MusingsSchoolsSocial Emotional Learning

Mindfulness, Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Character Strengths

We appreciate that the concept of mindfulness is not without its critics, however, other terms could be used such a ‘seeking stillness’, ‘concentrating on our senses’, ‘concentrating on sights and sounds around us’. Mindfulness is a process of open, active, non-judgmental awareness of ones surroundings, paying attention in the present moment with openness and curiosity. Neuroscience and psychological research suggests that the intentional practice of mindfulness improves emotional regulation, empathy, memory processes and perspective taking as well as promoting a calm, stress-free environment. 

Mindfulness meditation practices refer to the deliberate acts of regulating attention through the observation of thoughts, emotions and body states. Typical mindfulness activities can include mindful eating, mindfulness awareness of  breath, body, feelings, emotions and/or thoughts, mindful walking meditation, mindful body scan in a sitting or lying down position, mindful listening without judgment.

What Mindfulness can do for learners:

  • Improves Focus:  Improves the ability to pay attention, focus and concentrate
  • Improves Emotional Regulation:  Reduces impulsiveness
  • Increases Emotional Intelligence:Improves conflict resolution skills
  • Increases Empathy and Respect: Increases empathy and understanding of others
  • Increases Resilience: Increases capacity to overcome challenges
  • Reduces Stress: Improves ability to manage stress
  • Improves Physical Well-being: Increases engagement in physical activity

Example of a 12-week strength-based course incorporating mindfulness:

Week 1:   Introducing Mindfulness and the Brain

Week 2:    Self-awareness and character strength evaluation

Week 2:    Being Present and Self-regulation skills

Week 4:    Understanding Interconnection and Interdependence  

Week 5:    Acceptance and Diversity

Week 6:    Compassion and Empathy

Week 7:    Growth Mindset

Week 8:    Everyday Heroes

Week 9:    Intrinsic Motivation

Week 10:  Gratitude and Humility

Week 11:  Altruism and humanity

Week 12:  Responsibility and Citizenship

The Research on Mindfulness, SEL and Character Strengths 

In a UNESCO manifestation it was proposed that “the physical, intellectual, emotional and ethical integration of the individual into a complete man/woman is the fundamental aim of education.” (UNESCO, 2008).

A fundamental aim of schooling is to educate the “whole child”, which includes promoting both cognitive and noncognitive skills. Contemplative education focuses on developing mindful awareness, values for moral living, caring for others, learning, and personal growth (Lawlor, 2016). Accepting the primacy of home and family, school experiences have the potential to be key developmental contexts in the lives of young people. By assisting them to develop skills and competencies, schools can enable learners to strive for meaningful outcomes and show them that obstacles can be overcome through perseverance. Schools and colleges are currently addressing these objectives by looking for new models and processes to support adolescent development, while preparing youth to cope and succeed in a rapidly changing and unpredictable future, mindfulness-based SEL programmes being one such model.

Learners are able to fulfill their academic and life potential through training in mindfulness-based social and emotional skills, founded upon character strengths. Many learners report chronic academic and social pressures at school and home. Chronic stress in learner can undermine learning; while chronic exposure to stress increases wear and tear on areas of the brain that associated with executive functioning (e.g. attention, working memory and judgement, self-regulation), language and other cognitive and behavioral functions. Together, SEL , character-strengths and mindfulness can help learners successfully navigate the classroom and their relationships with teachers and peers as well as deal with interpersonal conflict. Moreover, it can help to promote a collaborative learning culture within the classroom.

What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be described as the practice of intentionally paying attention to the present moment without judgement. In placing our non-judgmental attention and awareness in the here-and-now, mindfulness liberates us from the baggage of yesterday and the illusions of tomorrow. Depending on the context in which it is used, mindfulness has been described not only as a practice, but also as a state, a trait, a process, and an outcome (Singh et al., 2008). It is a process of accepting our thoughts and regulating our emotions. Mindfulness is about personal transformation, an inner journey that enhances our understanding of who we are and how we respond to the fluctuations of life.

Mindfulness is thought to have originated over 2500 years ago in ancient Buddhist practices and has come into focus in Western cultures in recent years. Jon Kabat-Zinn is arguably one of the most well known individuals responsible for popularising the practice of mindfulness and is particularly well known for developing the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme (Niemiec, 2014).

