A Bold Approach to Reducing Student Stress
With levels of violence and poverty rising around them, San Francisco middle school students find social and emotional healing -- and a new readiness to learn -- in a bold program of daily meditation.
Principal James Dierke (left) took an unconventional, impactful step by implementing the Quiet Time program in his school. Students (right) opt to be trained in meditation and practice it twice each day during Quiet Time.
Credit: Daniel Jarvis
Back in 1999, when Principal Jim Dierke was getting started at San Francisco's Visitacion Valley Middle School (VVMS) so many fights were breaking out between students that it became known as "the fight school." Police routinely made arrests on campus, and every day, lines of students stretched down the hall outside the counselor's office.
Drugs and gang violence, rampant in the nearby housing projects, were spilling out into a community already challenged by unemployment and a high homicide rate. Students were coming to school fearful, anxious, and stressed. The consensus was they were suffering from PTSD -- what one teacher described as persistent traumatic stress syndrome.
Unable to combat the painful realities enveloping the neighborhood, Dierke resolved to change what he believed he could control, his school. It hasn't been easy, and the work goes on week after week, but today, VVMS has emerged as an oasis of hope and relative calm thanks largely to Dierke's leadership and a program he and his team helped pioneer at VVMS called Quiet Time (QT) .
Dierke describes Quiet Time as an umbrella -- a shelter and a sanctuary where students can clear their minds and ready themselves to accomplish things socially and academically that they could not have contemplated in the past. Over the past five years -- since shortly before VVMS launched -- the number of suspensions has been cut in half, from 13 per 100 students in 2006-07 to six per 100 students in 2010-11. Truancy rates, defined as having more than three unexcused absences or being tardy more than three times per year, have dropped by 61 percent, from 18 percent of students in 2006-07 to just 7 percent in 2010-11.
In the formal sense, QT at VVMS is a daily program of mandatory quietude. Twice a day, once at the first bell and again just before the last bell, students are directed to sit quietly for 15 minutes. They are permitted to read, sit with their own thoughts, or close their eyes and meditate -- in which case most of them use a specific technique called Transcendental Meditation* that facilitates a state of deep relaxation. Although the meditation is optional, nearly all students have chosen, with their parents' permission, to receive meditation training. Based on classroom reports, about 90 percent of students choose to meditate during QT. (Learn more about meditation successes in schools around the country.)
Picking Partners, Building Support
Dierke had been busy laying the groundwork for change since his tenure as principal at VVMS began 13 years ago. "We weren't running a jail. We were running a school," he says. "To learn and be creative, kids need to feel happy and safe." He began with the community at large, partnering with the San Francisco Police Department to provide an on-site police officer focused on prevention as well as intervention. He joined forces with the City College of San Francisco to provide English-language classes for students' parents, and he partnered with community organizations to have furniture donated. He even worked with the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and a local outreach program teaching golf and life skills, called The First Tee of San Francisco, to get a First Tee Learning Center built at VVMS, the first facility of its kind in the country.
Dierke also worked hard with the faculty and other staff to build a school culture dedicated to self-improvement. He and his staff wrote dozens of grants and secured resources to repaint the school, fix the outside lights, network the school's computers, and increase special ed programs to serve more kids on-site. (Currently, VVMS has 19 percent special needs students compared with the district's 12 percent and the state's 11 percent.)
But Quiet Time has been his centerpiece reform. It began when Antoinette Marracq, then head counselor and dean (now assistant principal) at VVMS, introduced him to the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education (CWAE). The CWAE is a San Francisco nonprofit organization that specializes in high-impact, whole-school transformation through meditation-based stress-reduction programs. They work with and receive funds from several groups, including the David Lynch Foundation, to implement QT and other wellness programs in schools. Staff at the center had studied meditation practices that reduced stress among students in both lower and more affluent socioeconomic circumstances. When Dierke met CWAE executive director Laurent Valosek, the center was in the process of developing a way to implement programs on behalf of students in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Dierke knew that a social and emotional reform plan driven by a meditation program would require widespread buy-in from the school community. He invited Valosek and CWAE director of research Jamie Grant to present the benefits to the faculty. Teachers were open, but skeptical about whether it could really work. When the faculty held its own meeting without Dierke present, a what-have-we-got-to-lose consensus began to emerge. When they took a vote, only two teachers opposed; one was convinced to try it and the other retired.
With his teachers on board, Dierke's next step was to win over the parents and the district. Effective and accurate communication was key, so Dierke and the CWAE made presentations for parents to learn what the program entailed, what their students would be doing, and why the school leaders believed it would help. Astonishingly, no parents opposed. The school developed a parent permission form ( PDF 2MB) that authorizes students to be trained in meditation. To date, almost no parent at VVMS has refused to sign.
