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Mindfulness Training Linked to Better Sleep in At-Risk Kids

A young redheaded child sleeping peacefully.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study has linked mindfulness training has been linked to better sleep among at-risk children.
  • Sleep quality is directly correlated to both mental and physical health, including learning and behavior. Mindfulness training uses breathing exercises, relaxation, and slow movements to help you become aware of your emotions and regulate the stress response.
  • Children in low socioeconomic neighborhoods experience higher levels of both physical and mental stress.

A study from researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine has found a link between mindfulness training and sleep quality in children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

The findings further elevate the positive benefits of teaching kids mindfulness, which helps them use their bodies to reduce stress, as well as promote internal rest, relaxation, and self-regulation. 

The research, which was published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, utilized at-home polysomnography to evaluate the sleep patterns of 115 students in third and fifth grades, before, during, and after the study.

The children who participated in the mindfulness curriculum two times a week during their physical education (PE) class over a two-year period gained an average of 74 minutes of sleep per night, whereas the control group who participated in regular PE activities lost an average of 64 minutes of sleep per night.

The school districts that helped to implement the study serve children from two surrounding low-income, primarily Hispanic, communities in the Bay Area of California. In these areas, high rates of crime, violence, impacted housing, and limited food options create stressors for children that affect their sleep quality and other areas of their lives, including learning.

“If we can intervene prior to the critical window in adolescents, before they hit puberty, and teach them how to calm their nervous system by reducing stress, then we can help regulate their bodies’ response to stress,” Christina Chick, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychiatry at Stanford University and lead scientist of the study, tells Verywell.

Mindfulness Training Curriculum

The study used Pure Power, a mindfulness training curriculum developed and offered to the public for free by the nonprofit Pure Edge. The curriculum is designed to help educate students on how to train their bodies to relax and manage stress through:

  • Focusing their attention on the present
  • Slow, deep breathing exercises
  • Yoga-based movement
  • Defining stress and how to identify it

The curriculum did not cover information on healthy sleeping habits (which could skew the study’s results). It was taught to the students by their classroom teacher and a yoga instructor who was trained in the positive effects of mindfulness using breathing techniques, movement, and relaxation to promote self-regulation. 

Why Kids Need Good Sleep

Research has consistently shown there is a link between poor sleep quality and negative outcomes on physical and mental health.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that school-age children get 9–11 hours of sleep a night and that teens get 8–10 hours. However, a study published in 2017 found that about 46% of eighth-grade students reported sleeping for less than seven hours a night.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that school-age children get 9–11 hours of sleep a night and that teens get 8–10 hours. However, a study published in 2017 found that about 46% of eighth-grade students reported sleeping for less than seven hours a night.

The health consequences of poor sleep in children can affect not only their ability to learn and focus in the classroom it can also affect their behavior, school attendance, and grades, and set them up for poor health outcomes as an adult.

Some of the potential negative outcomes include:

  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Obesity
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Anxiety and depression 
  • Type 2 diabetes

Children who live in lower socioeconomic status neighborhoods typically experience higher levels of stress and adverse childhood experiences related to their living environment and physical safety, which place them at a higher risk of sleep disturbances.

Not getting enough sleep, in turn, contributes to loss of learning, poor academic achievement, and negative behavior. Teaching these students about mindfulness and giving them the tools to independently regulate their stress response can have a positive impact on all aspects of their lives.

“When we are stressed, some things become easier, and some things become harder,” says Chick. “Learning new information and tools when we are stressed is harder. But with mindfulness practice, stress regulation can become second nature.”

How Mindfulness Promotes Self-Regulation 

Mindfulness has been described as a “non-elaborative, non-judgmental awareness” of the present moment. Becoming aware of your emotions can help you recognize your emotional state and give you the chance to think about your response before impulsively acting.

Christina Chick, PhD

With mindfulness practice, stress regulation can become second nature.

— Christina Chick, PhD

There are several ways that mindfulness exercises help promote self-regulation and self-control. A few examples include:

  • Improving executive control (the logic and reasoning part of your brain)
  • Help eliminate rumination (“getting out of your head”)
  • Become aware of your emotions before they get out of control
  • Encourages you to accept and observe your emotions without labeling them “good” or “bad”
  • Become aware of your body’s physical changes (increased heart rate, breathing fast)

Becoming self-aware and comfortable with thoughts and emotions is a tool that mindfulness practice provides to children and adults. It creates a cascade of positive habits that can last a lifetime.

Implementing Mindfulness Practices 

Mindfulness has increased in popularity in recent years, and several evidence-based curricula have been developed for schools, parents, and anyone who is looking to make a positive impact on their mental health. 

One of the benefits of practicing mindfulness is that it is free and you can do it anywhere. From informal YouTube videos to books and research-based formal curricula, many nonprofit groups are offering engaging mindfulness-based training for free. Most are uniquely curated for both younger and more mature audiences. 

“Modeling mindfulness practices for our children both in the classroom and at home is a great way to get them involved,” says Chick. “Incorporate a family breathing break, or have a teacher ask her students to breathe with her when she is getting overwhelmed.”

What This Means For You

Mindfulness may help at-risk gets get better sleep, which can make it easier for them to get the most out of their education and other areas of their lives. Practicing mindfulness also helps people identify their feelings and develop coping skills that will benefit them throughout their lives.

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Article Sources
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