Should Schools Teach Kids to Meditate?

Meditation can help students be less stressed and more compassionate. But how many districts are ready to sign on?
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James Woodcock, Billings Gazette/AP Photo

Each year, meditation becomes more of a trend. Celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld and Goldie Hawn, businessmen like Bill George of Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil, and News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch, have publicly discussed practicing it. Techies and others in the corporate world have begun using mindfulness, a type of meditation, to combat the stress and overstimulation of their jobs. Even the Marines have used it to “improve mental performance under the stress and strain from war.”

At the same time, more and more studies are showing direct links between meditation and health benefits. A study led by researchers at John Hopkins found that just eight weeks of meditation training was as effective as medication in treating depression, anxiety, and pain. At Harvard, scientists using neuro-imaging technology showed how meditation positively affected the brain activity of the chronically stressed, a condition that the Benson-Henry Institute reports is related to more than 60 percent of all doctor’s visits. 

Schools have also begun experimenting with the practice and discovering that its techniques can help its students. When a school in New Haven, Connecticut, required yoga and meditation classes three times a week for its incoming freshman, studies found that after each class, students had significantly reduced levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in their bodies. In San Francisco, schools that participated in Quiet Time, a Transcendental Meditation program, had twice as many students score proficient in English on the California Achievement Test than in similar schools where the program didn’t exist. Visitacion Valley Middle School specifically reduced suspensions by 45 percent during the program’s first year. Attendance rates climbed to 98 percent, grade point averages improved, and the school recorded the highest happiness levels in San Francisco on the annual California Healthy Kids Survey. Other studies have shown that mindfulness education programs improved students’ self-control, attentiveness and respect for other classmates, enhanced the school climate, and improved teachers’ moods. 

These results did not surprise me. As a former teacher who now practices meditation myself, I’ve often wondered how I could have used the practice in my own classroom. The stress level of teaching seemed to bring out my already-existing anxiety in the worst kind of ways. I slept poorly, unable to stop rehearsing my lessons in my head. I got irritable with loved ones. I felt obsessed with saving time when there was so much to do and so much to teach to students who I feared were behind. My students noticed, too. On a survey, one wrote, “It seems like you’re really tense”; another, “You can get easily frustrated with yourself.”

Meanwhile, my students seemed just as anxious as I was. My advisory group complained of the immense pressure of balancing school with their lives at home. Students constantly booked appointments with the school counselor to talk through their personal struggles with a professional. A common response from students on their semester reflections was “I’m overwhelmed.”

Months after leaving the profession (partially due to its stress), I attended a ten-day beginner meditation retreat. It was the first time I ever attempted to learn the practice. I began to understand how powerful meditation could be in confronting the anxiety and insecurity my students felt at school and I felt while teaching, and often throughout most of my life. So when I discovered that some of my former students had participated in a mindfulness education program called Headstand in middle school before they became my high-school students, I was eager to find out its effects.

Headstand’s mission is to “empower at-risk students to combat toxic stress through yoga, mindfulness, and character education.” Harvard's Center for the Developing Child defines toxic stress as “severe, uncontrollable, chronic adversity” and explains that it can disrupt the architecture of the developing brain, often impeding academic learning and creating long-term physical- and mental-health problems. 

With almost half of current public school students considered low-income, the issue of “toxic stress” affecting young students has become more relevant. Katherine Priore Ghannam, Headstand’s founder, says, “This is a matter of education reform and public health: Our students desperately need a way to cope with the everyday adversity of living in the conditions that they do. If we know this [stress] exists, I think we have the responsibility to provide such a simple tool to kids who need it the most.”

Ghannam believes her mindfulness program can serve as “an antidote to that stress” and so far, surveys results suggest the program works: 98 percent of students in the program reported feeling “less stressed” and more “ready to learn” after taking Headstand classes. 

Ghannam had no exposure to yoga or mindfulness growing up, and at first was skeptical it could work. Yet when the stress level during her first year teaching became overwhelming and made her begin to think her job was unsustainable, a close friend finally convinced her to take a yoga class.

“I had an experience in that very first class,” Ghannam said. “For one of the first times in my life, I understood what it meant to be calm.”

Ghannam believes her yoga practice gave her the skills and strength she needed to not quit teaching during that difficult first year. After practicing yoga, she felt her new sense of calm transferred to the classroom and made the environment more welcoming for her students. Years later, she decided to merge the two areas by creating Headstand.

Ghannam wants to emphasize “smart practice.” When she observed existing programs, she felt they lacked a crucial element: delivery. She saw many yoga instructors, accustomed to teaching in studios with middle-aged participants, not adapting their teaching strategies for children in public schools.

“For teachers with that kind of experience, working with young students is like speaking a foreign language,” Ghannam said, “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to translate this content to the appropriate level for children. Otherwise, it won’t make sense.” 

She wondered how much greater the impact of a yoga program could be if she had academic teachers delivering the content, with a rigorous, professionally designed curriculum that made the content consistent and structured over time.     

