Evaluating a mindfulness program in a middle school: A complex systems analysis

Laura Rook
University of Wollongong, AUS

Sue Smith
Charles Darwin University, AUS


Mindfulness practice is gradually being recognized as an important strategy for supporting overall wellbeing to cope in a world shaped by constant change. The school environment is no exception. This paper reports on the outcomes of a mindfulness program that was implemented in a middle school in regional Australia. A total of 21 students and 5 teachers participated in the mindfulness program. A complexity analysis revealed resistance from all levels of the school which made it difficult to sustain the program long term. We argue that it is pertinent to give attention to the interacting elements within and external to the school system in order to predict and mediate any resistance and ensure that mindfulness programs can be fully supported for the long terms benefits of the students.


Mindfulness in schools is gaining increased attention and so too is the field of mindfulness in education (Schonert-Reichl & Roeser, 2016). Mindfulness is described as non-judgmental awareness exercises that enable individuals to be present in the moment (Jennings, 2015: Germer, 2004). Others describe mindfulness as being presently aware of our inner consciousness, recognizing stimuli in the inner and external environment without making them the center of attention (Germer, 2004). Past research reports mindfulness practice has significant benefits such as: emotion regulation (Corcoran, Farb, Anderson & Segal, 2010; Viafora et al., 2014), decreased reactivity and increased response flexibility (Moore & Malinowski, 2009); providing skills for coping with stress (Wall, 2005; Mendelson et al., 2010); a redress for teacher burnout (Gold et al., 2010; Flook et al., 2013); and increasing teachers and student resilience (Meiklejohn et al., 2012; Zenner et al., 2014). For young people mindfulness can become part a coping strategy for growing up in a world that is constantly challenging and rapidly changing (Weare, 2014). Despite this steady increase in empirical research, the design and implementation of mindfulness programs continue to evolve (Greenberg & Harris, 2012; Roeser & Zelazo, 2012; Schonert-Reichl & Roeser, 2016; Albrecht et al., 2018) as does the school environment. Thus, we argue that the implementation of mindfulness programs in school settings requires a complex systems perspective if the program is to be sustainable. Research from this perspective is limited. Hawkins and James (2018: 29) state "complexity as a foundational aspect of schools is still not adequately acknowledged, which unduly limits research, policy and practice in school leadership, management and organization".

The primary aim of the project is to examine the implementation of a mindfulness program into a middle school curriculum as experienced by staff and students, and to explore the implications of the program from a complex systems perspective. The following research question was established: What is the impact on students and teachers from introducing mindfulness into the curriculum? This paper presents the processes surrounding the implementation of the program, including a complex systems analysis of why the program failed long term. The paper is structured as followed. First the context of the study is presented followed by a description of the research methods. Following this the implementation of the mindfulness classes is detailed. A complexity analysis was undertaken to examine the internal and external interacting agents in order to understand why the program failed. Finally, the implications for future mindfulness programs are discussed in the conclusion section.

Context of the study

The participating middle school in this study was identified as having a complex, vertical and flexible curriculum. Situated in the Northern Territory, Australia, the school developed a dedicated wellbeing agenda, to assist students as they transitioned through the curriculum. However, the school lacked a pedagogical strategy for linking the program across the various levels and years. With research providing evidence that mindfulness could improve learning environments through social and emotional competence (Schonert-Reichl, & Lawlor, 2010; Rutherford, 2014; Brown et al., 2012), and the promotion of general wellbeing in schools (Huppert, & Johnson, 2010; Rocco, 2012; Albrecht et al., 2012) a mindfulness program was implemented.

The rationale behind middle schooling is to meet the academic and socio-emotional needs of young adolescents, due to middle school years being identified as a period of physiological and emotional change in the student (Main & Bryer, 2007; Fried & Chapman, 2012). According to the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA), the student cohort was predominantly low socioeconomic status (SES) and culturally diverse: 35% Indigenous Australian students, 59% with a language background other than English (Australian Curriculum Assessment Reporting Authority 2015). There was also a mobile student population, including a cohort of asylum seeking students that were bussed in from a local detention center. In response to this diversity, the school at the time of the study had a vertical curriculum where students were placed in levels according to their abilities. The school strived to provide a steady and caring environment, which included dedicated attention to student wellbeing pursued in daily Pastoral Care Groups (PCGs). Grove (2004:36) describes pastoral care as "...all measures to assist an individual person or community reach their full potential, success and happiness coming to a deeper understanding of their own humanness".

