What Happens When Meditation Replaces School Detention?
When punishment turns into introspective guidance
I was a great, obedient kid in school. I scored good grades and followed the rules. But then there were a couple of students who were not doing well.
They weren’t scoring as much (quite less actually) and getting into all sorts of trouble in school. To ‘fix’ them, teachers often told me to talk to them. They hoped I‘d be a good influence on them.
But I could never understand why they did what they did. Why they scored less, why they behaved in a certain manner, and so on.
Were they just dumb? I bet not. There was always something else going on.
But I could only do so much with my intellect at that time. After a point, I just went about my business.
Yet, I always had to see them being punished, given some form of suspension or a yellow card (which if you get three of them, you’re out).
Reflecting on my experience after more than 6 years makes me realize that school can be overwhelming for students. To me it came naturally — math, science, following rules, dressing properly, and so on.
But for others, it wasn’t that easy after all. Yet, instead of understanding this, our education system just has a blanket response for any mischief — punishment.
You see, being a student is not just about your studies. Your environment, friends, family, community, etc have a great deal of effect on you.
Imagine this. Things are not good at Peter’s home. His parents are fighting. Or he couldn’t sleep well last night since his parents were shouting. Whatever the reason may be, he comes to school distracted, underslept, and overwhelmed.
Most times, as teachers and even friends, we don’t know the whole story.
Thus, punishing these students under such circumstances seems stupid in hindsight. Instead of helping them deal with their emotions outrightly, we give them one more thing to worry about.
Punishment and detention are psychologically harmful to every kid. Not only do they feel bad about getting punished, but they also have to think about others’ opinions of them.
This makes me question, is there any other alternative?
Punishing students often backfires. They’re not old enough to find the lesson behind the punishment. Thus, instead of learning from it, they gain resentment towards their teachers and the education system.
It only contributes to an inefficient learning environment.
The people at Holistic Life Foundation based in Baltimore, Md, have found a radical solution to this problem — mindfulness.
At Patterson High School, they assigned a ‘Mindful Moment Room’. The aim of the room is to be an oasis of calm that is available to the students throughout the school day.
Students who’re being disruptive in the class are referred to this room. They can also be allowed in willingly with due permission.
Each student is then assigned a Mindfulness instructor with whom they practice. They engage in five minutes of targeted discussion with active listening, and 15 minutes of mindfulness practice, selected on the basis of the needs of the student.
Often students are led through a bunch of breathing exercises but some scenarios may call for Yoga. Whatever the case may be, the aim is to help the students to de-escalate their emotions.
And it works. One 10th grade student said,
“The program helped me get over what people were saying about me and just… move on.”
I’d call that excellent! As per my and many other kids’ experiences, getting over what others think of you is half the battle. This is why we fall into peer pressure and do things that we’re better off avoiding.
As the instructor discusses the situation more with the student, they plan how to address similar situations using mindfulness in the future. These include mindfulness techniques to ‘reset’ emotionally and allow students to be at peace throughout.
Once the session is complete, students are given a pass to return to their class. On a few occasions, they are kept longer depending on the severity of the situation.
Results in Patterson High School
The results, as we saw above have been excellent. It’s even more clear when we hear about the diverse student population at the school.
It includes students from a variety of ethnic groups and backgrounds — over 30 countries, 20 different languages, just in their English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class. Many of the new students came from conflict areas and were in the U.S. under refugee status. Some are also undocumented minors.
Such a group can easily be unstable if not handled correctly — especially if students don’t find healthy ways to deal with their emotions.
Thankfully, after a year of having the Mindful Moment Room, suspensions and verbal/physical altercations decreased by more than 50%.
As for some side-effects, attendance rates were up by 3%, grade promotions by 19%, and average student GPA by 0.5%.
In other schools, where the Holistic Life Foundation has been running similar programs, they’ve not had a single suspension since they started.
These changes are supported by science as well.
For instance, the famous 2011 study from Harvard found that a mere eight weeks of daily meditation physically alters the brain’s grey matter, increasing density in the hippocampus (linked to memory and learning) and decreasing density in the amygdala (associated with stress and anxiety).
A 2013 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology reported that low-income third-graders who participated in once-a-week sitting meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises showed a noticeable decline in hyperactive behavior and ADHD symptoms.
Studies have also shown mindfulness to increase kindness, empathy, and emotional control in fourth- and fifth-graders and to ease school-related violent conflict by 65 percent.
Why Isn’t Everyone Doing It Already?
When I was a kid, we did have a small “Self-Control” period just after the lunch break. The speakers in each classroom played a recording of “Om” chanting (I’m born and brought up in India) and we were supposed to sit in silence for 2 minutes.
While this was better than most schools around the world, it still isn’t enough.
Not surprisingly, one of the first challenges that schools have is time. Teachers can hardly find time for themselves. There are a hundred things to do.
But just as I tell everyone else, the issue isn’t really time, it’s about priority. At the low-income Burton High School in San Francisco, the principal extended the school day by 30 minutes to implement mindfulness.
For mindfulness to enter the schools, the teachers and the authorities need to understand the value of mindfulness as well. Many schools also solve this problem by teaching meditation in short breaks between classes.
The second challenge is what to teach. You can’t teach mantras to kids and tell them to focus on their breath. At least not in the way you’d teach an adult.
But there are creative solutions to this problem too.
Kate Reynolds, director of the Santa Fe Center for Mindfulness, likes the “rock-a-bye-baby” trick for calming little ones. Students put a stuffed animal on their stomach to help focus on the rise and fall of their breath.
Alternatively, a common exercise is the “five senses scan.” That means paying attention to what he sees, hears, smells, tastes, and sees? “This one shows how the body is always in the present moment, but the thinking mind so rarely is,” Reynolds said. “It’s fun to practice while eating dessert!”
Another great option is to teach students the value of love, gratitude, and compassion. They can be inspired to pray for others and themselves — “May I be safe, may I accept myself, may I have fun times, may I have good friends, may I be peaceful, may I be understood, may I be happy.”
Teaching mindfulness at schools, more than anything has one purpose — to make children better human beings.
Yes, they can improve their grades and be better at sports that way. But more importantly, they’re gaining valuable life skills like compassion, and kindness which will help them throughout their life.
Finally, to advance this spread, mindfulness should also be made a required part of the teacher-training curriculum. This way teachers can understand its significance and better empathize with students.
I may not be the best person to see the benefits of including mindfulness in schools. I’m not a kid anymore and neither am I a teacher or a parent.
Still, I can pinpoint hundreds of reasons why this is a logical step for our education system.
It isn’t another extra-curricular activity for your kid like painting or dancing. It’s more than that.
It helps them cure themselves, grow faster, understand their emotions, and ultimately make everyone’s life easier.
If meditation has so much to offer to our education system, shouldn’t we at least give it a try?
I’d leave you with that question to meditate upon ;)
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