Headstand employs this philosophy by only hiring yoga teachers who have three years of previous teaching experience. It also aligns its curriculum’s teaching objectives with California state standards for physical education and health. Its curriculum uses the lesson plan structure taught in several teacher training programs. Lessons scaffold skills to gradually build up to the day’s objective, starting with a “Do Now” that gets students reflecting on the day’s topic and ending class with an “exit ticket” that assesses what they learned.

Even though Headstand’s mission and planning impressed me, I was still skeptical that young students could actually take yoga and mindfulness seriously.

Adam Moskowitz, a Headstand teacher, agreed that the practice can be difficult for some kids: “At their age—and in this age—the last thing some of them want to do is sit, with nothing to look at or play,” he says, “In some ways, despite its great challenge, mindfulness is a very simple, repetitive practice. It’s not always easy convincing kids that they’re learning something by doing the same, simple thing again and again.”

I emailed my former students who took Headstand’s classes in middle school to ask them about their impressions of the program. Michael Rivera, now a senior in high school, admitted that at first, he found yoga class “dull.”  His next response also seemed very telling: “It wasn’t as active as sports. There wasn’t a lot of movement going on, so it reminded me of a ‘time out,’ like a punishment. We were stuck inside, instead of being outside and having an extra 45 minutes of P.E.” 

His response exemplified two common attitudes: a refusal to believe anything but fast-pasted exercise can qualify as “physical education”; and a tendency to equate active movement with productivity, and stillness with wasted time or even, as Michael noticed, “punishment.” To me, this was the most revolutionary aspect of meditation programs: They teach the idea that slowing down is necessary, and that sometimes “not doing” can be just as productive as “doing.”

Headstand’s curriculum aims to promote this idea with its students. In one lesson plan, students brainstorm what they generally associate with the word “slow” and discuss why the word’s connotation is generally negative. Then, they do a yoga sequence paced slowly and quickly at different times, and discuss how moving at each pace affected the tone of the room, and their own frame of mind. They brainstorm situations when acting slowly may be better than acting too quickly, like during an argument or when overwhelmed on a test. While teaching, I was always concerned with “doing,” making sure my students and I constantly worked towards the goals we wanted to achieve. It wasn’t until I practiced meditation that I realized what my schools and professional environment had never taught me: that instead of moving for the sake of moving, what both my students and I may have needed instead was a moment of being still. 

“Their minds are busy just like ours,” says Emily Tsay, a Headstand teacher for first and second graders. “But you can see physically how their mood changes when we practice.” She says she starts class by having students rest their minds for just three breaths and then builds up from that. On a chart posted on a wall of her class, she tracks how long they can sit with their eyes closed focusing only on their breath.

Now looking back, Michael agrees that mindfulness practice was useful and appreciates the quiet environment the class provided: “Just having a good 45 minutes to not hear any noise and keep to yourself mentally actually helped me prepare for the next class periods. After yoga class, I would feel pretty rejuvenated.”

Beth A. Keiser/AP Photo

Headstand’s curriculum also tries to stay true to the original purpose of yoga and meditation by framing each class around positive character traits, like compassion and gratitude. Recently, some critics have coined the term "McMindfulness" to criticize the mindfulness movement’s tendency to only focus on reducing stress while ignoring the practice’s other key goals of compassion and social awareness. Critics want to ensure that programs emphasize being mindful not only for your own benefit, but for the benefit of others. This makes the character education aspect of Headstand’s curriculum significant. Each unit focuses on a certain trait. A unit on “responsibility” is framed around questions like “What does it mean to accept personal responsibility?”, “How does being irresponsible affect the people around you?” and “How are responsibility and power related?” A unit on gratitude discusses the idea of “taking something for granted.” A unit on “curiosity” asks how curiosity can encourage social justice.

Kelly Knoche, a yoga teacher helping to develop social-emotional curricula in Oakland, thinks this emphasis on character is imperative to providing true education: “We think we’re teaching kids how to thrive by focusing on academics. But we often miss teaching them the skills they need for daily life: how to build relationships with compassion, how to support each other, how to cope with trauma. Those are the kinds of skills that will eventually keep them going.”

Headstand’s emphasis on character education follows a trend that has gained momentum in urban education circles, particularly after the popularity of journalist Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, based on his popular New York Times article. After dismal graduation statistics showed only nine percent of low-income students who enter a four-year college actually graduate, Tough’s book theorized that the character traits of college students, even more than their academic skills, could predict whether they succeeded or not. Headstand’s curriculum builds off of the seven traits that Tough argues are crucial for future success: grit, curiosity, self-control, social intelligence, zest, optimism, and gratitude.

Knoche thinks bringing a program like Headstand to her school district would help accomplish this: “Headstand has a beautiful way of redefining what we believe public education should be and blending yoga, mindfulness and character education into those beliefs.”

But with issues like funding, class scheduling, graduation requirements, and other logistics, I wondered whether programs like Headstand and others could ever become a part of our public-education system. 

“Headstand has taken a specific model and made it successful within a charter network, which is relatively autonomous and flexible,” Knoche says, “Now the question is, how do we get an entire district on board?”

