Updated: Oct 6
The following article appeared in Cairo Central, September 2018.
“It’s like an extra tool in your backpack. Mindfulness Rocks!” said one student who had been introduced to the practice of mindfulness meditation in his school. Another said: “It helps you concentrate. I use it every time I have a hard test. It brings my attention back to the test and the problem.”
All over the world, the growth of mindfulness meditation as a way of coping with everyday stress, reducing anxiety, increasing productivity, and bringing a sense of peace and reflective calm into people’s lives has been astonishing. It is being championed by major corporations like General Mills, Goldman Sachs, Google, Apple, and Nike, and it is finding its way into the world’s schools. It has been suggested that in years to come, the practice of mindfulness meditation will be seen in the same way that we now see going to the gym or jogging. It’s a way of looking after the wellbeing of our own minds.
But what is mindfulness meditation and why should schools get on board with this practice as soon as possible?
It is “… the meditative state of being fully aware of the present moment and of being self-conscious of this awareness; a state of intense concentration on one’s own thought processes…” according to one definition.
Self-awareness and concentration are skills that underpin all effective education, but they are also the key skills that are simply not taught in schools. Today’s students live in a fast-paced, media-saturated world, where the pressures to get good exam grades, get a place at a good university, and succeed in their chosen careers are mounting all the time. Compounding the stress and anxiety that this causes are the home environments and life circumstances of some students that can put an extra burden on them. Today’s kids are under growing psychological pressure, which is taking its toll on their mental health and wellbeing. The mental health of young people is under assault as never before.
Teachers deal with this every day. Routinely and many times a day, students are told to ‘pay attention’, but no one teaches them how. Mindfulness meditation can address this issue in a very powerful way. Recent research in the fields of psychology, education and neuroscience have shown the positive effects that a short daily meditation practice or ‘Quiet Time’ have on students’ wellbeing, social skills, and academic attainment, which comes from developing the ability to simply pay attention to the present moment. Students find that they can process information more quickly, have a better working memory, are more creative, and display greater cognitive flexibility.
But how do you ‘do’ mindfulness meditation? You can try it for yourself:
Close your eyes and put your attention on your body. Be aware of your feet on the ground and the movement of your breath. Notice the in-breath at the nostrils, the expansion of your rib cage, then notice the warmth of the air as it leaves the body. Stay with this for just two minutes without your attention wavering.
It’s very simple and very difficult,isn’t it? Notice how your mind wandered off onto something else quite quickly. We all have this assumption that we are in control of our own minds. Nothing can be further from the truth. Your mind, like a boisterous puppy, wants to run around and do its own thing. It doesn’t want to just ‘sit’. It takes time to train it to stay focused. To get it to really concentrate on what is happening right now and exclude everything else.
It’s the same for students. But the benefits of this type of practice don’t just stop at improved concentration. Students who have been through a programme of mindfulness in school have reported higher levels of optimism about their futures, more positive emotional states, stronger self-identity, and self-worth and they take better care of their health. A report published in ‘JAMA Internal Medicine' suggested that mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological stressors such as anxiety, stress, depression and physical pain. This has shown to be the case in dozens upon dozens of other studies across the globe. Getting students to breathe deeply and focus on themselves, rather than what is happening externally to them is very effective in reducing the sort of life-stresses that we are all otherwise subject to. It filters out all of those anxieties about the future, and memories of the past and pins the mind to the present.
A daily meditation practice can also improve a student’s social life, as it leads to increased positive social behaviour (such as helping others) and decreased anti-social behaviour (such as anger and disobedience). As one 9-year-old said: “When I get mad at something or somebody, I just take some deep breaths, keep doing my work, and tune everyone out. It gives you good confidence when you need to do something important.”
In one school in Baltimore in the US, a Mindful Moment Room has been set up where disruptive students can be sent, instead of to the traditional detention room or for a telling off from the Principal. This is not seen as a punishment but an opportunity for those students to engage in a few minutes of meditation. Rates of misbehaviour in the school since the introduction of the Mindful Moment Room have plummeted and the Principal has reported that she almost never sees badly behaved students anymore.
Teachers are also reporting that in taking up a meditation practice themselves, they are much more able to cope with the daily stresses of their workload and the pressures of an overburdened curriculum. It is helping them focus and engage more meaningfully with their students. Rates of depression, stress, and anxiety are all affected positively by encouraging staff to take up the practice, and days off due to sickness go down dramatically. Building a mindfulness meditation programme into a school’s day is a win-win situation for everyone.
But how do you go about implementing such a programme? Firstly, it is important to stress the secular nature of the practice and that it is a science-based stress reduction technique. An expert should talk to the staff and host a presentation for parents. It is critical that the students, teachers, and parents should opt into the programme, rather than have it forced upon them.
As one Principal noted: “The way you get a whole school of students to do this programme is when you’re not trying to get them to do it; it just happens when the school community has decided that they want it.”
Isn’t it time we did something for the mental health and academic achievements of our children by getting them to engage in a practice that will serve them well for the rest of their lives? Students win, parents win, teachers win, society wins.