meditation and education

How meditation can help students to stay focused and improve their grades

teen meditatingEvery summer I spend six weeks teaching a study skills and personal development course to teens from low income families as part of a federally funded program called Upward Bound (not Outward Bound). It’s kind of crazy: every year I feel like I almost totally miss the summer because I’m teaching, grading, doing class prep, and attending various meetings. I end up sleep-deprived and completely exhausted. And the pay’s not great. But it’s totally worth it.

Part of the course involves meditation, and it’s consistently the part of the course that gets the biggest positive response in the end-of-course evaluations that the kids hand in. I’ve described the educational benefits mostly in terms of improved focus. As I like to say, you can’t take a clear picture with a shaky camera. If your mind is constantly moving around from one thing to another, then we’re not really paying attention to what we’re studying, and at best we have a blurred and distorted picture of what we’re trying to learn. At worst this picture is so distorted that what’s learned is misleading or plain wrong.

Learning to still the mind and to resist the mind’s tendency to wander therefore allows us to gain a clearer picture of what we’re learning. That’s how I’ve always explained it. Now some research has come along the blows me away, because not only does it confirm my understanding, but it exceeds my expectations of the benefits that mindfulness can bring students.

While some mind wandering is normal, it can have negative consequences for our ability to perform cognitive tasks, and mind wandering has been linked with impairments in working memory capacity and fluid intelligence. A graduate student in psychology, Michael Mrazek, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, had wondered whether targeting mind wandering could be a way to improve performance on tests like the Graduate Record Exam. And so Mrazek, his psychology professor Jonathan Schooler, and other colleagues investigated whether cognitive abilities that have historically been considered fixed — such as working memory capacity — might actually be improvable through mindfulness training.

48 college students were randomly assigned to a mindfulness class or a nutrition class. Both classes met for 45 minutes, four times per week, over two weeks and were taught by professionals with extensive experience in their respective fields.

The mindfulness class emphasized physical and mental strategies that help people to maintain focus on the present moment, in the face of interrupting thoughts and perceptions. The students were required to integrate mindfulness into their daily activities over the two-week session.

The students performance on verbal reasoning was tested the week before the class started, and again a week after it ended. The results were clear: Participants who received mindfulness training showed a 16 percentile-point boost on the GRE. They also showed higher working memory capacity compared to those who received instruction in nutrition. Analyses suggested that the improvement could be explained, at least in part, by reduced mind wandering.

The amazing thing for me was that this change came about after just two weeks of mindfulness training — and also that the change was so significant. a 16-percentile boost in scores could take a student from a C to an A, for example.

Mrazek and his colleagues are continuing their research, and extending it to school age children. They’re also investigating whether web-based mindfulness training, which is accessible to a much broader population, could be an effective vehicle for enhancing cognitive performance. And they’re examining whether the benefits can be further enhanced by teaching mindfulness as part of a more holistic program that targets nutrition, exercise, sleep, and personal relationships.

One of the other benefits of meditation training, besides reduced mind-wandering, is improved emotional health. The teens I teach are going through a very emotionally turbulent time in their lives, and learning how to calm their emotions and be more patient and forgiving of themselves is an important part of my meditation curriculum at Upward Bound. Hopefully further research will investigate those aspects of meditation, and how they can benefit students.

[This article draws on a press release from the Association of Psychological Science.]
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A Buddhist blog by kids, for kids

Child's drawing of the Buddha

Children from the The Dharma School in the UK, Europe’s only Buddhist-based primary school, have set up a blog to present their experience of Buddhist pracice.

At the school’s blog<, pupils from Years 3 to 6 are creating a series of podcasts and blogs about meditation and mindfulness as part of an ICT project with teacher Ross Young. As most of the information online about meditation is written by adults (and primarily for adults) the kids wanted to relay their experiences and perspectives in a way they felt would be accessible to children their own age.

You can subscribe to receive regular updates and podcasts (via itunes) and check out their “how to” guide to meditation, ideas for mindful activities to try at home, “mindful mind skills”, poems about meditation, favourite books, “wicked websites”, “what’s cool about our school”, their radio show and podcasts and much more.

