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.”

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Amanda Machado is a writer based in San Francisco.

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