Research methods


Initial discussion about the possibility of introducing a mindfulness program into the overall wellbeing agenda happened with the principal at the time and a group of teachers at the school. Each year level had a different wellbeing program. Bounce Back was implemented in Year 7, in year 8 You Can do It! was introduced and in year 9 Beyond Blue was implemented. Each of these programs had their own agenda of promoting positive mental health, wellbeing and resilience, strengthening personal and social capabilities and essential 'life skills' for facing any adverse events once outside the safe schooling environment. After a roundtable discussion it was agreed that two teachers, Cate and Sandy (pseudonyms used) could pursue the mindfulness program. The mindfulness program ran for a total of 6 months.

Data collection

This study is situated in the Northern Territory, Australia where a three-tier system operates, with the middle school framework ranging from years 7 to 9. Permission to work with teachers, and students in two classes, were approved by University Ethics Committee, HI3042, and the Department of Education (DoE). Explanatory Statements and Consent forms were distributed to teachers, students from the two selected classes, and their parents. This study followed a Participatory Action Research approach where teachers, students and researcher (author 2) create a reflexive and adaptive community of inquiry (Reason & Bradbury, 2008). The study then drew from qualitative observations, interviews and diary entries from students and teachers to understand the participants' experiences (Van Manen, 2016). The interviews were transcribed and along with the written account of the observations and diaries of staff, were collated and analyzed using a complexity based framework for understanding the implementation and impact of the program on the whole school system. Table 1 below, presents the main demographic characteristics of the participating student and staff:

Participant Group Number Characteristics
Students 21
  • Boys
  • Girls
  • Ages 13-14
  • Teachers (Cate and Sandy) (2)
  • The executive (principal/assistant principal) (2)
  • Student counsellor (1)
  • Cate and Sandy implemented mindfulness exercises in their pastoral care groups. Cate was in her 50s and Sandy in her 40s. Both accredited Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) Highly Accomplished Teachers.
  • The principal, assistant principal and student counsellor played an indirect supporting role.

Data analysis

The analysis of this study begins with the conceptualization of this school, as an environment of "organizational activities in an ocean of complex relationships" (Fidan & Balci, 2017: 11). The school is viewed as a complex adaptive system, where interaction, change and uncertainty, are the norm. As a complex adaptive system, there is recognition of the importance and ever present connectivity, interdependence and dynamic feedback loops within the networks both internal and external to the school.

Complexity theory provides a conceptual frame to view order, stability and change in systems. Systems are complex in the sense that there are a large number of components that are connected and interact with each other in a variety of ways (Mason, 2008). Each of these interdependent elements in the system is influenced by all other related systems in a co-evolutionary relationship, and, as Mitleton-Kelly (2003) has asserted, such an evolutionary change can be both positive and negative. In this case the evolutionary changes affected all sub-systems of the school.

Figure 1 presents a model of the interactions between aspects of the system.


Figure 1: Elements of the complex adaptive system

In Figure 1, we see that teachers interact with: students, the school community, administration and the DoE. In this middle school, like all schools, the sub-systems presented in Figure 1 are not isolated but permeable, meaning there is considerable interaction between the sub-systems. For example, year seven students interact with students in other year levels; teachers interact across social and year level boundaries and across subject discipline boundaries. The school is an open system, which is affected by external influences, such as policy and curriculum mandates, budget changes imposed by the DoE or perhaps an angry parent in the front office.

This conceptualization provided a point from which to begin to understand the demise of the mindfulness program. Within this model, there are assumptions of scale of interaction between subsystems and within the systems, including the hierarchical nature of the school organization and administration. Teachers have constructed perceptions of sense-making structures and an ability to work within and between the fuzzy sub-system boundaries. This presents a more permeable view of boundaries where there are a variety of outcome possibilities of any interaction. Understanding these interactions is enabled by the concept of feedback loops. Such loops can be positive or negative in their effect on any system and its sense-making structures. Mitleton-Kelly (2003: 15) posits that in a human social system, feedback can be perceived differently from the traditional view of feedback: as a positive or reinforcing feedback that drives change or negative feedback which challenges stability in the system.