What is Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?
SEL is the process through which children effectively acquire and apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills required to understand and cope with emotions, set and accomplish positive goals, feel and demonstrate empathy for others, create and maintain positive relationships, effectively handle interpersonal situations while developing responsible decision-making skills. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines the five core SEL competencies as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

When SEL and mindfulness are integrated, these five competencies are strengthened and are more likely to be embodied by the learners.

Self-awareness: Learners’ self-awareness deepens when enhanced by the mindfulness practices of focusing attention and self-

Self-management: Mindfulness increases learners’ emotional regulation, which enhances their ability to resolve conflict more
creatively or to express how they are feeling in an emotionally balanced way.

Social awareness: Mindfulness increases learners’ empathy by helping them to regulate their emotions rather than get
emotionally overwhelmed when faced with a difficult situation. As a result, their capacity to notice another
person’s suffering and respond to it increases.

Relationship skills: Mindfulness increases compassion. Thus, when students practice SEL skills such as creating a win-win solution
with someone who challenges them, they are doing so with more compassionate understanding.

Responsible decision-making: Mindfulness increases cognitive flexibility and creativity, which gives learners a wider range of responses
to challenging situations.

As learners are taught mindfulness, they learn to become more in tune with themselves. They develop a greater understanding of their feelings and experiences, which can promote empathy. Strengthening empathy can help solidify the key prosocial attitudes and behaviour that is central to SEL and helpful for thriving in a classroom environment.

Learners growing up with skills to regulate their emotions, to better understand their own needs, to recognise the needs of others, to value nature and to problem solve compassionately, will help usher in a more peaceful, healthy, happy and thriving future. Equipping learners with key mindfulness-based social emotional skills will not only help them perform better academically and in their careers, but will also help them become more compassionate, empathetic and caring members of society. Ultimately, when taught and learned together, mindfulness and SEL have the potential to transform our communities and our world with the former cultivating the tendencies for compassion and ethical ways of living and the latter teaching the skills to make that happen.

Mindfulness and Character Strengths

Character strengths and mindfulness are two popular areas of positive psychology that have captured the attention of researchers and practitioners, as well as the general public. Most would agree that character strengths form a natural part of the operational definition of mindfulness and the mutual synergistic interaction between the two. While the most frequently used definition of mindfulness in Western cultures comes from Kabat-Zinn (1994), Bishop et al. (2004) propose a two-component definition involving self-regulation of attention followed by an orientation to the present moment which requires curiosity, openness and acceptance.
Self-regulation is one of the most assumed mechanisms of mindfulness. Mindfulness facilitates successful self-regulation and in turn, self-regulation facilitates greater mindfulness (Masicampo & Baumeister, 2007). Moreover, when learners are mindful, they appear to be more curious as to the different possibilities in life. As a character strength , curiosity cultivates openness and acceptance and, when linked to mindfulness, it is more likely that acceptance becomes nonjudgmental. Mindfulness can provide a new perspective of one’s internal and external environments (Brown et al., 2007).

Mindfulness and curiosity each help to align individuals’ actual self (people’s beliefs about who they think they are) and their ideal self (the image people would like to be); Ivtzan, et al., 2011). This relates to the character strengths work of knowing one’s core self or identity and helping overcome blind spots in self-awareness (Carlson, 2013). It has been suggested that mindfulness may increase character strengths as the learner pays more attention to, and increases their awareness of, their strengths in the present moment (Niemiec, 2014). In so doing, this gives learners the motivation to use their strengths more consistently and helps them to see ways to more effectively balance their strengths.

Research on Integrating Mindfulness and Strengths
Recently, there has been an increase in research focusing on the integration of mindfulness and character strengths. The view taken is that mindfulness enables the development of character strengths and virtues, both of which are emphasised in positive psychology. It has been proposed that if all learners have signature strengths and if mindfulness can enhance their use then it is possible mindfulness could be beneficial for most learners (Baer & Lykins, 2011). Similarly, increased amount of time spent using strengths has also been found to correlate significantly with mindfulness (Jarden et al., 2012). The integration of mindfulness and character strengths seems to create a synergy of mutual benefit that can foster a virtuous circle in which mindful awareness boosts strengths use which, in turn, enlivens mindfulness (Niemiec et al., 2012).

Mindfulness-based strength practice (MBSP) was found to lead to significant increases in flourishing, life satisfaction, engagement and signature strength use (Ivtzan et al., 2016). Temperance and interpersonal character strengths, in particular, explained the relationship between mindful observing and flourishing. A longitudinal analysis found that the observing facet of mindfulness predicted temperance strengths, which then predicted flourishing. The observing facet of mindfulness was positively related to interpersonal-, intellectual-, and temperance-related character strengths (Duan & Ho, 2017).

