Andrew Jones examines the evidence for introducing meditation to students and teachers
Research shows meditation in schools could not only calm students and teachers but might actually raise grades. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian
If the sheer amount of work generated by school has you anxious, tense and worried, consider trying meditation before, during or after school. Even a few minutes meditation can give students and teachers a sense of calm and peace of mind that benefits their emotional and physical health.
Most forms of meditation centre on the concept of mindfulness, which makes one aware of their moment-to-moment experiences; noticing and accepting their thoughts, feelings and emotions. This kind of meditation can be used in school to make students and teachers aware of how their daily experiences of school life are affecting their state of mind and, hopefully, to calm their reactions and thoughts throughout the rest of the school day.
Another popular form of meditation focuses on compassion, which endeavours to cultivate compassionate thoughts and feelings for other people, especially for people students might not like or know. The aim here is to create better community cohesion among the school population.
Although both types of meditation have their roots in Indian religions, there are now countless scientific studies demonstrating their benefits. For example, research by academics at Stanford University found that people practicing mindfulness meditation valued calmness in their day-to-day lives more than those who did not.
Moreover, there are now respectable scientific studies suggesting meditation can lead to people living longer and healthier lives with less risk of heart attacks and even less chances of getting colds.
In the context of educational psychology, a number of studies have found that meditation can improve wellbeing and develop empathy skills. For example, studies lead by Shauna L Shapiro of Santa Clara University have found that awareness of one’s state of mind can improve coping strategies for dealing with the stress of everyday life, which may benefit students under pressure to attain high grades or teachers targeting ever higher pupil targets. In relation to compassion, the University of California, Los Angeles’s (UCLA) David S. Black and colleagues found empirical evidence that meditation leads to reduced misbehaviour and aggression among children and adolescents.
Meditation, therefore, can be employed to tackle a myriad of problems in school, including poor student attainment and staff fatigue. Many schools, including my own, are establishing a ‘quiet time’ period during the school day of 10 to 15 minutes when students sit quietly to meditate, reflect on what has happened that day or simply rest.
This has been done through the establishment of a lunchtime Zen club run by a colleague of mine, Dilraj Paul. Students were initially reluctant to attend and the sessions were more popular with staff. However, there has been a gradual accumulation of curious year 7s, as well as students from the school’s aspiration and achievement group (formerly known as gifted and talented).
Sessions do not approach meditation in any theoretical way and guidance is kept to a minimum. Those present start their meditation by taking a deep breath and are then encouraged to clear their minds by focusing on their breathing or the gentle background music. However, if thoughts occur or their minds wonder, they are told to accept this and simply be aware of what they are thinking of. Of course, many of them turn up purely to escape the noise, hustle and bustle of a secondary school day. The peace is appreciated, especially by teachers. One commented that Zen club was: “A brilliant way to feel chilled out for period five.”
Although meditation is not for everyone and can seem bizarre and pointless to many, its use in schools is now being championed by academics and educational charities, such as those set up by Goldie Hawn and George Lucas. In addition, the internet offers a wide range of resources documenting the benefits of meditation in schools, including previous blogs on this site, as well as practical guidance on how to set up classes. It really is worth trying.
Andrew Jones is head of religious studies and sociology at a Goffs School in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. He is also an experienced GCSE examiner. Find his department here and on Twitter: @GoffsRS. Andrew is also a teacher adviser to the Guardian Teacher Network.