Young people are more anxious and unhappy than previous generations. As exams get nearer, students are displaying physical and emotional signs that they are more and more stressed and depressed. Numerous scientific studies show that stress leads to poorer academic performance – so what are we doing about it?

As parents and professionals we constantly strive to improve the academic performance of our young people. We teach our young people study skills – exam techniques, revision skills, even time management. So what if we can find a new study skill that helps students concentrate more, remember more, and sleep better? What if that same study skill helps teenagers to be more empathetic, regulate their emotions and reduce their likelihood of developing depression and anxiety?

Mindfulness is that study skill.

We believe that it’s time to re-frame the way we perceive mindfulness. For the sake of our young people’s health, happiness and academic success, we believe that the evidence is now strong enough to show that mindfulness should no longer be seen as a nice add-on, something to consider if there’s space in the curriculum and extra money in the budget.

Mindfulness is a way to become stronger mentally. It is a practice which involves paying close attention to the present moment with an accepting, non-judgmental disposition. It has been subjected to rigorous academic study, and leads to physical and chemical changes that help our students study more effectively.

So what exactly is the scientific evidence, and why is it so relevant for teenagers preparing for exams?

  • People’s brains change when they practice mindfulness. The ‘fight or flight’ part of the brain (which is linked to stress) can shrink.

  • The area of the brain that is linked to planning, decision making, impulse control and focusing attention appears to get bigger. This area (the pre-frontal cortex) is one of the last to develop and it is significantly smaller in teenagers than adults.

  • High levels of the hormone cortisol are known to interfere with learning and memory. It is linked to reduced immunity, weight gain, depression and mental illness, and its effect on teenagers may be long-term. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce the amount of this ‘stress hormone’.

  • Mindfulness can lead to improved concentration.

  • Meditating before an exam is shown to improve exam performance.

Using mindfulness to support young people isn’t a new idea, but it is gaining momentum. Richard Burnett, in his powerful TED talk about mindfulness in schools, describes how one young person used mindfulness when a friend collapsed in front of them and that, years later, young people describe to him how they used the techniques they learnt to calm themselves as they entered exams.

Burnett’s charity, the UK-based Mindfulness in Schools Project, has been embraced by parents, teachers and young people – one study showed that 80% of young people who completed the charity’s school-based programme continued using the techniques after the course finished. In the UK, which leads the way in recognising the benefits of mindfulness, it is common for employers to offer mindfulness training.

As parents and professionals, we now have access to this powerful new tool. Mindfulness can equip our young people with the study skills to help them fulfil their potential and achieve their best. It’s time to start using it.