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Mind Body Connection

Meditation in schools calms nerves and improves focus

Robin L. Flanigan

At Independent School District 728 in Minnesota, mindfulness education specialist Mary T. Schmitz has students roll out their “islands”—otherwise known as yoga mats—and leads them through movement and breath exercises.

“I call them ‘islands’ because this is our paradise,” says Schmitz, who has trained four times with Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of a mindfulness-based stress reduction program used around the world.

Then she tells the children, “Let’s pause and let our glitter settle” before asking them where stress shows up in their bodies.

“Kids don’t resist it because they just want to feel better,” she says.

Mindfulness is one way some schools across the country are reducing stress among students and teachers. It is a type of meditation that emphasizes being fully present and aware, using attention to the breath to focus. Mindfulness exercises have been shown to help students reduce stress and anxiety, gain conscious control over behaviors and attitudes, and improve focus. The concept has become accepted in mainstream education, from pre-k through high school. “Sesame Street” even had the Count teach Cookie Monster to do breathing exercises to calm down.

Districts increasingly are using it, along with other relaxation and focus techniques such as other types of meditation, yoga, and exposure to nature, as a basis for social-emotional learning (SEL), trauma-informed education, and restorative justice work. These mind-body techniques also can help reduce teacher turnover rates.

More school districts, school boards, and parent-teacher associations have sponsored mindfulness initiatives in the past two years than in the previous five, observes Betsy Hanger, a mindfulness instructor certified by Mindful Schools, which works to integrate mindfulness into the everyday learning environment of k-12 classrooms.

“There’s now this wake-up call happening that says not only does mindfulness not compete with academics, but it can provide the absolute foundation for academics,” says Amanda J. Moreno, an associate professor and child development program director at the Erikson Institute in Chicago.

Moreno is working with Chicago Public Schools on the largest study of mindfulness with a child-directed program ever funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The four-year study, ending next year, is looking at whether there are different social-emotional and academic outcomes for students engaged in a mindfulness-based SEL program compared with students engaged in the district’s default SEL program.

Mindfulness “gets kids to access feelings on a more gut level so then they can go to a high cognitive level,” Moreno says. “That’s my theory. It reflects neuroscience research, and it’s what I see and hear out in the field.”

GROWING RESEARCH

The subject has been getting more attention in scientific circles as well.

According to the American Mindfulness Research Association, the number of mindfulness-related articles in academic journals soared from 10 in 2000 to 667 in 2016.

One of the most referenced, from Harvard Medical School, showed that just eight weeks of steady mindfulness training is associated with changes in parts of the brain associated with decision making, emotions, empathy, learning, and memory.

Most of that research has been on adults. The first major study on children, out of UCLA on the effects of mindful awareness practices on executive functions in elementary students, was done in 2008 and published two years later. Those findings showed improvements in behavioral regulation, metacognition, and overall global executive control.

Subsequent studies on children have shown positive effects, and national organizations that partner with schools emphasize the use of evidence-based or research-backed studies in their work.

Researchers also are starting to track the impact on teachers. A University of Virginia study from 2017 found that after 30 hours of in-person mindfulness instruction, in addition to some phone coaching, teachers were better at managing difficult emotions, lowering their sense of urgency in the classroom, and responding to negative behavior with curiosity rather than punitive measures.

“It’s the oxygen mask idea,” says Bidyut K. Bose, founder and executive director of the Niroga Institute, which brings trauma-informed movement-based mindfulness programs to students and adults. “The entire ecosystem in schools is hurting, and teachers need to be stress-resilient.”

Even proponents of mindfulness in schools are cautious not to oversell it. Hanger says more quantitative studies are needed: “I want us to be very careful that we don’t overestimate the benefit of mindfulness because it does two things. It disappoints people, but more importantly, it doesn’t give the field a chance to mature.”

MEDITATION

If meditation class is canceled at Oklahoma’s David R. Lopez Community School at Edgemere Elementary, “I see children visibly upset and crying,” says Joanna Eldridge, a special education teacher who started offering the 40-minute classes in 2016.

Meditation, which has ancient roots, is the process of quieting the mind to relax and focus. Mindfulness is one form, but there are many others. Eldridge encourages her students, many of whom have experienced trauma and homelessness, to replace negative behaviors by focusing on the breath, identifying feelings, and learning strategies for self-control.

Meditation classes are held in a former classroom converted over the summer into a tranquil space, with lots of natural light and walls painted a calming blue.

From school surveys and her own research, Eldridge has found that such classes help students calm down. One child who used to have meltdowns every day, sometimes several times a day, has reduced them to about twice a week.

Schools often are quick to submit paperwork for problem behavior and get kids diagnosed when serious trouble at home could be the cause for concern, suggests Edgemere Principal Nikki Coshow.

“We’re trying to help kids before we get to that extreme measure,” Coshow explains. “It’s our goal to make every child successful.”

To that end, Eldridge has another goal—to train all the school’s teachers by January to conduct sessions in the meditation room.

YOGA

After reading about a Baltimore elementary school that uses meditation and yoga in place of detention, Jodie Carrigan thought the approach made sense.

“We started thinking about what skills kids were walking away from detention with, and the answer was none,” recalls the principal of Doull Elementary School in Colorado. “Kids have to be taught how to self-regulate, but they have to be explicitly taught.”

Like meditation, the practice of yoga is very old. It combines mindfulness and meditation with physical movements and stretches, as well as breath control.

With money from the district, Doull hired a part-time mindfulness coach, and at the start of the 2017-18 school year began offering yoga sessions after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays to students who normally would’ve been sent to detention to work on cursive handwriting sheets or math facts.

