New research in the fields of psychology, education and neuroscience shows teaching meditation in schools is having positive effects on students' well-being, social skills and academic skills.
A recent meta-review of the impact of meditation in schools combined the results from 15 studies and almost 1800 students from Australia, Canada, India, the UK, the US and Taiwan. The research showed meditation is beneficial in most cases and led to three broad outcomes for students: higher well-being, better social skills and greater academic skills.
Students who were taught meditation at school reported higher optimism, more positive emotions, stronger self-identity, greater self-acceptance and took better care of their health as well as experiencing reduced anxiety, stress and depression. This was compared to before the meditation programs and compared to peers who were not taught meditation.
The review also showed that meditation helps the social life of students by leading to increases in pro-social behaviour (like helping others) and decreases in anti-social behaviour (like anger and disobedience).
Finally, meditation was found to improve a host of academic and learning skills in students. These included faster information processing, greater focus, more effective working memory, more creativity and cognitive flexibility.
How meditation is taught
“Mindfulness” meditation is one of the more popular practices being taught at schools. It involves a three-step mental process where students are asked to:
focus their attention on a particular target (for example their own breathing, a sound, a sensation);
notice when their attention has wondered away from the target;
bring their attention back to the target.
Students are asked to do this without being judgemental and with a curiosity that allows them to identify patterns in their thoughts and feelings. This leads to a clearer mind and a more peaceful outlook.
Examples of mindfulness techniques include teachers striking a music triangle or bell and asking students to pay attention for the exact moment where the sound turns into silence, giving students a piece of chocolate or a slither of chilli, asking them to place the food on their tongue and then pay close attention to what is happening to their taste buds, their salivary glands and the temperature in their mouth; or asking students to clap their hands forcefully for 20 seconds and then observe the physical after-effects such as tingling and pulsing in the palms.
These teaching techniques may not seem of sufficient academic nature to take place in schools. But the science is showing that, through these techniques, students are learning to build their attention skills and regulate their impulses. Both are critical at school and in adult life.
What the detractors say about teaching meditation
While meditation is an age-old practice, the scientific journey into the effect of meditation education is only just beginning. Detractors argue that it should not be introduced in schools until the long-term value is better known. Given the newness of the field, it is certainly true that the longitudinal research is yet to come.
The brains of young people are substantially more responsive to being changed through experience – a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity – than an adult’s brain. This suggests the long-term effects of meditation are likely to be much more beneficial in school students than adults.
Some are concerned with how to fit meditation into an already over-crowded curriculum. However, the positive evidence of meditation has led large numbers of teachers to find time for meditation in school. The combined data from MeditationCapsules and Smiling Minds, two Australian organisations that provide mindfulness training to schools, show that more than 7500 teachers are using mindfulness.
These teachers are typically using mindfulness in pastoral care classes or dedicated well-being classes. In other schools, meditation is being used as a quick learning readiness tool at the start of academic classes. This means there is no need to change school timetables or replace other curricula.
What schools should do?
There is a strong case for implementing meditation in schools. This can be done in a number of ways. First, meditation training can become a core part of teacher education so that all teachers are skilled in the use of mediation as part of their teaching toolkit.
Second, schools can bring in evidence-based meditation curricula such as those that have been developed in Australia (Smiling Minds; Meditationcapsules), India (The Alice Project), the UK (Mindfulness in Schools Project), and the US (InnerKids, Mindful Schools, MindUp, Learning to Breath).
Third, schools can introduce “mindful” moments into the broader school culture by starting school assemblies with a brief mindful practice, by having quiet sections of the school (such as certain school hallways designated as quiet zones) and by providing meditation spaces for staff and students in areas such as the library, well-being rooms and sections of gardens in the schoolyard.
Schools can better recognise the aspects of the school that are already drawing on meditation without perhaps calling it that name. For example, many aspects of existing curricula in drama, music, art, physical education and outdoor education are already using meditative and attention-focusing techniques.
Finally, if meditation is to become system-wide across Australian education, researchers need to continue measure the effects of meditation to find out how it works and when it works most effectively.