Mindfulness and Meditation: What Are They Really Worth in the School System?

by Julie Grimm

Mindfulness and meditation programs have become a growing resource for schools, serving students as well as teachers and staff. With mounting pressure on teachers and students alike, new tools that help regulate emotional reactions and manage stress are being integrated into classrooms around the United States.

Children as well as adults are facing unprecedented levels of stress (American Psychological Association, 2015). Feelings of being overwhelmed are often correlated with anger, depression, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, violence, and poor behavior, all of which can negatively impact a child’s performance at school (Guerra, Huesmann, Tolan, Van Acker, & Eron, 1995; Cornell, Peterson, & Richards, 1999). As students face hardship, whether due to family life, academic stress, or other challenges, how they cope will determine how successful they become later in life. While diminishing the stress within the school system or within a child’s home life may be impossible, providing students with tools that empower them to become resilient not only helps them in the short term but throughout their lives and into their careers (Eisenberg, Spinrad, & Eggum, 2010). For this reason, schools have an amazing opportunity to provide students with an education that will truly prepare them for the future, including how to handle difficult emotions, develop interpersonal skills, and manage stress.

Feelings of being overwhelmed are often correlated with anger, depression, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, violence, and poor behavior, all of which can negatively impact a child’s performance at school

These initiatives, however, address only part of the problem if they do not include teachers. Time demands, workload, and more students with special needs put additional strain on the resources of the staff themselves (Jennings, Frank, Snowberg, Coccia, & Greenberg, 2013; Flook, Goldberg, Pinger, Bonus, & Davidson, 2013). Without adequate self-care, catering to the increasing needs of students causes teacher burnout and leads to increased classroom stress (Flook et al., 2013). Therefore, strategies that address both teacher and student needs help to more fully address academic and school-related stress.

Mindfulness and meditation strategies are among the resources many schools are embracing. Both mindfulness and meditation enable a person to become “present.” One author defines mindfulness as the “state of being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present” (Brown & Ryan, 2003). On an experiential level, becoming present through directed focus or attention helps to clear the mind and draw a person’s awareness inward. This allows for greater reflection and self-awareness (Jennings et al., 2013).

One major benefit of increased awareness is an enhanced ability to respond rather than react to upsetting circumstances. Emotional self-regulation is key to responding appropriately to situations: “There is…one aspect of willful mental activity that seems particularly critical to emotional self-regulation, and that seems to be the critical factor in its effective application—the factor of focused dispassionate self-observation that, in a rapidly growing number of clinical psychology studies, has come to be called ‘mindfulness’ or ‘mindful awareness’” (Schwartz, Stapp, & Beauregard, 2005, p. 1312). Conscious effort and intention to meditate and break into reactive automatic patterns allows us to alter our reactions and, in turn, consciously improve our interpersonal interactions.

Conscious effort and intention to meditate and break into reactive automatic patterns allows us to alter our reactions and, in turn, consciously improve our interpersonal interactions.

You only have to reflect on the last time you spoke without thinking or acted out of anger to realize the power that choosing to respond gives you. A quick breath before speaking in anger to a child can save many outbursts and provides a positive role model to other students. Arming teachers with tools that can support them when they encounter a difficult or emotionally charged situation with a student helps in managing classrooms. Not only are teachers better able to respond appropriately, but they will be more resilient themselves in navigating work stress.

There are many different styles of meditation and mindfulness, and each has a varied effect on behavior. Overall research points to lowered stress, more self-control, greater self-acceptance, and a more positive mood (Shapiro, Jazaieri, & Goldin, 2012). Transcendental meditation has been linked with sharper cognitive functioning and increased creativity (So & Orme-Johnson, 2001), while Zen meditation was found to help with interpersonal functioning (Tloczynski & Tantriella, 1998). For the purpose of this article, I will focus primarily on mindfulness because there have been more school-wide studies on its effects.

Mindfulness focuses primarily on physical stimuli, like breath, sound, or sensations. Techniques such as noticing emotions, feelings (physical sensations), or thoughts help to anchor students in the present as well as address how they feel. Often it can be very difficult for students (and adults as well) to identify and articulate how they feel. In my work within classrooms, simply encouraging students to close their eyes and notice physical sensations and emotions builds a strong foundation for their internal awareness and understanding. Exercises like this are easy for even untrained professionals to conduct and take only a few minutes at a time. For this reason, they are extremely accessible and practical yet highly effective.

