs of the distribution of students.

These benefits are more helpful than for simply the learning environment. The applications of a mindfulness program span past the confines of the schoolroom walls and into the broader expanse of the world. Education’s purpose is, debatably, to prepare students to handle the trials and tribulations of life with knowledge and grace. This “whole-child” approach to education imbues a classroom with worldly qualities for its students. Building a mindfulness practice in this setting has distinctly positive implications for school culture and student wellbeing in the long run. For most people, however, the question is no longer about the benefits of mindfulness in school; it is about the effective implementation of it.

How can technology aid in mindfulness education?

Mindfulness programs, though perhaps simple to implement, require a very crucial and intentional plan. There are many factors that must be considered: setting of mindfulness practices, frequency of the programs, timing of the day to allow students to practice, and so on. Although those decisions can be easily handled by administration and teachers, challenges exist around the tools and curriculum to implement a mindfulness program. Fortunately, there are several highly accessible products out there that allow schools to get started quickly, including the apps Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer.

A popular meditation app, Headspace has shown a distinct interest in applying the benefits of mindfulness in school settings as well. Their Headspace for Kids program, segmented for various age groups 12 and under, focuses on breathing, visualization, and focus-based meditation. For ages 12 and above, the core Headspace application is completely appropriate. Calm serves a similar criteria to Headspace. It had previously launched the Calm Classroom Initiative, in which schools applied to receive Calm’s subscription for free, receiving access to a content library of mindfulness exercises for students from pre-K through 12th grade.

There are also tools built specifically for a mental health program within the K-12 environment, such as GoGuardian Beacon. Beacon is a technology solution designed specifically for K-12 schools to support them in their efforts to address student suicide and self-harm. Beacon helps schools identify students who are silently suffering, alert those who can help, and quickly activate a school's custom response plan. This speaks to the larger, more imminent dangers that students face around anxiety, stress, and loneliness. The tool recently received a few major upgrades and has expanded its product offering to include a more end-to-end solution for administration. While mindfulness can be taught through curriculum and technology applications, intentional understanding of student mental health as a prevention effort is also an important part of mindfulness programs. Beacon addresses this particular need in schools.

Whether you’re interested in teaching students about mindfulness, incorporating mindfulness practices into a school program, or better monitoring students’ mental health and wellbeing, the technology applications and intentional programs mentioned have the capacity to enhance the lives and futures of students and teachers everywhere.