Promising Research on Meditation in Schools
Researchers have found multiple positive outcomes for students who meditate.
What is meditation?
Meditation encompasses a range of practices used to control conscious thought through a number of different techniques and with a variety of goals intended. According to Richard Davidson, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied meditation, there are two general categories of meditation:
- Open monitoring meditation (OM): Individuals observe their thoughts and emotions without reacting to them. Mindfulness meditation practices generally fall under this category.
- Focused attention meditation (FA): Individuals focus on a single object, such as a mantra. FA can be easier to learn and instruct than OM, and it can precede, complement, or be practiced without OM (Lutz et al. 2008).
Meditation Programs in Schools and Outcomes
Several studies have tested the effects of meditation using randomized controlled trials in elementary and secondary schools with outcomes that include:
- Improved executive functioning, for example:
- Improved self-control and self-awareness among children ages 7-9 who initially lack such skills (Flook et al. 2010)
- Improved attention skills among elementary school children (Schonert-Reichl and Lawlor 2010; Napoli, Krech, and Holley 2005; Zylowska et al. 2008)
- Reduced stress and anxiety, for example:
- Decreased anxiety among students in grades 7-8 (Semple, Reid, and Miller 2005)
- Decreased test anxiety in students grades 1-3 (Napoli, Krech, and Holley 2005)
- Decreased blood pressure in youths ages 6-18 (Black, Milam, and Sussman 2009; Barnes, Beiser, and Treiber 2004)
- Reduced misbehavior/aggression among children and adolescents (Schonert-Reichl and Lawlor 2010; Black, Milam, and Sussman 2009; Barnes, Treiber, and Johnson 2003)
Research in Richmond County high schools in Augusta, Georgia (Barnes et al. 2003; Barnes et al. 2004, cited in Anderson 2008 meta-analysis), found that transcendental meditation decreased class absences, misbehavior, and suspensions and even reduced students' blood pressure.
Another study from Arizona State University of first, second, and third graders in two elementary schools (Napoli, Krech, and Holley 2005) found that mindfulness meditation improved attention skills and social skills and decreased test anxiety. A study in Western Canada in 12 elementary schools (Schoenert-Reichl and Lawlor 2010) found that mindfulness education increased positive emotions and attention in class and reduced aggressive behavior.
In Los Angeles, researchers tested the impacts of the Inner Kids program and found that second and third graders (ages 7-9) with lower self-regulation skills who practiced mindful awareness activities for 30 minutes, twice weekly, showed increased self-regulation after eight weeks (Flook et al. 2010).
Meditation Impacts at Visitacion Valley Middle School
Visitacion Valley Middle School (VVMS) first introduced Quiet Time (QT), a stress-reduction program that includes Transcendental Meditation (TM)* as an optional activity, in the spring of 2007. The program consists of two periods, 15 minutes each in the morning and afternoon, when students may choose to sit quietly or meditate. Throughout the year, the San Francisco-based Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education has provided students with anywhere from one to five hours of general QT training, and, for those who opt for it, TM instruction. Teachers receive training in how to oversee and facilitate QT in class ( PDF 178KB), and they can also choose to receive TM training for themselves.
Since the schoolwide implementation of Quiet Time in 2008, suspensions have been cut in half, from 13 suspensions per 100 students in 2006-07 to six suspensions per 100 students in 2010-11. Truancy rates have dropped by 61 percent. In 2010-11, only 7 percent of students had unexcused absences or were tardy for three or more days, compared with 18 percent in 2006-07. According to data from the San Francisco Unified School District, VVMS currently boasts among the highest number of middle schools students who say they like their school and would recommend it to others.
In addition to the economic hardship experienced by most students at VVMS, 88 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price lunch, stress is compounded by the high incidence of violent crime in the surrounding neighborhood. In 2011 in the Ingleside neighborhood, there were 37 shooting victims, a 28 percent increase from 2010. The area also experienced 10 homicides, a 25 percent increase from 2010, which constituted the second-highest number of homicide and shooting victims in San Francisco.
Infographic: Maili Holiman
Anderson, J.W., Liu, C., and Kryscio, R.J. (2008). Blood Pressure Response to Transcendental Meditation: A Meta-analysis. American Journal of Hypertension, 21 (pp. 310-316). Meta-analysis and quality assessments conclude that Transcendental Meditation may reduce blood pressure, resulting in clinically meaningful changes.
