2012 – 2013 Mindful Awareness Program

Sponsored by:

Flourish Foundation

Project Champion:

Ryan Redman

What are the appropriate grade levels:

K to 12

Is there a limit to the number of participants:


Is there an opportunity for community service:


Is this a new or existing project:

This is an existing project.

Estimated project cost:




A recent survey found that the majority of Americans report being either moderately or highly stressed with 44 percent reporting increases in stress from just 5 years ago (APA, 2010). Additionally over 30% of the children and adolescents sampled reported stress-related symptoms such as headaches and problems sleeping (APA, 2010). Stress is the body?s defense mechanism against threats, and when a situation is temporary, the stress response is adaptive. However, while stress is helpful in the short term, there is considerable evidence that long term stress generally has negative effects (McEwan, 2008) and this may be especially true for children (Blair, 2010; Shonkoff, Boyce, & McEwan, 2009).

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child has outlined three different types of stress: positive, tolerable and toxic (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2005). Positive stress results from short-term stressors such as frustration or losing a game etc. As many parents and teachers can attest, such experiences can provide valuable character building opportunities for children. Tolerable stress includes prolonged stress such as dealing with the death of a parent, but occurs in an environment where children receive emotional and coping support from the adults around them. Toxic stress results from long term exposure to persistent stressors coupled with a lack of coping mechanisms and adult support. There is growing evidence that toxic stress has lasting effects on a child?s long term physical and mental health (Shonkoff, Boyce, & McEwan, 2009). Stress appears to affect the development of cognitive and self-regulatory systems important for academic achievement with effects on cognition persisting into adulthood (Blair, 2010; Evans & Schamberg, 2009).

Stress may be one of the primary factors in the income-achievement gap in children (Blair, 2010; Lupien, King, Meaney, & McEwen, 2001). A number of studies have documented poorer cognitive performance for children from a lower socio-economic status (SES) especially in the development of language and executive functions (Hackman, Farah & Meaney, 2010; Noble, Tottenham & Casey, 2006). Executive functions are supervisory mental processes that allow individuals to control their working memory and attention in the pursuit of goals. A number of studies have demonstrated a relationship between levels of executive functioning and academic performance (e.g. Bull & Scerif, 2001; St. Clair-Thompson & Gathercole, 2006; Waber et al., 2006). Executive functions rely predominantly on the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that has been shown to be particularly vulnerable to stress (Arnsten, 2009; Liston, McEwen, & Casey, 2009). Prolonged periods of stress have been shown to reduce working memory performance and executive functions in adults (Jha et al., 2010) and under conditions of stress, individuals are less cognitively flexible and rely more on simple habits (Schwabe & Wolf, 2009). The additional pressure of high stakes testing has the potential to raise stress and anxiety levels in students especially those who are academically at risk (Hembree, 1988; Kruger, Wandle, & Struzziero, 2007; McDonald, 2001). Therefore, understanding the degree of stress experienced by students, the conditions under which it happens and how students do or not cope with stress can be important for helping children reach their full potential.

Finally, there is also growing evidence that stress management techniques such as mindfulness practice and relaxation can ameliorate the effects of stressful events on cognitive function. Jha and colleagues (2010) working with pre-deployment soldiers found that mindfulness based practice helped buffer them from the stress of leaving and served as a protective factor for working memory. There is some evidence to support mindfulness training as improving self-control in elementary school students (Flook et al., 2010). The proposed project will explore what factors produce stress in schoolchildren and the extent to which there are cognitive and emotional benefits for learning strategies to manage stress.


  • American Psychological Association (2010). Stress in America Findings.
    Arnsten, A. (2009). Stress signaling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10, 410-422.
  • Bull, R. & Scerif, G. (2001). Executive functioning as a predictor of children?s mathematics ability: Inhibition, switching, and working memory. Developmental Neuropsychology, 19, 273-293.
  • Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain?s ?Air Traffic Control? System:
  • How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved fromwww.developingchild.harvard.edu.
  • Evans, G.W., & Schamberg,M. (2009). Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 6545-6549.
    Flook, L., Smalley, S., L., Kitil, M. J., Galla, B. M., Kaiser-Greenland, S., Locke, J., Ishijima, E., & Kasari, C. (2010). Mindful awareness practices improve executive functions in elementary school children. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 26(1), 70-95.
  • Hackman, D.A., Farah,M.J., & Meaney, M.J. (2010). Socioeconomic status and the brain: mechanistic insights from human and animal research. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11, 651-659.
    Hembree, R. (1988). Correlates, causes, effects and treatment of test anxiety. Review of Educational Research, 58(1), 47-77.
  • Jha, A., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion, 10, 54-64.
  • Kruger, L.J., Wandle, C., & Joan Struzziero, J. (2007): Coping with the Stress of High Stakes Testing, Journal of Applied School Psychology, 23, 109-128.
  • Liston C, McEwen BS, Casey BJ. (2009). Psychosocial stress reversibly disrupts prefrontal processing and attentional control. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(3), 912-917.
  • Lupien SJ, King S, Meaney MJ, McEwen BS. 2001. Can poverty get under your skin? Basal cortisol levels and cognitive function in children from high and low socioeconomic status. Developmental Psychopathology, 13, 653?676.
  • McDonald, A. (2001). The prevalence and effects of test anxiety in school children. Educational Psychology, 21(1), 89-101.
  • McEwen, B. S. (2008). Central effects of stress hormones in health and disease: Understanding the protective and damaging effects of stress and stress mediators. European Journal of Pharmacology, 583, 174-185.
  • National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain. Working Paper 3. 2005. http://www.developingchild.net/pubs/wp/Stress_Disrupts_Architecture_Developing_Brain.pdf.
  • Noble, K. G., Tottenham, N., & Casey, B.J. (2005). Neuroscience Perspectives on Disparities in School Readiness and Cognitive Achievement. The Future of Children, 15, 71-89.
  • Schwabe, L. & Wolf, O.T. (2009). Stress prompts habit behavior in humans. Journal of Neuroscience, 29, 7191-7198.
  • St.Clair-Thompson, H.L., & Gathercole, S. (2006). Executive functions and achievements in school: Shifting, updating, inhibition, and working memory. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 59, 745-759.
  • Waber, D.P., Gerber, E.B., Turcios, V.Y., Wagner, E.R. & Forbes, P.W. (2006). Executive functions and performance on high-stakes testing in children from urban schools.

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