Teachers and parents are discovering the surprising effects of providing mindfulness meditation at school.
Many of the young students at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore lead chaotic lives.
Some of their parents are in prison, many don’t eat outside of school, and the clothes on their backs are all they own.
But as soon as they enter their school, they’re in an oasis of calm.
The day begins with 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation. Breathing exercises help these kids leave their troubles at home and enter their safe space, where they can learn and grow. At the end of the day, a similar mindfulness meditation and breathing exercise is repeated for 15 minutes to give them the strength and calm they’ll need to get through the evening.
When students are overwhelmed for any reason, they can leave their classroom and go to a newly created Mindful Moment room, where they can spend 15 minutes with trained mindfulness instructors, who will listen to them, do a mindfulness meditation with them and give them a cup of tea before sending them back to their classroom rejuvenated.
And instead of being sent to detention, these kids go directly to the Mindful Moment Room, where they can calm down and reflect on how they could do better next time. The space is enveloped in draped fabric, purple pillows and yoga mats, with the scent of essential oil wafting through the air, the sounds of boiling tea a constant backdrop.
“This isn’t a luxury — these are survival skills that they’re going to need for the rest of their lives,” says Andres Gonzalez, cofounder of the Holistic Life Foundation, a nonprofit organization that brought the Mindful Moment Room to this school and 19 more throughout Baltimore last year. “It’s a tool you can always access and use.”
At this school and at schools throughout the country, mindfulness meditation has become one of the most important lessons for students and faculty, and it’s already showing incredible results.
After the Mindful Moment room was put into Patterson Park High School in Baltimore in 2012, suspensions for fighting dropped from 49 to 23 during the 2013-2014 school year, according to the Holistic Life Foundation. Students getting into verbal or physical altercations were sent to the room, and suspensions in the classroom were reduced by half from the first year they were there to the second.
And it even affected attendance. The attendance rate went up from 71% the first year the Mindful instructors were there to 74% the second year. The number of 9th graders graduating to the 10th grade increased from 45% from the 2012-2013 school year to 64% the following year.
Previously, the students in these schools were having a hard time figuring out how to handle their stress inside and out of the school. Now they’re equipped, says Vance Benton, principal of Patterson Park High School.
“It has helped my students become more aware of mindfulness. They’re more aware of their breathing. They’re more aware of alternative ways of dealing with their stress,” Patterson says. “I have witnessed a calmer student population, and I think they’re more open to the practice than they were when we first introduced it to them.”
The rooms, which Gonzalez describes as “an oasis within the school,” are used more frequently in the high schools than in the elementary schools, but about five of the younger students like to pop in each day to work on their breathing and to calm down. In the high schools, many go in at lunch or whenever they get a break to do a few yoga moves, mindfulness meditation or to get a grip on whatever stresses are ailing them, Gonzalez says.
Not only are students in under-resourced schools benefiting from mindfulness, though those are the kids who were originally the focus for the program. Gonzalez says they’ve started going into other schools as well and are finding that everyone has stress and could use help via yoga, breathing and meditation.
“Just because his parents are wealthy doesn’t mean that they’re at home with him,” Gonzalez says, addressing the fact that many of the students in wealthier communities arrive to empty houses because both parents are working — which could be stressful on kids. “We use the exact same techniques on those kids because everyone needs to learn them. They’re practical tools.”
Christopher Willard, a licensed psychotherapist and author of Growing Up Mindful, met the people working with the students on mindfulness in Baltimore, and he says that what they’re doing is incredibly important. Meditation and yoga can help children regulate their emotions and their attention, and it also guides them to control their impulses in and out of school. And since the students are a captive audience in the school, this is the perfect environment to teach them mindfulness, Willard says.
“One thing the research shows is that the kids who would benefit most are the kids struggling with attention and impulse problems,” he says. “But certainly, as we cut recess playtime and the arts from our schools, mindfulness is a powerful way to teach kids how to calm down.”
In addition, Willard says, this is almost a public health intervention that will lead to long-term resilience and can potentially prevent them from developing mental health issues and other problems down the road.
“Meditation will work best for intrapersonal students, those that like to solve problems by themselves.”
Still, some students relieve their stress in ways other than mindfulness meditation, yoga and breathing — so while the mindful rooms and efforts are incredible, it would be even better if there were alternative offerings, says Diane Hunt, an educational consultant and author of No Failing Students.
“Meditation will work best for intrapersonal students, those that like to solve problems by themselves,” Hunt says. “Meditation may not be the best fix for students who find listening to music, drawing, talking, being active or spending time in nature to be a stress reducer.”
Hunt says that offering a choice or adding more options would produce even better results.
But any school that starts leaning more toward embracing the whole child, giving them life skills like mindfulness, is helping them manage toxic stress inside and outside the school doors. And this social-emotional learning is essential for every type of child, says Carla Tantillo Philibert, founder of Mindful Practices, author of Everyday SEL & Mindfulness and founder of Mindful Practices in Oak Park.
“When embedded authentically into a school’s climate and culture, mindful practices can help even the most vulnerable students mitigate the negative effects of trauma, high mobility or poverty on their educational experience,” she says.