It used to be that kids were spanked or had their knuckles rapped if they broke school rules. Then, corporal punishment was disallowed, so students were sent to the principal's office to be lectured or were given detention. If they did something really bad, they were suspended from school. The next iteration of behavior correction? Forget punishment altogether. With that in mind, some schools are trying meditation.
In fact the U.K. government announced that beginning the week of Feb. 4 (Children's Mental Health Week), up to 370 schools throughout England will participate in a three-year trial involving mindfulness exercises, relaxation techniques, breathing exercises and student sessions with mental health experts.
"As a society, we are much more open about our mental health than ever before, but the modern world has brought new pressures for children, while potentially making others worse," U.K. Education Secretary Damian Hinds said in a press release. "These trials are key to improving our understanding of how practical, simple advice can help young people cope with the pressures they face."
Before you scoff at "today's kids" and how easy they have it (I know, I know — I too endured the bored-to-tears experience of in-school suspension), check out the results of what seems to be a non-punishment.
In a word, it works.
Robert W. Coleman School in Baltimore hasn't given out a suspension in two years — the same amount of time they've been incorporating the Holistic Life Foundation's program. The plan includes daily meditation, conversations with counselors, and a Mindful Moment Room, where students can go whenever they need some time away — or they can be sent there by a teacher.
How it works
The student signs in to the Mindful Moment Room and a Mindfulness Instructor meets with them. Some instructors may be familiar with the student and their challenges already and might even be personally requested by the student. The organization has found that five minutes of targeted discussion followed by 15 minutes of mindfulness practice is usually sufficient for most kids to calm down and feel good about returning to class. The video above explains how the program worked in one high school.
"The mindfulness practice is chosen based on the needs of the student at the time of referral or by student request. Most often students are led through a series of breathing exercises, but some scenarios may call for yoga," according to the program's website.
In one high school, they also introduced 60-90 minute mindfulness training for teachers with particularly rowdy classes; it worked so well that the school wanted all teachers to have the option of taking their classes through a full session. "The full classes give students tools and skills for peaceful conflict resolution, improved focus and concentration, greater control and awareness of thoughts and emotions, improved self-regulation, as well as stress reduction and relaxation," details the Holistic Life site.
Peaceful conflict resolution alone would have been useful in my public high school, where small disagreements often mushroomed into huge (and sometimes violent) fights. Reading that list makes me realize how we weren't taught any of those things at school. And why not?
Why it works
Mindfulness training for younger people works on multiple levels. Helping kids reduce stress means better focus on academics and less lashing out at school. It also gives them tools to deal with difficult situations away from school that affect their ability to get enough sleep or do homework. And even if school is going well and home is a healthy place, growing up (physically, emotionally, mentally) is — as I remember it — weird. Being able to take a step back from your emotions benefits you at any age, but it's especially useful for young people and it also gives them coping tools for life.
But it's not as simple as just bringing your local yoga or meditation teacher down to the nearest school. As Katherine Priore Ghannam, the founder of Headstand, a mindfulness program for school kids, told The Atlantic, "...working with young students is like speaking a foreign language. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to translate this content to the appropriate level for children. Otherwise, it won’t make sense.”
The upshot of these programs is pretty well documented: High school students' cortisol (aka, the stress hormone) dropped significantly after yoga class as compared to measurements taken before. Other studies in groups of students from at-risk rural kids to urban Midwestern teens to British pre-teens found that students had less hyperactive behavior, fewer ADHD symptoms, less depression and less stress after completing programs of mindfulness, yoga or both.
“We think we’re teaching kids how to thrive by focusing on academics. But we often miss teaching them the skills they need for daily life: how to build relationships with compassion, how to support each other, how to cope with trauma. Those are the kinds of skills that will eventually keep them going,” Kelly Knoche, an Oakland-based yoga teacher told The Atlantic.
DIY mindfulness with kids
If you have a child in your life whose school doesn't yet offer any kind of mindfulness education, one of the best ways to get them comfortable with the idea is to be an example of it yourself. If you're still learning, you can learn this new skill together.
Here's a video that can help you get started:
As always, consider a kid's personality and age when teaching something new.
For younger kids, playing little games like "How many sounds can you hear while you are being quiet?" — while having them count sounds on their fingers — is a great way to get them to quiet down and listen to the world around them. Then practice doing deep, slow, controlled breaths. Start with just three, and then work your way up to more. You can also practice basic yoga poses, and show them how it can be fun to do them fast, but also challenge them to slow down, and then really slow down. ("How slow can you go?") Talk to them after they've done some breathing and some yoga, even if it's just five minutes' worth. Ask them how they felt when they started, and how they feel now. Processing what they just learned is important for kids.
For older kids, teaching them their own special mantra, or showing them how breathing can help them calm down fast when they are upset will allow them to see for themselves how effective mindfulness techniques can be. There are lots more great ideas for kids over at the Chopra Center.
Both adults and kids of any age can start with the simple reminder: Just breathe. Slowly, and deeply; pay attention to how the air feels going into your lungs and back out. Do that three times — and then do it again.
You will feel better.