Please enjoy, subscribe, comment and share!

It’s great that school-age children are learning meditation and mindfulness. It’s even better that they’re teaching it!


Update: Dharma Primary School was the first primary school and nursery in Britain to offer an education based on Buddhist values. It celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015. It was an independent school and nursery based in East Sussex, on the south east coast of England. The 14th Dalai Lama was a patron.

The Dharma Primary School educated around 80 children in a large historic house in Patcham, Brighton.  Children of all abilities and backgrounds were eligible to attend. There were generally 10–20 children in each class with a teacher and an assistant.

The school closed in July 2020.

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Students meditate to relieve stress

Cody Nelson, Minnesota Daily: To deal with stress around finals week, some University of Minnesota students are turning to meditation.

Mindfulness for Students is a group that practices weekly meditation led by instructors from around the Twin Cities. Its goal: achieving mindfulness.

“To be mindful, you are able to focus your thoughts more,” said University sophomore Norma Thompson. “You can clear your head before you have to start taking on a task.”

She said the group’s meditation has helped her relax and relieve stress.

The group has existed since 2005, but president and neuroscience junior Stefan Brancel said it sees increased attendance around finals …

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Room to Breathe: The official trailer

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Room to Breathe is a surprising story of transformation as struggling kids in a San Francisco public middle school are introduced to the practice of mindfulness. Topping the district in disciplinary suspensions, and with overcrowded classrooms creating a nearly impossible learning environment, overwhelmed administrators are left with stark choices. Do they repeat the cycle of forcing tuned-out children to listen, or experiment with a set of age-old inner practices that may provide them with the social, emotional, and attentional skills that they need to succeed?

Even just this brief extract of the film is powerfully moving. I can’t wait to see the whole thing.

Here’s some more background information from the film’s website:

The film begins in the halls of Marina Middle School in San Francisco – kids pouring out of classrooms, shouting to each other as they sweep down the stairwells into a concrete schoolyard that lies outside of the massive art deco building that is the weekday home to almost 1,000 children. The tough language and raw physicality suggests the underlying violence to which these kids are exposed.

Topping the San Francisco school district in disciplinary suspensions, and with overcrowded classrooms creating a nearly impossible learning environment, overwhelmed administrators are left with stark choices. Do they repeat the cycle of forcing tuned-out children to listen, or experiment with a set of age-old inner practices that may provide them with the social and emotional skills that they need to succeed?

We are introduced to Omar, a troubled African American boy with a love for playing basketball, partly to forget his brother’s murder in an unsolved crime in 2007; Lesly, a highly social girl with no interest in academics, whose hard-working parents immigrated from Mexico; Lesly’s friend Jacqueline, a tough and disruptive girl who is frequently in trouble with school administrators; and Gerardo, a winsome but defiant boy who sees himself as unfairly persecuted by his primary teacher and other school officials.

Room to Breathe has two primary adult figures — Ling Busche, an overworked young Asian-American counselor helping seventh graders deal with what they perceive as a hostile school or home environments, and Megan Cowan, a buoyant 30-something Executive Director of a growing mindfulness-in-education organization. The first question is whether it’s already too late for these kids. Confronted by defiance, contempt for authority figures, poor discipline, and more interest in “social” than learning, their young meditation teacher runs into unexpected trouble in the classroom. Will she succeed in overcoming street-hardened defiance to open their minds and hearts? Under Megan’s guidance, our characters and their peers slowly start to take greater control over themselves, and a new sense of calm begins to permeate their worlds, in class and at home.

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Largest randomized-controlled study to date on mindfulness and children shows significant improvements in behavior

In the 2011-12 school year, Mindful Schools partnered with the University of California, Davis to conduct the largest randomized-controlled study to date on mindfulness and children, involving 915 children and 47 teachers in 3 Oakland public schools.

The Mindful Schools curriculum (which has been taught to over 30,000 children) produced statistically significant improvements in behavior versus the control group with just four hours of mindfulness instruction for the students–a very small, low-cost treatment.