Pang and Ruch (2019) conducted two studies on MBSP and found that mindfulness and character strengths mutually impact one another and that when used together, the impact is heightened. The study found that meditators are higher in the following strengths than non-meditators: spirituality, gratitude, appreciation of beauty, love of learning, and curiosity. The study also reported that the character strengths most highly correlated with mindfulness include hope, bravery, curiosity, social intelligence, and zest. In a study of the happy classrooms programme, which weaves mindfulness with character strengths for the classroom, the programme was found to promote psychological well-being and positive classroom climate, as well as reduce aggression at school (Lombas et al., 2019).

Niemiec (2017) introduces the concept of “heartfulness” into character strengths work arguing that mindful awareness of character strengths acts a catalyst to our “being” in which we are called to act, but it is heartfulness, or the meaningful “doing,” that puts character strengths into action toward the common good. Similarly, Lottman et al., (2017) discuss how teachers and parents can adapt and apply mindfulness and character strengths to boost positive beliefs and strength-based thinking through activities that focus on moment-making, meaning-making, memory-making and mindset-making.

Baer, R. A., & Lykins, E. L. M. (2011). Mindfulness and positive psychological functioning. In K. M. Sheldon, T. B. Kashdan, & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward (pp. 335–348). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Bishop, S.R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N.D., Carmody, J., Segal, Z.V., Abbey, S., Speca, M., Velting, D. and Devins, G. (2004), Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11: 230-241. doi:10.1093/clipsy.bph077

Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18 (4), 211-237.

Carlson, E. N. (2013). Overcoming the barriers to self-knowledge: Mindfulness as a path to seeing yourself as you really are. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8 (2), 173-186.

Duan, W., & Ho, S. M. Y. (2017). Does being mindful of your character strengths enhance psychological wellbeing? A longitudinal mediation analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies.

Hofmann, J., Heintz, S., Pang, D., & Ruch, W. (2019). Differential relationships of light and darker forms of humor with mindfulness. Applied Research in Quality of Life.

Ivtzan, Gardner, & Smailova (2011). Mindfulness meditation and curiosity: The contributing factors to wellbeing and the process of closing the self-discrepancy gap. International Journal of Wellbeing, 1 (3), 316-326.

Ivtzan, I., Niemiec, R. M., & Briscoe, C. (2016). A study investigating the effects of Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP) on wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 6(2), 1-13.

Jarden, A., Jose, P., Kashdan, T., Simpson, O., McLachlan, K., & Mackenzie, A. (2012). [International Well-being Study]. Unpublished raw data.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.

Lawlor M.S. (2016) Mindfulness and Social Emotional Learning (SEL): A Conceptual Framework. In: Schonert-Reichl K., Roeser R. (eds) Handbook of Mindfulness in Education. Mindfulness in Behavioral Health. Springer, New York, NY.

Lombas, A. S., Jiménez, T. I., Arguís-Rey, R., Hernández-Paniello, S., Valdivia-Salas, S., & Martín-Albo, J. (2019). Impact of the happy classrooms programme on psychological well-being, school aggression, and classroom climate. Mindfulness. Advance online publication.

Lottman, T., Zawaly, S., & Niemiec, R. M. (2017). Well-being and well-doing: Bringing mindfulness and character strengths to the early childhood classroom and home. In C. Proctor (Ed.), Positive psychology interventions in practice (pp. 83-105). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Masicampo, E. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2007). Relating mindfulness and self-regulatory processes. Psychological Inquiry, 18 (4), 255-258.

Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Hogrefe Publishing.

Niemiec, R. M. (2017). On heartfulness. In G. Slemp, M. A. White, & S. Murray (Eds.), Future directions in well-being: Education, organizations, and policy (pp. 123-128). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Niemiec, R. M., Rashid, T., & Spinella, M. (2012). Strong mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness and character strengths. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 34 (3), 240-253.

Pang, D., & Ruch, W. (2019). The mutual support model of mindfulness and character strengths. Mindfulness. DOI:

Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Singh, A. N., Winton, A. S. W., Singh, J., & Adkins, A. D. (2008). A mindfulness-based health wellness program for an adolescent with Prader-Willi syndrome. Behavior Modification, 32, 167-181