Bringing Meditation to Schools
Heralded as a new educational approach, students at schools across the country are trying hard to be in the present moment. This is what is known as mindfulness training, a form of meditation in which stress-reducing techniques drawn from Buddhist meditation are wedged between reading and spelling tests.
It turns out that stress creates a big barrier to learning, according to cognitive scientists (and, frankly, common sense). So instead, some schools are beginning to promote ‘social and emotional learning’ (or SEL).
Programs involve both primary and high school children being taught to follow their breath with "mindfulness" exercises, which are basically scaled-down, kid-tailored versions of meditation. Meditation, while common in hospitals, corporations, professional sports and even prisons, is relatively new in the education of children. Growing ever-popular in America, a small but growing number of schools across Australia are slowly embracing the concept. The techniques, among them focused breathing and concentrating on a single object, are loosely adapted from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the molecular biologist who pioneered the secular use of mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts in 1979 to help medical patients cope with chronic pain, anxiety and depression.
So what exactly is involved?
Programs vary, but mostly the aims are to develop what is called "non-judgmental awareness," to begin teaching a child to stay with a thought or feeling while resisting the urge to run away from it (a hard task for an adult – let alone a child). Students are also taught strategies for "deferred gratification" and "self-regulation" — the psychological terms being used to replace more old-fashioned words like self-control and patience. This occurs, anatomically speaking, in the prefrontal cortex, which is the last portion of the brain to fully develop in humans and often not until well into one's 20s.
Every day students will perform simple exercises, such as ‘magic penny’ or ‘butterfly breathing’. Basically students calm themselves with simple breathing exercises or through concentration exercises like listening to a bell chime until they can’t hear it anymore.
Exercises in the Classroom
The three meditation-based exercises are typical of those used in participating schools today. They give students a creative tool which most of them have never used before.
I. Meditation Before Writing.
Meditation is a sophisticated practice which requires a long time to master. The better title for this exercise may be “quiet concentration” or “pure thinking.”
Exercise: Provide an in-class assignment; it could be a simple description (“What would the ideal classroom look like?”), or a more philosophical question (“What is the right way to discipline young children?”). It could also be a memory question (“What is your earliest memory?”). The question can be tailored to current class work.
Turn the lights off, ask them to silence their electronic devices, tell them to get comfortable, and announce that the meditation will last five minutes.
When the five minutes are up, give them time to write a paragraph on the assigned subject. You could then ask them to read the paragraphs aloud, but that is not required. Ask them to share their reactions to the meditation process.
It’s a simple exercise, but provides a memorable and often empowering experience for the students.
II. Guided Meditation.
One of the pitfalls of learning is the frequent assumption by students that their view of the world is universally held, such as, “Everyone serves turkey at Christmas,” or “Everyone loves their parents.”
Exercise: Ask students to close their eyes. Ask them to breathe comfortably in and out, and then instruct them to relax their feet, ankles, knees, hips, stomach, throat, eyes, etc. Then they are guided in a meditation where they imagine a place. It takes time for images and impressions to develop, but the students are asked to tell the rest of the class what their fence/field/body of water looked like, what they did while they were walking.
The dazzling array of different experiences speaks for itself in demonstrating that no two minds think alike. The point can be underlined by noting that their imaginings proceeded from different experiences and expectations, and that this diversity should be assumed in every area of the human experience.
III. Talking Stick:
This exercise is based on tribal ceremonies to resolve differences and hash through issues. It can be used in any discipline to dig deep into a specific area of inquiry. It is nonthreatening, egalitarian, and always interesting.
Exercise: The teacher must find a “talking stick” of some sort, which is simply an interesting stick. The role of the teacher is to guide the discussion and regulate the timing. The students should understand clearly the issue they are to address. Instruct them to give complete attention to the person holding the Talking Stick – no laughter, no commentary, no questions. Students self-regulate the length of their comments so each participant has time to speak, but the teacher should be ready to cut off a time-hog. The teacher will also judge how long the sharing should go on, giving each student a chance to speak the same number of times.
The class sits in a circle and the Talking Stick is placed in the middle. The group sits in silence until someone is moved to pick up the stick and share a thought about the subject at hand. He or she speaks for as long as necessary to express his or her thought and then passes the stick to the left. The next person speaks, and passes it to the left, and so on. Students who can’t think of anything to say can pass it without speaking, but the teacher should come back to them later.
Schools using meditation
At Hawthorn's Erasmus School of Primary Education in Victoria, the students sit down twice a day to meditate for ten minutes. The students, parents, and teachers all feel that children are far happier, more relaxed, confident and far less stressed and anxious. Promotions Manager, Ms Brewster says, "By the time they get to grade 5 and 6, they are very connected as a group. They are very bright, very fresh looking - that is what strikes you when you see them. ”
Hunter Adams, 10, defined mindfulness as “not hitting someone in the mouth.” “He didn’t know what to do with his energy or how to cope when dealing with frustration with a peer,’ his mother, Patricia Adams, said at a session for parents. “But one day after school he told me, ‘I’m just taking a moment.’ If it works in a child’s mind — with so much going on — there must be something to it.”
