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Imagine if we taught stillness in classrooms

Meditation education is having a real and positive impact on student learning and their well-being

In our warp-speed world, stillness is a rare experience.

Parents are working longer hours and children’s lives are fully timetabled. Being “busy” has become the new social currency. It carries status. People marvel at those who are busy. The greeting “hello” has been replaced with the question “keeping busy?” It seems if you’re not busy, you’re not important.

Our addiction to being busy is having a detrimental impact on the well-being of children and teenagers. One in four young Australians experience symptoms of mental illness and mental illness accounts for over 50% of ill-heath statistics in 15-25 year olds. Children have forgotten how to be still. Their hearts, minds and bodies are always racing. What would happen if we taught stillness in schools and how do we go about doing this?

Meditation education is proving to be an effective way to teach stillness in schools and is having a real and positive impact on student learning and well-being. The act of slowing down provides students with the opportunity to observe and understand how they think and feel. This enriches traditional academic education by showing students how they think and not just what to think.

We need to slow down: Professor Lea Waters. Picture: University of Melbourne

Meditation is on the rise with schools bringing it into classes, sports fields, exam preparation, choir, school drama productions, school camps and academic learning.

Meditation is the deliberate act of regulating our attention through observing our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations.

It can conjure images of a yogi sitting in the lotus position chanting, but there are a wide variety of secular meditation practices that teach students how to focus their attention.

Self-observation exercises can be as simple as sitting, walking, eating, listening and learning with full attention.

Mindfulness-meditation is one for the more popular practices being taught at schools and involves a three-step mental process where students are asked to 1) focus their attention on a particular object (e.g., their own breathing), 2) notice when their attention has wandered away from the object and 3) bring their attention back to the attentional object.

Students engage in this practice with a stance of non-judgment and open curiosity which allows them to identify patterns in their thoughts and feelings, leading to a clearer mind and a more peaceful heart.

Groundbreaking research on meditation in schools is bringing together the three fields of psychology, education and neuroscience.

I led a team of researchers at the University of Melbourne who recently conducted a meta-review of meditation education that included 15 studies combining almost 1800 students from Australia, Canada, India, United Kingdom, United States, and Taiwan.

The results showed that meditation is beneficial in the majority of cases and led to higher optimism, positive emotion, self-concept, self-care and self-acceptance as well as reduced anxiety, stress, and depression in students.

Meditation was also associated with faster information processing, greater attentional focus, working memory, creativity and cognitive flexibility.

The meditation programs that were the most effective were those that encouraged regular practice, those that went for a term or longer and those that were delivered by teachers (as compared to an external meditation instructor).

The meta-review found a strong case for infusing meditating into the culture of schools and making it a core part of teacher training. Schools can investigate the many youth-meditation programs that have been developed in countries such as Australia (Mindcapsules), Canada (Mindful Education), India (The Alice Project), Israel (The Mindfulness Language), United Kingdom (Mindfulness in Schools Project, DotB), and United States of America (Mindful Schools, MindUp, Learning to Breathe).

The idea of learning being supported by stillness and focused attention is an attractive and practical prospect for education and it is no surprise that meditation education is on the rise as a way to care for both the minds and hearts of our students and to provide some much needed down-time in a young person’s day.

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