Two weeks later, however, teachers reported they had lots of students who wanted to be in yoga but weren’t breaking any rules. To answer demand, Doull started a yoga club on Wednesdays—and now has a wait list of some 25 kids. Each eight-week session has only 20 spots that are filled through a lottery.

In addition, for those with persistent behavior issues, the school offers a cycle of after-school yoga sessions for those who can attend.

Because of that, along with other schoolwide mindfulness activities and two new serene cool-down rooms for more urgent situations, the number of office referrals has dropped dramatically, as has the number of repeat offenders. According to Carrigan, 70 incidents sent students to the office in 2016-17; in 2017-18 that number decreased to 50.

“It’s all about giving kids real-life skills they can take with them and use no matter where they go,” she says.

NATURE

Students at Oregon’s John Muir Elementary School regularly eat lunch and practice journaling in the front courtyard, spend most Fridays learning outdoors, and go on overnight outdoor education trips.

In fact, with its emphasis on natural science, the school is in the process of changing its name to John Muir Outdoor School K-8.

Outside of academics, students build relationships with the natural world through observation and interaction by recording theories and experiences in poems, essays, sketches, drawings, and paintings.

Outdoor activities take place in the rain, snow, and sun, and have been particularly helpful for middle school boys, reports Principal Rebecca Gyarmathy.

One seventh-grader last year, after disrespecting teachers and classmates, asked how he could help out while hiking in the woods one day.

Remembers Gyarmathy: “I said to him, ‘Gosh, you were in my office twice this week and then I get a report that you had a great day Friday.’ He told me, ‘I just like being outside.’”

An Experiential Learning class at Spencerport High School in upstate New York, meanwhile, gives students with academic, behavioral, and mental health issues a chance to spend time at a nearby nature center. They journal while sitting on boulders next to a pond, catch frogs, and hike on trails.

“Being in nature gives them a new perspective,” says teacher Malena Guadagnino. “They’re still learning, but in a different way.”

FACULTY BUY-IN

No mindfulness initiative will be successful without commitment from school leaders and staff.

“When a board thinks about implementing something like this from the top down, it should be thinking about building it from the bottom up as well,” says Sandi Conley, lead consultant and manager of school partnerships for MindUP, a teaching curriculum and framework for bringing mindfulness practices to children and adults. “That’s when you see increased sustainability.”

In 2014, New York’s Farragut Middle School Principal Gail Kipper began researching ways to ease stress for both students and teachers. She read mindfulness-based books and enrolled in online mindfulness-based courses. She began her own morning practice, and at school closed her office door and spent three to five minutes noticing her inhales and exhales.

“It became part of who I am and what I do,” she says.

About a year later Kipper brought what she had learned to a faculty meeting, where a few teachers and a librarian created a study group to do supplemental research and share feedback at subsequent faculty meetings.

After Kipper began leading mindful sits in classrooms in 2016-17, students requested she do the same before classwork, tests, and state assessments. Teachers, noticing the change in attitudes, asked that she lead them in mindful sits at lunchtime, and several meet in a dedicated mindfulness room near the auditorium before classes start for a short session.

Every faculty meeting now starts with a mindful sit.

“I can bring something to the faculty but if the faculty doesn’t buy into it,” Kipper says, “they’re going to close the doors to their classroom and do exactly what they were going to do anyway.”

There is consensus that more attention needs to be paid to getting already time-strapped teachers on board with integrating mindfulness into their schedules.

“They want things at their fingertips to go to automatically—that they can pull off their shelf or access with an app or plug into their Smart board—but nothing about mindfulness is automatic,” says Schmitz, from Independent School District 728 in Minnesota. “The practice works because you’re doing the practice, and therein lies the wisdom.”

James Butler, mindfulness specialist for the Austin Independent School District in Texas, has trained staff in all 130 schools and at the district office. He offers three-hour mindfulness courses on the district’s professional learning platform and distributes a monthly mindfulness-themed newsletter. He visits campuses regularly to promote mindfulness activities that typically take five minutes or less: a minute or two of intentional breathing or stretches before a test or walking quietly to the cafeteria while listening for sounds.

Ninety-seven percent of the teachers Butler trained, responding to a survey, found mindfulness to be helpful personally and professionally.

Baby steps can help.

Windsor Elementary School in Illinois has been dedicating just one day a week to its Mindfulness Monday campaign, which encourages students to connect with their breath during morning announcements and promotes using mindfulness-themed books and activities in class.

“We’re starting small to get teachers on board without overwhelming them,” says Principal Shelley Fabrizio, “and then we’ll assess whether [the campaign] makes a difference before adding more days.”

‘THIS IS ABOUT HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS’

School boards should be sure administrators allay concerns from parents and others up front that, while rooted in Eastern religions, mindfulness, meditation, and yoga are secularized when taught in schools.

What the practices provide districts is a chance to help students become more compassionate, cope with adversity, and navigate an unpredictable, sometimes hurtful world.

“This is about healthy relationships,” says Bose from the Niroga Institute, which helped California’s Park Middle School achieve a 70 percent drop— compared to the year before —in referrals and suspensions in three months in 2017-18.

“We often use the tagline, ‘Heal before you teach,’” Bose adds. “It gets at the idea that we’re often rushing to teach our children before taking the time to heal them.”

For Moreno, the Erikson Institute professor, putting in that time—for all students—is a no-brainer: “If you’re interested in learning outcomes, you can’t not touch on the humanity of children the minute they walk through the door.”


Robin L. Flanigan (robin@thekineticpen.com) is a freelance writer in Rochester, New York. Her mindfulness-themed ABC/poetry book is forthcoming.

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