The sight of high school pupils sitting motionless with eyes closed is becoming commonplace in classrooms across the UK and beyond. The practice of meditation or ‘mindfulness’ is being taught to help children deal with stress and to help them focus. While some old-school educators may see this as an excuse for pupils to stop working and mess about, studies are confirming that the effects of meditation have numerous positive effects.
The practice of being mindful is generally attributed to Buddhism, although other forms of meditation are linked to Hinduism and Taoism. The practice of modern mindfulness tends not to be spiritual in any way. The purpose is to focus the mind on breathing and the five senses, letting thoughts drift in and out passively.
Apart from psychological effects, physical changes take place in the brains of meditators. An eight-week Study by Harvard University at Massachusetts General Hospital found that grey matter actually increased from regular meditation sessions. The increase was sited in the area responsible for memory and learning. A study by UCLH discovered that people who regularly meditated for twenty years or more had better preserved brains than people who did not. While data on the effects of mindfulness on children is limited, an extensive meta-review compiled the results of 15 studies covering 1800 pupils from the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, Taiwan and India. They found an overall improvement in well-being, social and academic skills. Furthermore children reported higher levels of optimism and self-identity. Meditation appeared to help them cognitively as well, with improved processing, focus, memory and creativity.
The Mindfulness Foundation is a founder member of the NCB Partnership for Wellbeing and Mental Health in Schools and is running the Mindfulness in Schools Campaign. The Mindfulness in Schools Project is a charity who support the teaching of meditation in schools. They run courses for teaching the techniques to pupils from 7 to 18 year olds. Even adults who have never meditated can learn how to teach the techniques in just a few days.
There are some interesting and useful apps on the market, specifically aimed at meditation for young people. Smiling Mind is a free app that has been developed by educators and psychologists to help bring balance to people’s lives. There is also now Headspace for Kids, a subscription-based program that’s split into three age ranges: 5 and under, 6-8 and 9-12. The availability of apps means that children can choose a guided meditation that suits them. For those teachers who don’t feel comfortable leading a guided session, classrooms that use iPads or have a BYOD policy can have pupils plug in and just ‘be’. Schools could also easily create their own mindfulness programs and deliver them via a flexible VLE.
The message is that pupils find the sessions calming and focusing. They report that they consider their actions more, resulting in better behaviour. The overall positive effects aren’t just beneficial for pupils; the knock-on effect must improve the lives of teachers and parents as well.