When Dierke first approached SFUSD's superintendent of schools Carlos Garcia, the superintendent's initial thought was, "Well, that's a little off-beat." A former middle school principal himself, Garcia questioned how realistic it was to expect middle school students to sit silently for, well, any amount of time, let alone 15 minutes. But he and Dierke spoke candidly about the challenges the school faced and the difficulties confronting at-risk student populations across the nation. "In America we've been trying everything," Garcia recalls saying. "Millions of kids every year are dropping out, having drug issues, violence issues, and post-traumatic stress. What is there to lose?" A tool to help students learn self-discipline and focus seemed well worth the try. Both men agreed to make the program completely voluntary and to "let the kids judge it."
Two basic but essential requirements that needed to be addressed next were space and time. Although the QT program happens in the classrooms, Dierke designated a quiet room for his staff to be able to meditate on their own time, as well as for students if they want to meditate by themselves. Finding the necessary 30 minutes in the day without taking away from instructional time was more challenging, but they shaved some time from lunch, one minute off every passing period, and half of home-room registration to come up with it.
The final steps were handled by the QT instructors from CWAE: training the staff and then the students in meditation. The first stage was to train staff on how to meditate, and give them time to practice on their own. This would create an honest foundation for the teachers to respond to students' questions about meditation. Because teachers do not meditate during QT, they also needed training in how to facilitate QT -- how to set up the room, how to help students that are having a hard time getting started, and how to maintain the quiet for 15 minutes. (Download the Quiet Time Primer PDF 178KB.)
Lastly, students opting to learn meditation received training. All students are given an orientation in QT's purpose -- to rest, reduce stress, and increase clarity of mind -- and its guidelines -- quiet and no disturbing others. Each student receives one individual training session and three group sessions. Instructors not only teach the technique but also provide science classes on the physiology and psychology of stress and the impact of stress on one's ability to be effective and successful. They make sure to draw direct connections from the potential outcomes of meditation to benefits that are relevant to the students, such as improving academic, artistic, or athletic performance, or dealing with the stresses in their lives.
Within the first year, the school began to see a difference. The staff had decided to train only the sixth and seventh graders, leaving the eighth grade as a sort of control group. While the eighth grade continued its cycle of fighting, misbehavior, and suspensions, in the lower grades suspensions began to decrease. By the third year of the program, after years of dismal teacher retention rates, teacher turnover dropped so substantially that VVMS was removed from the district's "hard to staff" list.
In the years since, the changes at VVMS have been both measurable and qualitative. In measurable terms, Dierke cites the following:
- VVMS now has one of the highest teacher retention rates of any middle school in the SFUSD.
- Previously, VVMS would send one, maybe two students to the city's top performing magnet high school. In the past two years, the school has sent 17 and 19 students respectively.
- In responses to health surveys given to students, students report more sleep and fewer headaches and stomachaches.
- Field trips, practically unheard of before the program because of unpredictable and unruly student behavior, now include monthly trips to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, the city's famous cable cars, and city hall -- places many VVMS students had never been to before.
Academically, the schoolwide grade point average among students has gone up nearly half a point from C to B- and teachers report a clear difference in classroom management. "I definitely saw a correlation between their behavior, being more manageable in class, and their beginning to meditate more," says Rose Ludwig, a special ed teacher at VVMS.
Less quantifiable but perhaps more important, Dierke and his staff have seen the culture of the school transform. Dierke describes how before, "a teacher might come into my office and slam down a student referral on my desk and say loudly, 'What are you going to do about Johnny?' Now this same teacher comes in and says, 'Excuse me, Jim, can we sit down and talk about John's needs?'" Staff members agree. Says one teacher, "I'm nicer. I'm still strict, but a lot nicer." Many teachers, including Dierke, credit the meditation with physical health improvements, including weight loss, lower blood pressure, and even getting off diabetes medication.
Val Tagaloa, a 31-year teaching vet, 25 of those at VVMS, is unambiguous about the link between meditation and the improvements in student behavior. "I've seen a 180-degree turn. Students are more peaceful, friendlier, and get along better."
Students themselves describe how the positive effects of meditation move beyond increased productivity in the classroom to helping with difficulties at home. Jocelyn, an eighth grader at VVMS, recalls a frightening experience one Fourth of July when she was out with her father and heard gunshots. "I was so surprised, I couldn't move," she recounts. The experience shook her, but when school started in August, "We did meditation, and I just let all the images slide by. Meditation helped me. It was a like a force that blocked what I had just experienced."
Looking back on his eventful 13-year tenure as principal at VVMS, Dierke's greatest joy and satisfaction comes from knowing that "kids love to be here." He has been able to resurrect traditions that once would have been considered pure folly at VVMS -- school rallies, homeroom sports competitions, honor roll, perfect attendance certificates, field trips, and special visitors such as the mayor and superintendent.
The path forward is uncertain because QT is largely dependent on the work of the CWAE staff and the funding they receive primarily from the David Lynch Foundation. However, QT is expanding to two other San Francisco high schools, also through funding from the David Lynch Foundation, and Superintendent Garcia is hoping to raise more resources for further expansion. As the power of this positive change is gathering steam, and researchers take a deeper look at the beneficial outcomes of meditation for students, there can be no doubt that Quiet Time is making an important difference for kids who need it most.
* Transcendental Meditation® and TM® are registered or common law trademarks and are used under sublicense.