Mindfulness practices are especially effective with youth because they help foster self-management and empower children to take a role in their own development.

Mindfulness practices are especially effective with youth because they help foster self-management and empower children to take a role in their own development. Because mindfulness offers us awareness, it also adds clarity to emotional states and enhances our emotional intelligence (Barnes, Bauza, & Treiber, 2003). A study of 9–13-year-olds with ADHD found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was highly effective at increasing social and emotional resiliency (Semple, Lee, Rosa, & Miller, 2010). When faced with stress, feelings of incompetence and lack of self-confidence can lead to being overwhelmed. Conversely, belief in inner strength, tools that help to navigate difficult emotions, and other forms of support can lead to resilient and successful students (Wilks, 2008).

Research on mindfulness within the school system demonstrates its potential power. In a study only four months long, researchers saw significant improvement in student-reported feelings of compassion, kindness, and well-being as well as better scores in math (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2015). Studies of mindfulness in children with anxiety demonstrate that it is effective in supporting students academically (Semple, Reid, & Miller, 2005). One child in the study even complained that the mindfulness sessions were only once a week. Another study of meditation in two inner-city school systems found that students who meditated were less frequently absent or suspended for behavior-related outbursts (Barnes et al., 2003).

More recent studies have included teacher well-being, noting the central role teachers play in regulating classroom environment. Gold et al. (2010) reported that in teachers, mindfulness practices helped reduce depression, anxiety, and stress. Flook et al. (2013) demonstrated that increased awareness in teachers correlated with reduced emotional exhaustion. Teachers who did not use mindfulness strategies had lower morning cortisol levels, a symptom associated with acute and chronic post-traumatic-event distress. Researchers hypothesize that mindfulness practice helps to buffer teachers against stress that would otherwise take place during the school year (Flook et al., 2013).

Current systems of education that are successful cater to student as well as teacher well-being. Emotional regulation is a crucial aspect of a functional classroom as well as a functional society. It is for this reason that students’ emotional competency is of immense importance and is an incredibly valuable aspect of their education. School systems that focus on emotional learning systematically demonstrate greater levels of well-being and motivation in students, as well as decreased violence and misbehavior (Guerra et al., 1995; Eisenberg et al., 2010; Cornell et al., 1999). All of this facilitates classroom management and actually makes a teacher’s job easier. Mindfulness and meditation have proven to be powerful tools for emotional awareness and management, and their benefits are much needed in current school systems and society at large. Eventually, today’s students will grow up to become future employees and employers; guaranteeing their success guarantees a brighter future for us all.

Despite all this, some faculty may still be resistant to change. Exploring and explaining the myriad benefits of mindfulness—from its physiological and neurological impacts to how it transforms behavior—is a great place to begin with skeptics. Also, as is true for many things but especially so for mindfulness and meditation, it must be experienced to be understood. Offering teachers and staff the opportunity to experience meditation or mindfulness with a trained professional is a wonderful way to deepen their understanding of the topic and to taste for themselves exactly what it can do. From my own work, I have seen a 15-minute meditation transform a roomful of teachers. Giving teachers permission to focus on their own well-being and supporting them with structured guided meditation can do much more than pages and pages of explanation or even scientific data. Furthermore, it can help teachers de-stress from a hectic day, week, or even school year.

Students themselves are often very receptive. Work with the Veterans’ Elementary School in Gloucester, MA, has shown how much students enjoy meditation. A “meditation club” begun by Principal Matthew Fusco for 5th graders grew from 3 members to 15 participants within a month. He reports that students will come find him to remind him of the before-school sessions in case he forgets.

While not the only tool for social and emotional learning, mindfulness is one that has been extensively studied in the last five years. The results of these studies all indicate the potential potency of such a simplistic method. A teacher or student requires nothing else but to sit in quiet awareness for a moment, take a deep breath before a test or work, to release negative emotions. Therefore, the potential application for such work within a school is immense and its impact far-reaching.

Julie Grimm is a Consultant at Seaside Educational Consultants in Dorchester, Massachusetts. 


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