When former public school teacher Dave Beal introduced meditation to his students at P.S. 375, he saw dramatic changes in his classroom.
“Test anxiety was the No. 1 reason students underperform. So I saw a lot of improvement that way," says Beal. "You know, particularly the stereotype of the fidgety boy who can’t sit still, when they start to learn breathing techniques and [start] connecting with their body and quieting their mind, they’re just able to maintain a higher level of concentration throughout the day.”
The experience prompted Beal to switch gears and devote himself to meditation full-time. He's now an education coordinator at Power Brain Education, a company that partners with school districts around the country and facilitates workshops for students and teachers about activities that promote focus, emotional wellness and mindfulness.
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Says Beal, “We do lot of dynamic, high-energy exercises, because I think for adults as well as kids, the concept of meditation is just sitting quietly and trying to empty your mind, and that can be a frustrating project for some people in this fast-paced world.”
Meditation in schools is part of a broader trend toward increasing awareness and reducing digital noise. Some schools districts, such as one in Reading, MA, are even making meditation a formal part of the curriculum, according to Dr. Jill Emanuele, senior clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.
"There are a wide variety of ways to introduce mindfulness, and even though it may seem that small children would have a hard time understanding the concept of mindfulness, they in fact are more mindful in general than us. They are much more in the present moment. So teachers/instructors simply guide their attention in the present moment toward an activity that will introduce the concept," says Emanuele.
Emanuele notes that giving children simple metaphors, such as visualizing a balloom in their stomach growing and shrinking, is just one of the "infinite" ways to get children to be mindful.
Power Brain Education takes a unique apporach to meditation: By first speeding up, they get kids to slow down.
“[We lead] physical exercises, partner games, and they [students] open up and are having fun, and are releasing some of the pent-up tension from trying to sit at their desks. Then, after they kind of open up that way, they’re able to sit down quietly and focus on their breathing,” says Beal.
Next, students are led through a visualization exercise.
“Kids are very visual and very imaginative, so we have what we call the 'energy-ball visualization.' They imagine they’re creating a ball of energy with their hands, so it gives them something very tangible to focus on,” says Beal, who notes that helping students turn their awareness into physical sensations, like heat or tingling in their hands, is part of how instructors faciliate the process.
“Once they really have a little glimmer of a feeling of inner peace, once they feel that first sensation, then that motivates them to keep going. Then, after those first couple of times, it just becomes really automatic,” says Beal.
Though the practice is still relatively new in schools, the benefit of mindfulness are well-documented. A 2015 study of fourth and fifth graders who participated in a program designed to teach mindfulness and caring for others found that it enhanced cognitive control, reduced stress and promoted well-being.
Ultimately, says Beal, the goal of the practice is twofold: To have students empty their their minds of the busy thoughts, and then focus them on their goals.
As for critics who say kids don’t have the attention span for meditation?
Says Beal, “Honestly, I think kids and adults alike, we actually crave this time. They’re kind of hungry for this. They enjoy the time to unplug.”