At Maharishi School, in Reservoir, transcendental meditation is helping to eliminate stress and fatigue and induce deep rest. The older students have sessions twice a day, and their younger schoolmates do walking meditation. Principal Frances Clarke says the benefits are profound. "A lot of children come from other schools, particularly boys, because they are struggling in schools due to bullying and they just turn around so quickly," she says.
What are the benefits?
Adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, a consultant to the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals (VASSP), is an enthusiastic ambassador of the existing MindMatters program - a "whole-school" approach to mental health promotion and suicide prevention in high schools, which includes using meditation in the classroom. "It's absolutely superb. What I am finding, though, is it's very much bound by how enthusiastic a teacher is and it doesn't seem to have the leadership," Dr Carr-Gregg says. "I'm not convinced many schools understand how important that material is."
Dr Carr-Gregg says the need to deal with stress and anxiety in children has never been greater. While youth suicide numbers are declining, more children are suffering from anxiety and depression, often related to the way they relate to their peers. Figures published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show youth suicide numbers dropped from 508 in 1997 to 290 in 2003. Dr Carr-Gregg attributes the decline to school programs such as MindMatters and services such as Kids Help Line and Lifeline.
The USA is leading the way with this approach and a recent study of teenagers by Kaiser Permanente in San Jose, California, found that meditation techniques helped improve mood disorders, depression, and self-harming behaviours like anorexia and bulimia.
Can I do it at home?
These meditations are commonly used in the classroom but can be used at home. They included five steps:
1. Relaxing the body
2. Deep breathing
3. Concentration of the mind
4. Expansion of the mind
5. Productive activity
1. Relaxing the Body
Some stretching or yoga exercises is recommended. After the yoga exercises, have your child tense and relax each body part, starting with the toes and ending with the top of the head.
2. Deep Breathing
i. Get your child to sit cross legged on cushions, left palm over the right palm
ii. Keep the back straight and also relaxed as that will allow a natural flow of energy up and down the spine.
iii. Have your children close their eyes
iv. Practise deep breathing for a few moments
a. Breathe in to a count of three, hold the breath and breathe out to a count of three;
b. As they breathe, you let your child know they are breathing in fresh energy, love, joy and peace. They are entering and spreading throughout their body;
c. As they breathe out, let your child imagine any negative feelings — sadness, boredom, anger or tiredness — coming out through their nose and leaving their body and disappearing
3. Concentration of the Mind
This step is focusing the mind at one point.
Encourage your child to visualise a point on their upper lip and concentrate on that point. Draw all the energy and attention into that point while staying very relaxed. Let any stray thoughts or memories pass through, always gently drawing the attention back to the point.
4. Expansion of the Mind
Once your child’s emotions and minds are quiet, they are ready for the fourth step: true meditation – turning inside for their own answers and wisdom. Guide your child to expand their imagination and awareness through guided imagery. By using guided imagery, the child will learn to see themselves on a movie screen in their minds as a caring, loving, patient etc. person. This will aid them to perform better as a human being as their thoughts are slowly being transformed into wholesome and positive ones.
5. Productive activity
Guide your child to bring their attention slowly back to their body. Feeling all your body parts and slowly wriggling their fingers and toes. Rotating their head. When they are ready, get them to slowly open their eyes. It is now time for the fifth step: grounding the newfound energy, wisdom, insights and heightened awareness into some useful and productive activity. Direct your child to channel this newly focused energy and creativity into dance, art, story writing, music, sharing, discussion, creative communication, awareness game or academic work.
The tone of voice to use
Please remember that when you are speaking, you will do so in a very slow, relaxed voice, pausing to let the scene sink in, so that your child, whose eyes are closed and who is focusing inward, can easily visualise and feel the scene. The way you use your voice is very important. You will find it best to drop your voice by a few tones, speaking more and more and more slowly, with a soothing quality.
But does it really work or is it just a ‘fad’?
As we have seen, one side says the benefits to children are huge, leading them to have a well-functioning "executive function" which is now seen as a net benefit for all concerned — and good for long-term health, too, studies now suggest.
The other side says it is just a ‘new-age’ way to get children to be easier to deal with for teachers – to pacify them, and ‘dumb them down’ in order to turn them into polite creatures ready to learn.
They argue that the real focus should be on progressive educational reform – creating a more child-led approach to education that inspires a true love of learning, ultimately reducing anxiety and stress. Whatever your position, as Camille Hopkins, the Principal of Kaiser Permanente pointed out whilst using the program, “meditation in the classroom can’t do it all”.