Mindful Learning

Elementary school students practicing meditation

Close your eyes. Breathe in deeply through your nose, and exhale slowly through your mouth releasing any tension in your body. Moving from the crown of the head down to the tip of the toes, notice and breath away any tension. Now imagine feeling confident at math. See yourself winning the spelling bee. Envision yourself answering high-stakes standardized test questions with ease.

A dream? Think again. Across the country, schools are leading students in guided meditation to relieve stress and build confidence. The practice comes at a good time. According to the American Psychological Association, levels of anxiety in children are rising across the country. In a 2015 study by New York University, 49 percent of students report feeling stress. The Compassionate Schools Project in Louisville, Kentucky, which serves about 20,000 elementary and secondary public school students, is just one of a growing number of initiatives that weave “mindfulness” into the curriculum. The goal is to help students manage stress and build social and emotional skills.

Are these practices working? The integration of “Quiet Time” into the curriculum in San Francisco showed dramatic effects, according to research involving more than 3,000 students in the city’s unified school district. At one middle school that experienced very high rates of fighting and suspensions, suspension rates dropped by 45 percent in the first year, attendance rose to 98 percent, and grades improved significantly. Meanwhile, schools in New Haven, Connecticut, required yoga and meditation classes three times a week for incoming freshmen. As a result, after each class, students showed significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Additional studies indicate that meditation:

  • decreases stress—mindfulness exercises were tied to students feeling less anxious during high-stakes testing.
  • promotes greater focus—children with ADHD who learn to practice meditation experienced better concentration and less hyperactivity.
  • improves grades—after expanding the school day by half an hour to make time for meditation, schools reported better attendance and grades, fewer suspensions, and generally happier and less aggressive kids.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, only 1.6 percent of U.S. children currently meditate. Given the benefits, though, more schools may be adding meditation to their students’ coursework.

Image credit: © wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

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