Parents and administrators have not always embraced these programs right away. Administrators at an Ohio elementary school discontinued the school’s mindfulness program after parents felt uncomfortable with the practice’s roots in Eastern religion and complained that the program did not use class time valuably. Last year, prosecutors in a prominent court case sued California's Encinitas Union school district, arguing that the district’s yoga program indoctrinated students with Hindu beliefs.

“To me, yoga is secular. Everybody breathes, everybody gets stressed, everybody can benefit from the skills we teach,” Tsay says, “But I definitely think there is resistance with people not being aware of what yoga is because they haven’t practiced it themselves.”

In July, the judge in the Encinitas case ruled on the side of the school district, finding that the curriculum had no trace of religion, opening up the possibility of spreading yoga to other public schools in California.

But even disregarding the religious undertones of the practice, I also wondered how public school students, 48 percent of which are considered low-income and more than 40 percent of which are black and Latino, would receive a practice that is often stereotypically associated with a white, upper-class demographic. According to a 2008 study, 85 percent of yoga practitioners are white. More than 30 percent of Yoga Journal magazine’s readership have incomes over $100,000 a year.  

Growing up in a Latino middle-class family, I had never known anyone who practiced yoga or meditation. My father adopted “Power Yoga” in his early 60s to improve his flexibility, but he still skips the meditation part at the end of the routine. Seeing how hesitant my family has been, I doubted that students from similar backgrounds would instantly embrace Headstand classes.

When I asked my former students how they perceived the program, the two students who responded—both students of color from lower-middle-class backgrounds—agreed that at first, the ideas of yoga and mindfulness were unfamiliar. 

“Before the class, I had never heard about yoga before and did not know what to expect,” Tracy Lord, now a senior in high school, told me. “So most students at first were hesitant to participate and try.” 

Michael also felt that teenage insecurities often played a role in students resisting the class: “As a 12-year-old kid, I didn’t always feel comfortable moving my body in such a way.”

Tracy echoed these insecurities: “At first, I kind of rejected the practice because it made me too vulnerable, with its awkward poses and asking me to close my eyes. I didn’t want to look weird.”

Yet both Michael and Tracy eventually found Headstand’s classes beneficial. Tracy thought her teacher helped students overcome their timidity, and “won over” the majority of the class over time. Tracy ended up loving the practice so much that she wrote her college application personal statement on the effect yoga had on her life. In her statement, Tracy described a doctor’s visit where she learned she had issues with her spine that caused her immense back pain and physical disability. She wrote that yoga helped her  by not only easing the physical pain, but also teaching her that “My imperfections were what made me unique. Through yoga, I reprogrammed my mind to accept my disabilities and to not be crippled by them. I still have a twisted spine, but I can persevere through it.”  

Michael still thinks middle school was too early for him to handle the “embarrassing poses” of yoga class, but also admits that he still found the mindfulness practice useful: “Before taking the yoga class, I used to believe that the only thing I had to work out and take care of was my body, but that isn’t the case. You also have to take care of your mind.”

Now a senior experiencing the stress of the college application process, Michael used the skills from the class again. He noticed how his mood changed and self-confidence dipped when worrying about completing his applications.

“But now I could stop and realize that this stress is all right. I meditated for an hour when I got home and submitted my applications soon after. That one hour period probably saved me another month of stress.”

Ghannam has seen this retrospective appreciation happen before: “It is sometimes the students who hated it who are then the ones writing me emails later telling me how much they have learned to appreciate it,” she says. “Sometimes the kids who are the most resistant at first are the ones who might need that practice the most.”

This school year, Headstand partnered with the University of California San Francisco to provide more concrete data of the program’s effectiveness. However, Ghannam also accepts that her classes, as in Michael’s case, may not necessarily show immediate results. She is more concerned with building consistency and normalizing the practice for students over time.

“It’s the same as a student who may not love math class and may just be going through the motions at first. Over time, as long as they’re practicing with a great teacher, something is going to click and hopefully more meaning is taken on.”

Practicing mindfulness now at 26, I wish I had more exposure to the practice as a student and as a teacher. I wonder whether my moment for it to “click” would have happened earlier if I had persistent classes showing me why it matters. And I wondered if practicing mindfulness as a teacher would have made me more relaxed and happy, and thus more effective. Teachers at Headstand schools seem to agree: When Tsay offered to teach an adapted version of her Headstand class for the teachers at her charter school, 12 of the 13 staff members signed up.

I also wonder what it would have done for my students who also at times struggled with issues of anxiety and self-worth, and often allowed those insecurities to affect how they dealt with the everyday setbacks they encountered.

“The ability to help ease your mind in stressful situations is critical for everybody, because everyone at some point in their life will go through something that will truly knock them down,” Michael wrote. “That’s where yoga/meditation comes in.”

As more research discovers the true effectiveness of these kids of programs, I at least take comfort in the fact that my students had the rare opportunity of learning the importance of mental health and character-building at such a young age. All students could benefit from learning these things early but with students whose backgrounds at times already place them at a disadvantage, these kinds of programs become even more justified. Every student should have access to skills necessary for confronting the anxiety of everyday life. As Tracy wrote to me: "We all deserve peace, and a calm mind."

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Amanda Machado is a writer based in San Francisco.

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