Barnes, V. A., Bauza, L.B., and Treiber, F.A. (2003). Impact of Stress Reduction on Negative School Behavior in Adolescents. Health and Quality of Life Outcomes, 1 (10). Transcendental Meditation program conducted in the school setting has a beneficial impact upon absenteeism, rule infractions, and suspension days in African American adolescents ages 15-18 in comparison with the control school.
Barnes, V. A., Treiber, F.A., and Johnson, M.H. (2004). Impact of Transcendental Meditation on Ambulatory Blood Pressure in African-American Adolescents. American Journal of Hypertension, 17 (pp. 366-369). African American adolescents ages 14-17 with high-normal systolic blood pressure were randomly assigned to four months of training in either Transcendental Meditation or health education, which served as the control group. Decreased daytime blood pressure at four-month post-tests indicated a beneficial impact of the TM program in youth at risk for the development of hypertension as compared with the control group.
Black, D. S., Milam, J., and Sussman, S. (2009). Sitting-Meditation Interventions Among Youth: A Review of Treatment Efficacy. Pediatrics, 124 (pp. 532-541). A review of 16 empirical studies, from 1982 to 2008, found that sitting meditation, including mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation practices seems to be an effective intervention in the treatment of physiologic, psychosocial, and behavioral conditions among youths ages 6-18. Further research is needed to advance our understanding of sitting meditation and its use as an effective treatment modality among younger populations.
Davidson, R. J. (2010). Empirical Explorations of Mindfulness: Conceptual and Methodological Conundrums. Emotion, 10 (1), 8-11. Describes the central challenges to the study of mindfulness-based interventions: better descriptions of intervention practices (e.g., length of training and criteria for success), the need to understand control and comparison groups used in studies, self-reporting that may bias results, and the need to better understand the emotional processing targeted by meditation.
Flook, L., S.L., Smalle, Kitil, M.J. et al. (2010). Effects of Mindful Awareness Practices on Executive Functions in Elementary School Children. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 26 (pp. 70-95). A randomized, control study of 64 second and third graders (ages 7-9) who participated in the Inner Kids program for 30 minutes, twice weekly for eight weeks. Teachers and parents reported that mindful-awareness activities increased self-regulation skills among children who showed lower self-regulation at baseline.
Lutz, A., Slagter, H.A., Dunne, J.D., and Davidson, R.J. (2008). Attention Regulation and Monitoring in Meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12 (4). Describes OM and FA as two major categories of meditation and presents their potential effects on attention and the emotional process, and the possible impact on the brain and behavior.
Napoli, M., Krech, P.R., and Holley, L.C. (2005). Mindfulness Training for Elementary School Students: The Attention Academy. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 21 (1), 99-125. A 24-week program of breath work, bodyscan awareness, movement, and sensorimotor awareness activities (12 sessions, delivered bimonthly) to first, second, and third graders found improvements in children's attention and social skills and decreased test anxiety in children who received training as compared with randomly-assigned controls.
Schonert-Reichl, K. A. and Lawlor, M.S. (2010). The Effects of a Mindfulness-Based Education Program on Pre- and Early Adolescents' Well-Being and Social and Emotional Competence. Mindfulness, 1 (pp. 137-151). Fourth through seventh graders in 12 schools in Western Canada were instructed in mindfulness education (ME, now called MindUP) and given mindful attention training designed to foster positive emotion, self-regulation, and goal-setting, three times daily. Children who received the ME program had improved social behavior, better self-control, were less aggressive and more attentive in class, and showed significant increases in optimism compared to children in the waitlisted control classrooms.
Semple, R.J., Reid, E.F.G., and Miller, L. (2005). Treating Anxiety With Mindfulness: An Open Trial of Mindfulness Training for Anxious Children. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 19 (4), 379-392. Teachers reported a trend toward fewer problem behaviors, an improvement in academic functioning, and a decrease in symptoms of anxiety among anxious children after six weeks of mindfulness training.
Sibinga, E. M. S., Kerrigan, Stewart, D. M. et al. (2011). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Urban Youth. The Journal of Alternative and Contemporary Medicine, 17 (3), 213-218. Twenty-six at-risk and/or HIV positive youths ages 13-21 completed mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training. Quantitative data indicated reductions in hostility and emotional and general discomfort.
Zylowksa, L, et al. (2008). Mindfulness Meditation Training in Adults and Adolescents with ADHD: A Feasibility Study. Journal of Attention Disorders, 11 (6), 737-746. Mindfulness training reduced symptoms associated with anxiety.
* Transcendental Meditation® and TM® are registered or common law trademarks and are used under sublicense.