The research narrative

For digitally engaged 13 or 14 years old girls and boys, the challenge to sit quietly was counter-intuitive, and typically the students felt self-conscious of how they appeared to others. This process is described as a student's transition from formal operational thinking structures to abstract and hypothetical centered thought (Elkind, 1967; Elkind & Bowen, 1979) that manifests as "a novel form of egocentrism in which the individual imagines her- or himself to be a target of everyone else's thoughts" (Slee et al., 2012: 499).

Cate ventured slowly and patiently with her class practicing mindfulness and a routine, albeit tenuous, routine was established. Sandy had a more difficult time. Her PCG classes were held in the cavernous gymnasium shared by the school orchestra that practiced in a petitioned area. The space was noisy, the boys were restless and the girls were doggedly resistant. Alongside the invariable PCG disruptionsannouncements, sports rosters and the likethe teachers persevered. Cate borrowed from the structured lessons provided in the MindUp Curriculum Grades 6-8© (The Hawn Foundation, 2011), and Sandy utilized lessons from the Learning to BREATHE curriculum (Broderick, 2013) that was devised from earlier work with adolescents (Broderick & Metz, 2009). Cate developed various conceptual models to bring the abstract notions of mindfulness into the student's world. She experimented with various activities, such as: shaking a bottle of muddy water and watching the sediment settle"like a clear and settled mind". Students sat on the tables and dangled their legs, "they could feel like they were floating." Another student relayed to the class that the exercises helped to sleep. The Assistant Principal, a regular observer from the corridor, remained supportive: "Most students, and some on other days, were engaging in these activities."

For Cate and Sandy student resistance persisted. Cate recalled that a student confided that peers discouraged engagement. She theorized:

There is so very little silence in their lives. It is like they are afraid of silence. If a friend can't sleep, they message each other. Ten out of the fourteen students said they slept with their mobile phones, Silence freaks them out!

Here, an emergent field in dynamic systems thinking provides some further insights as to why students disengaged. Kim and Sankey (2010) theorized that individuals, as dynamic systems, engage with mutuality neuro-biologically, psychologically and philosophically. In this context, individual students who embodied neural synaptic selves that hold values and make choices (Kim & Sankey, 2010), did not perceive enough personal reasons or supports to warrant the pursuit useful. The second author reflected in her research diary: Was this program ideologically driven by beliefs in the intrinsic good of mindfulness? Were Rothwell and Williams (2010) concerns justified? Mindfulness practice does not equate to teaching mindfulness?

Evidence for the latter was not apparent. Cate was drawing on her professional skills and her experience:

We have talked about them all having a different starting point and different challenges so for [student] his challenge is really to be able to sit still so he's going to work on that, and [student] will be working on being a bit more open-minded and a bit more willing to try things without being too cynical.

At the same time in the program, Cate and Sandy began to feel vulnerable with their newfound visibility as the mindfulness teachers. They shared at interview unsettling perceptions of interactions with some of the staff: negative body language, announcement requests overlooked, and PCG decisions made without their involvement. Curiously too, Cate and Sandy recalled, people had been given permission at lunchtime to enter the school to give away Gideon's Bibles. The PCG Coordinator was seen carrying several. The specter of proselytizing religion was unsettling, and the teachers speculated whether this might have been a reaction to the Buddhist connotations that had encircled the mindfulness program.

Guidance from Keshavarz et al. (2010) helped understand what was happening in the school. Using the conceptual frame of complex adaptive systems to study major changes in schools they recognized that schools comprise of diverse rules-based agents, located in multi-level nested systems that are interconnected in complex relationship networks located internally and externally to the school. Teachers and students are numerous, dynamic, autonomous and highly interactive. They act based on their knowledge, experience, feedback from their environment and formal system rules. These rules may not always be followed, as autonomy and context dependency associated with social norms and practices also influence system outcomes. Hence, any change in a school will trigger new and unpredictable outcomes that emerge and multiply from the interreacting elements within the system and so limits predictability of outcomes (Mason, 2008). It then follows that complex adaptive system framing acknowledges that there are no independent changes in a school (Lemke & Sabelli, 2008).

