Our nation is dotted with a few schools that have turned to an ancient tool to improve students' well-being and overall school climate: meditation. Studies continue to support its physical and mental benefits. Research indicates meditation can help lower high blood pressure and alleviate pain. Those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome and insomnia have reported improvements in their conditions following regular meditation practice. Even some people with certain diagnosed psychological problems have improved after making meditation a part of their daily routines. It is no wonder why some educators embrace it, for meditation tends to calm and relax the mind and body as well as improve one's awareness of the self. Even with so many documented benefits to the practice, schools meet tough opposition when they announce plans to implement it.
Because it is rooted in Hinduism, people unfamiliar with meditation are quick to label it as a practice that interferes with the separation of church and state. One popular form of meditation called Transcendental Meditation (TM) has been under fire since the late 1970s when a New Jersey school tried to offer it to students. The federal appeals court ruling set the precedent for similar cases: TM was a religious teaching and therefore forbidden in public schools. Although the majority of a meditative session primarily includes learning to clear the mind of its worrisome chattering while one quietly sits in a comfortable position, some practitioners do include spiritual elements. In schools that utilize meditation, this is usually not the case. In secular practice, religious connections are removed and oftentimes the word "meditation" is replaced with "quiet time" (QT) or "mindfulness."
In 2006, filmmaker David Lynch hoped to use TM to improve the bleak situation at Terra Linda High School in San Rafael, California, where stress was overtly overcoming the student body. A grant of $175,000 from the David Lynch Foundation was to fund TM training for students and staff, but the offer was revoked following parent upheaval. Nationwide, the David Lynch Foundation has managed to follow through with its mission to improve students' well-being by funding TM programs at 20 schools. While private and charter schools have received a portion of the $3 million in grants, public schools have accepted the funding from the David Lynch Foundation, too.
Since 2007, Visitacion Valley Middle School has run a successful meditation-like program. There, it is called QT. The stress-reduction program has been credited with reducing suspensions by 50% and truancies by 65%. A slight increase in the school's overall GPA is attributed to QT, too. The optional activity takes place twice daily at Visitacion Valley. During these sessions, students choose to sit quietly or meditate. On the East Coast, more than half of the student body at Brooklyn Urban Garden School, a charter school, report engaging in meditation during QT. The students report that the coping tool has decreased their likelihood to argue with others and increased their engagement in their schoolwork. Better focus is often a benefit cited by children who meditate regularly.
Studies continue to be done on the way meditation influences students. The George Lucas Educational Foundation has been collecting data about the effects of meditation in the classroom. At last count in 2012, at least 91 schools in 13 states were using meditation. In these schools, there have been significant improvements in absenteeism and suspensions, and rule infractions.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) is one group that advocates for the separation of church and state. When they learn of incidents in which schools may be implementing something that is rooted in religious theory like meditation, the AU often assists parents and other stakeholders in the legal process so no one in the public school has his or her rights infringed upon. Although they stand firmly against TM, the AU recognizes meditation as a valuable skill for students to learn. This is their stance, so long as all religious aspects have been omitted from the practice.
In addition to religious convictions, some people argue that meditation may, in fact, worsen symptoms in individuals afflicted with anxiety and depression. These critics, however, support this belief with studies that are few and far between. To be safe, individuals who are considering taking up a meditation practice should consult with their family doctor, as recommended by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
A secular approach to meditation may bring positive benefits to schools, plus it can provide students with a coping tool to use for a lifetime. Prior to implementing a meditation-based program, schools must reach out to organizations like Mindful Schools for proper training. These programs and organizations teach techniques for meditation as well as stress management, emotional regulation, and interpersonal skills. Courses for certification are offered both on-line and in-person.