Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series on healthy schools.
Full disclosure, I meditate almost every day, and I'm in good company. Each year more and more people, from super star athletes to successful CEOs, are attributing at least part of their success to a regular meditation practice. For me, meditation helps keep me present and reduces my stress level, and existing research supports those benefits. A recent analysis concluded that adults participating in mindfulness meditation programs show reduced anxiety, depression, and pain.
Now, schools are getting in on the mindfulness and meditation trend, and many schools around the country are finding time for meditation, silence, and stillness.
But what do we mean when we talk about meditation? There are several terms that refer to the practice, and the research on effectiveness defines them this way:
Mindfulness: Deliberately focusing attention to the present moment, without judgment to the experience that unfolds. Essentially, you are attending to the present moment and the feelings that arise, without resistance to those feelings, and specifically teaching children to be aware of the ways they are thinking and feeling in that specific moment. This can help build strategies to deal with past difficulties, future anxieties, and resilience when the current moment is stressful.
Mindfulness-based stress stress-reduction programs: Programs utilizing various forms of mindfulness meditation such as breath awareness, body scan exercises, walking, and yoga. These practices in school can help improve students' self-monitoring of behavior, emotions, and sensations which will help them become aware and responsible for their actions and corresponding emotions.
Transcendental meditation: Silently repeating a word or mantra, and redirecting back to that mantra when distracting thoughts arise. This practice helps balance and calm the nervous system (the relaxation response), and can be particularly helpful for students coming from high-stress homes.
As part of one school program known as Quiet Time, students participate in two 15-minute sessions of quiet activity at the beginning and end of the day. The students can sit in silence and meditate or they can do some other sort of quiet activity such as silent reading. The researchers at the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education, where this program was developed, have noted improved health, reduced violence, and gains in academic performance.
But, should schools be taking time out of their already packed schedules to teach meditation? The research speaks for itself; a recent study in 2014 analyzed the effects of these programs and found small, but significant improvements in overall well-being, social competence, and academic achievement (although these effects were influenced by duration, frequency of practice, and instructor).From the results, the authors proposed a school based-meditation model, which highlights the exact pathways by which mindfulness and meditation can improve specific outcomes.
Specifically, just two 15-20 minute sessions per day can help improve readiness to learn by relaxing students and improving emotional regulation and cognitive functioning. Improvements in these areas lead to improvement in social competence, well-being, and academic achievement.
While meditation in schools is new to practice and to research, the initial results of effectiveness are promising. I've decided as a researcher and as a participant that I am going to teach my children the practice of meditation. As they grow and their world becomes bigger, it will inevitably become more complicated, but I believe meditation will help give them the tools to self-monitor their emotions and behavior, and to stay centered in times of storm and calm. I've personally benefited from my meditation practice, and the research certainly is starting to suggest that teaching our children to meditate and practice mindfulness could be a lifelong gift. I think Daniel Tiger says it best: "When you feel so bad and you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to 4!"