Organizational and systemic changes

By Term Four, with a change of government, rumored job losses and funding cut backs, the school system was dramatically disrupted. Staff anxiety increased. The impact of external disruption came with the loss of the two senior teachers who handled behavior issues. A third principal in two years was appointed. Displacement of teachers was not handled transparently. Forward planning for the next year was sequestered in the Change Management Committee. Open inclusive decision making was no longer the modus operandi. Senior teachers' inputs were generally unheeded. Some teachers chose to be accompanied by a union member when invited to talk with the Principal.

The disruption to the middle school teachers escalated with mandated increases to teaching loads, staff retrenchment and redeployment, implementation of the horizontally constructed Australian Curriculum, and extended literacy and numeracy classes in response to comparative poor school performance alongside national test benchmarks. These priorities required substantial scaling back of kinesthetic and creative subjectswoodwork, drama, home economics, the garden. Reform of the student wellbeing program slipped from the agenda.

Amid the reorganization Sandy was allocated a new PCG and she stopped the mindfulness exercises. Cate's pastoral responsibilities also changed. Her girls only PCG was combined with a boys group. By the second week of term three of her students were involved in fights that tilted pastoral priorities away from mindfulness. By the end of Term four the mindfulness program was no longer operating.

The school as a complex adaptive system

The middle school in the context of this research was undergoing a time of change and relative instability. Changes were being imposed from outside the individual school's system that required adaptive changes that individually affected staff and students alike. As we began to theorize our mindfulness program's development (and demise), we also began to explore the school as a complex adaptive system.

Cilliers (1998) presents such a system as having numerous components and subsystems that were evident in the school. These sub-systems such as students, staff, parents, community, curriculum, classesand layers of school, departmental and government administrationfunction as interrelated systems that work together with the aim of producing quality outcomes for students.

Amid these complexities it was also important to recognize that the school system, and each of the sub-systems, had the basic structures of sense-making: symbols, words, power, patterns of authority, and those of legitimation: norms, rules, routines and procedures (Westley et al. in Gunderson & Holling, 2002). Kuhn and Woog (2007) referred to these communications as 'phrase space'. The phrase space concept, as applied to the school context, describes the way that ideas and ways of through language present assertions of power and patterns of authority. Such language within and between sub-systems provided an unsettling backdrop for the future of the mindfulness program.

In the context of this study, the staff cuts to the school are considered as an externally imposed change that affects all the subsystems. Viewed this way, any change impacts on all other aspects of the school. Like the work of Yates and Holt (2009), the culture of the school system and external environment presented a rigid, competitive and formal structure that could be said to have not embraced the mindfulness program, and doing things differently. The effect of such an external disruption (positive or negative) affects the systems with outcomes that are not necessarily predictable. However, when considering the dynamic nature of the connectedness of the sub-systems in this middle school, indeterminate outcomes of any decision or action internal or external will in some way or another have effects across all aspects of the school. Reflecting on Figure1, we can see that the directives of the DoE imposed changes that the Administrators were required to enact, that affected the organization of the school, the teachers' behaviors and actions and ultimately the students. This presents a school in constant flux, where no day is the same, particularly in the light of such considerable change. The threats of job cuts and curriculum reorganization created anxiety and uncertainty amongst the staff, although the flow on effects of teachers' sadness, anger and sickness as noted above could not be fully anticipated, perhaps, by the government or the DoE. Nor were the subsequent increase in referrals to the pupil's Welfare Coordinator. This sadness, anger and sickness expressed by the teachers and the constant flux of the environment influenced the negative phrase space (Rook & McManus, 2016; Rook & Watson, 2017). The teachers described being in a world characterized by tension, control, reactive change. This created an environment where negative feedback loops created an un-balancing and de-stabling effect (Rook, 2015) directly impacting upon the successful implementation of the mindfulness program. The influences on the complex adaptive system of the school itself are explored further in the following two sections.