In addition to the study’s size, it is notable for the population served and the environment around the schools. There are very high levels of crime around the three schools that were studied — surroundings that add tremendous turmoil to children’s lives. In 2010, Oakland was ranked 5th in the United States in violent crime.

In addition, 85% of the students in the study were on Free Lunch and 6% were on Reduced Lunch. 68% of the students were English Language Learners. 49% of the parents did not have high school diplomas.

A new film, Room to Breathe showe Mindful Schools at a San Francisco middle school with the highest district suspensions.

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Professors win grant to study meditation effects

Three faculty members from the University of Redlands in Redlands, California — Fran Grace, professor of Religion, Lisa Olson, associate professor of Biology, and Celine Ko, assistant professor of Psychology — have received a grant of $5,000 to fund research on the “Impact of Meditation Curriculum on Physiological and Psychosocial Stress, Well-Being, and Correlates of Academic Success.”

The grant will allow faculty members to explore the relationship between meditation, and the physical and psychological side effects of stress.

The grant was awarded by The Trust for the Meditation Process.

The research project will focus on studying previous observations from Professor Fran Grace’s meditation-based Seminar on Compassion in the Religious Studies department. The research demonstrated that students who participate in meditation show signs of improved academic achievement, are more resilient to stress and achieve an increased sense of well-being. Research will be conducted on two groups of students, a portion of those who are enrolled in the spring section of Fran Grace’s Compassion course and a control group of a select amount of students.

The group of professors we will be measuring traditional clinical outcomes such as student anxiety, depression, perceived stress, and affective states; physiological responses to stress such as nervous system activity, stress hormone, and cardiac and respiratory parameters; and psychological measures of well-being, personal growth, compassion, mindful attention and awareness, dispositional optimism, subjective happiness and other potential correlates to academic success. The study is intended to collect pilot data for a larger longitudinal study.

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Meditation creates a little breathing space for San Francisco students

Richard Schiffman, OpEdNews: There are two jobs that have become a lot more difficult in recent years. One is being a teacher, which was never easy at the best of times. But in an age of virtually unlimited opportunities for distraction and rapidly shrinking attention spans getting kids to focus on their schoolwork can be (with apologies to dentists) like pulling teeth.

I know: As a former school aide working with young children, it was often all that I could manage just to break up fights and keep the decibel level below that at an international airport. Any “education” that actually took place …

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Academic claims silence key to good behaviour in schools

Sam Whyte, Deadline News: The sound of silence is key to better behaviour and exam results in Scottish schools, an academic claimed today.

Dr Helen Lees, an education researcher at Stirling University, said silence techniques including quiet spaces, silent reading and even meditation could work wonders.

Dr Lees said she had been “knocked back” by the sheer amount of noise in schools.

But rather than advocating old-fashioned teacher-enforced silence as an extension of discipline, Dr Lees says modern youngsters should aim for a “silent state of mind”.

She said: “I was a trainee teacher at the school I was at ten years previously …

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The pioneering new Buddhist school that invites pupils to be happy

Derby Telegraph, UK: With teachers who have flown in from across the world and meditation sessions punctuating the day, it is clear that the Kadampa Primary School will be a little bit different.

The independent school in Etwall opened its doors to pupils for the first time earlier this month and 15 have already enrolled, with a further eight applications being processed.

Teachers have travelled from as far away as America and Mexico to be a part of the pioneering new school, which has a curriculum that incorporates Buddhist teachings.

And those behind the venture, near the established Tara Buddhist Centre, have set themselves …

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Meditation: the new medication

Kenneth Pham, Technician Online: Thanks to pop-culture representations, meditation is seen as something that takes place in the isolation of a lush forest at the top of a Himalayan mountain. Those who practice the delicate art know one does not have to be alone or in an exotic location to meditate.

Billy Juliani, a junior in philosophy and the president of N.C. State’s Buddhist Philosophy Club, defined meditation as the practice of “living in the present moment and being aware of what’s around us.”

“It reduces stress and anxiety and promotes a more peaceful and thoughtful approach to looking at the world,” Juliani said …

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