Adaptive cycle

The adaptive cycle is grounded in a socio-ecological approach (Holling, 1996) to complex adaptive systems. Gunderson & Holling (2002), presented the adaptive cycle as a way of understanding the phases through which any system undergoes change. Figure 2 represents the adaptive cycle.


Figure 2: The adaptive cycle (Adapted from Walker & Salt, 2006; Buchan, 2011)

The cycle represents a continuum experienced in nature, social systems, and within an individual. The adaptive cycle in Figure 2, has four phases: growth, conservation, collapse, and re-organization each of which influences and is influenced by the adjacent phase. The adaptive cycle indicates two major transition periods. The first is the growth to conservation transition period that indicates incremental growth and development. Growth in a school comprises of the development of skills, relationship networks, curriculum understanding and pedagogical content knowledge. These are temporal, spatial, social, and technological aspects of a school learning environment, characterized by interaction, relationships, dependencies, interdependencies, and processes (Buchan, 2011). This transition is usually considered as a slow transition, as was the case when Cate and Sandy initially proposed the mindfulness program. The school at that time was operating at a stage of relative stability and connectedness, and the program was endorsed via protracted rounds of meetings and discussions between PCGs, staff, Administration, and School Council. The implementation created some disruption for some staff and students but, for the first term of the study at least, it was operating within a zone of stability. So too were Cate, Sandy and their fellow teachers.

The second transition period presented in Figure 2 is that of collapse, which is triggered by an event disrupting the stability of the system, forcing it to release moving toward re-organization. The internal and external organizational disturbances such as the change of Principal and teacher transfers and redundancies caused rapid changes that moved to a re-organization of resources, such as reconfigurations of PCGs and staffing reallocations. The collapse phase represents a change in dynamics of the system that is typically chaotic, where the stability of relationships, school processes and structures were disrupted. According to the theory, the re-organization phase provides a space and opportunity for re-organization, where often, innovation will eventually lead back to the growth phase. In this school's case, the period of chaos lasted until the year's end. Re-organization did occur with the abandonment of the PCGs and dedicated student wellbeing agenda. The new principal considered student well-being to be a 'whole school concern' to be integrated across all classes. The PCG slots were absorbed by timetabling more literacy and numeracy classes. This new era of relative stability left no space, nor will, amongst the participating teachers, to pursue the mindfulness program.


Panarchy suggests that within any system, there are complex adaptive cycles nested in a hierarchical structure (Gunderson & Holling, 2002). The panarchy heuristic suggests that adaptive cycles have multiple connections, that open the possibility of any change cascading through the adaptive cycles, subsequently affecting the conservation, collapse or release, and re-organization phases at each level of the hierarchy, as represented below in Figure 3.


Figure 3: Adapted from Gunderson & Holling, 2002

The nested adaptive cycles in Figure 3 presents the external disturbance imposed by the DoE as previously outlined. Panarchy provides a representation of the cascading effect of such a decision, as it triggered the collapse of the administration system when the Principal was transferred. This began a process of re-organization and growth causing a collapse of the teacher system and student system where the mindfulness program was piloted. Each of these cycles begins a re-organization phase, such as the reconfiguring of PCGs, and growth phase, presumably through a new orientation towards student wellbeing in the school.

This panarchy view of the school suggests many adaptive cycles as identifiable entities interacting in causal relationships. Each system of the school has many agents that are dynamic, autonomous, and interactive; where they "act in ways that are based on a combination of their knowledge, experience, feedback from the environment, local values, and formal system rules'' (Keshavararz et al., 2010: 1468). Each of the agents: students, teachers and administrators interact within and between scales of the school. These agents are each complex adaptive systems that respond to positive and negative feedback, adapting to each other in the highly contextual school environmentthat has its context in time, space, proximity and history. Such a view of a school moves from linear causal understanding to the notion of dynamic causality, where there are relational interactions of multiple actors within and between systems. Certainly, at the time of the study, this school presented as an especially dynamic environment. The interactions are multiple and multi-connected. In Figure 3, we see departmental (DoE) directives moving the systems, and administrative requirements made for further shifts in the systems. A student quoted:

We didn't do mindfulness again today; we had to do the sports roster.

System changes also affected the teacher's personal capacity:

After the resistance from some of the students last week I thought I would leave it for a week or so.

It is this multiplicity of the interactions cascading through time which produces unpredictable and non-linear outcomes (Haggis, 2008).

Reflecting on the teacher system in Figure 3, the adaptive cycle can also be applied to individual teachers. Cate and Sandy were home economics and drama teachers respectively. The revised plan to reduce cooking classes to one hour seemed untenable and drama was scheduled for once a week per class. Double lessons were no more. Cate moved on to reorganization by setting to write a new curriculum for each year level but felt 'burnt'. The following year she took a coordination position at the school. Sandy was doubly 'burned'. With the new proposed changes to the timetable, she would be teaching more individual classes with less opportunity to develop productions, and the PCGs where she had exerted a leadership role were reconfigured and then dissolved altogether. For Sandy, reorganization meant resigning from her teaching position to engage in community work.

The final cascaded group in the dynamic systems model in Figure 3 is the students. We came to the study with full confidence that the two teachers were well placed to introduce the mindfulness program. Both were highly accomplished classroom teachers, each of whom, shared a warm rapport with their students and were themselves experienced mindfulness practitioners. However, the students' system was also disrupted because of the negative feedback loops cascading from the other systems. Such unpredictable outcomes were not anticipated. As Cate struggled with the disturbances imposed upon her professional life and ructions from her students, she reflected in a journal entry that stated:

The students could read the mood of the school and their rebelliousness and disengagement was also in part a struggle to assert some control over their lives.

The students' disruption was furthered by the disruptions to teachers' professional lives, changes of personnel and changes to their timetables and class groupings. The result was that some students desisted from engagement with the mindfulness altogether.


This paper presented the process surrounding the implementation of a mindfulness program into a Northern Territory Middle School. While it can be anticipated that new initiatives, such as a mindfulness program can meet with some resistance or skepticism, as Albrecht et al. (2018) have reminded us, the program was progressing, but in no small part it is argued here that externally imposed system disruptions hindered success.

A complexity framework has provided opportunities of inquiry to reveal permeable boundaries between school sub-systems that have highlighted the importance of feedback loops of interconnectivity across the school, where change at any level affected the teachers, students and school leaders in that space. In considering the school as a complex adaptive system attention has been drawn to the many interacting and connected sub-systems as sites for evaluation. This revealed chaos evident in the adaptive cycle of conservation-collapse-reorganization-growth in the both the collective and individual teacher and student systems, including the demise of the mindfulness program. The notions of panarchy where cycles are linked through, in this case, negative feedback loops focused the inquiry into a holistic frame where "the sum of the parts makes the whole". Here the parts experienced a collapse phase thus influencing collapse phases across the whole. Attributed to the collapse phase across the system, a negative phrase space also permeated across sub-systems where the mindfulness program was un-predictably caught. The result was that it failed to become embedded into the school's wellbeing agenda.

While critics may argue that a complexity analysis is limiting in that it offers a retrospective post hoc analysis of phenomenon, such as viewing a school, in this case complexity has been instructive as to why a good idea went awry. As such we can draw some lessons from the study for future implementation of programs into schools. Firstly, complexity theory provides insights into school systems where change is a constant partner. Such insight enhances an understanding of the importance of connected adaptive cycles in any change process and brings possibilities of emergent solutions that could be considered evolutionary as opposed to reactionary.

Complexity theory suggests that a school system can change and evolve to meet external and internal perturbations by valuing sub-system interconnectedness. Such recognition of interconnectedness requires schools to become aware and engaged with their internal, external environment and stakeholders. However, disruptions are often unpredictable, as so are the intensities of the collapse phases, yet school systems can work through such perturbations by focusing on the emergent possibilities that are evident in the interactions between reconceptualization phase of the sub-systems. If the school administration had understood the interrelationships and feedback interactions cross the school, opportunities for internal resources, within and between sub-systems to be linked in innovative ways could have been realized. Such creative linking provides a space for emergent solutions in negative feedback scenarios. As a postscript, a newly appointed Principal to the school took an emergent solutions approach to wellbeing by dissolving the current agenda structure, recognizing the importance of interconnectivity and supported mindfulness being integrated, within a wellbeing program across the curriculum.


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