Schools see positive results from mindfulness programs

A growing number of schools and youth programs in Maryland have embraced the idea that spending a few minutes on mindfulness meditation can help students succeed both in and out of the classroom.

Mindfulness Tidewater1 WEach morning, the 5- and 6-year-olds in Suzanne McAlexander’s class at The Tidewater School in Huntingtown sit in a circle, with legs crossed and hands held near their hearts. They listen closely as McAlexander reassures them that even if they’ve had a hard day, they can “take off those feelings” and choose different emotions.

Various studies show that the practice of mindfulness medication can help students regulate their emotions, focus in class and process information more efficiently.

“For my kids, it’s a way for them to get their whole body together and reach a settledness before the day begins,” McAlexander says. “It gives them tools they can use anytime, anywhere.”

Fostering mindfulness can take many different forms. Some teachers, like McAlexander, blend breathing exercises and quiet reflection into yoga routines. Others direct students to listen to the sound of a ringing bell or perform a mental “body scan,” in which they shift their focus from one body part to another, starting at the tip of their toes and working their way up.

“What happens is the attention moves away from what’s going on in the mind and it moves to the bell or breath or the body sensations,” says Mary Kay Connerton, who leads a physical education class focused on yoga and mindfulness at Annapolis High School. “Eventually you see a shift in your demeanor that allows you to be more present.”

Studies show promise

Mindfulness Tidewater2 WProponents estimate that thousands of schools across the country have adopted mindfulness programs in recent years, and a growing number of independent yoga studios and meditation centers now offer mindfulness classes for kids.

The movement is spurred by research proving the positive effects of mindfulness on the adult brain, including brain scans that show physical changes after meditation. Using magnetic resonance images, a team of Harvard University neuroscientists in 2011 determined the matter in the brain responsible for learning and memory increased in participants of a mindfulness meditation program. At the same time, the part of the brain that responds to fear, stress and anxiety shrank in size.

Two additional studies published in 2015 found positive effects of mindfulness on youth. One followed fourth- and fifth-graders from British Columbia and determined that they experienced improved memory, better math grades and decreased aggression after participating in a four-month mindfulness program. The second study linked daily meditation to decreased anxiety and higher levels of self-confidence and happiness among high schoolers in California.

In 2007, a middle school located in a low-income section of San Francisco introduced two 15-minute periods of quiet meditation into the school day. Over the next three years, suspensions dropped by 79 percent, average daily attendance rose to 98 percent and students’ grade-point averages increased annually.

Researchers caution that more studies are needed to fully understand the academic effects of meditation, but anecdotal evidence is encouraging.

Students find peace

Students at Annapolis High School can attest to the benefits of meditation. Meghan and Holly Staples, 17- and 15-year-old sisters, have found the yoga/mindfulness class at Annapolis High to be one of the most beneficial courses they’ve taken. In the class, they learn to become aware of emotions, stay in the present and use meditative breathing to reduce anxiety.

“If you’re stressed in a class, you can just do some of the breathing and no one knows,” Holly says.

Meghan, who is enrolled in a rigorous International Baccalaureate program, agrees. “If there’s a quiz or a test coming up, I will go to that peaceful place that I go to in yoga during the resting position in order to combat the anxiety,” she explains.

The benefits also extend outside the classroom, according to the girls’ mom, Susan Mitchell.

“Our family went through a divorce, we went through a move. ... It helped them through that, and it helps them manage just the everyday stresses of being a teenager,” Mitchell says.

Local success

Mindfulness IO W MeditationArea schools are also using mindfulness to encourage students to adopt positive behaviors such as compassion or kindness.

Fourth graders at Indian Creek School in Crownsville spent several weeks this fall learning meditation techniques from a local mindfulness instructor contracted by the school. Now, instead of blindly reacting to feelings of anger or embarrassment, the children choose more appropriate responses, says teacher Heather DeBuse.

“Two students recently had a little altercation at recess, and before we could get to attend to them they had taken a breath, talked it out, and they had dealt with it on their own,” DeBuse says. “I think that shows a lot of maturity.”

Monica Jordan, a full-time mindfulness instructor and former teacher at The Key School in Annapolis, says mindfulness techniques also help students achieve academically.

"Before you can learn anything, or show what you know, you need to be in a place of emotional balance,” Jordan says. “Mindfulness brings you to that emotional balance."

When teaching at The Key School, Jordan would begin each class with a mindfulness exercise, and students would tell her they used the meditation techniques to tame test anxiety in other classes.

“Just by finding that sense of calmness, they could remember what they had studied,” Jordan says.

Connerton has seen huge benefits at Annapolis High School. One girl — a 15-year-old struggling in school and at home — was skeptical going into her yoga/mindfulness class, but a lesson on gratitude changed her outlook. Two weeks after the concept was introduced, the teen told her classmates she had begun making time each day to give thanks and set positive intentions.

Connerton recalls the student telling her classmates, “You guys, this stuff works. I got a positive referral from one of my teachers, I was able to go and reconnect with my aunt, and I’m getting straight A’s now.”

Back at The Tidewater School in Huntingtown, early morning sunlight streams through the windows of McAlexander’s class as her once-wiggly students sit still and savor a moment of meditation.

A full day of play and discovery lies ahead, but for now, the children just breathe. As McAlexander readies the class for its next lesson, 6-year-old Jade Dilley observes, “I feel peaceful,” and the students around her agree.

Making mindfulness a family affair

Kids who develop a healthy way to “press pause” reap a lifetime of benefits. In addition to reduced stress, mindfulness meditation has been associated with helping kids pay attention, plan ahead and recall instructions.

Here are some ways to share the practice with your child.

Practice before you preach

Experts agree the best way to teach mindfulness is to model its practices.

Try it at home. Search for “mindfulness guided meditations” on YouTube.
Take a class. Visit a meditation center, check out a meditation class at a yoga studio or find a meditation group on meetup.com.
Learn together. Use books, CDs and other materials to explore meditation as a family. Books recommended by some experts in the field incude:

  • “Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents),” by Eline Snel
  • “Growing Mindful: A Deck of Mindfulness Practices for All Ages,” by Christopher Willard and Mitch Abblett
  • “Mindful Games: Sharing Mindfulness and Meditation with Children, Teens, and Families,” by Susan Kaiser Greenland

Sign up your child for a yoga class

Yoga incorporates mindfulness and can be a great way to introduce children to the practice.

  • Mary Kay Connerton teaches several youth classes in the Annapolis area. yogawithmarykay.com
  • IO Workshop, a nonprofit based in Columbia, offers programming in yoga, art and science during summer vacation and other school holidays. ioworkshop.org/campio
  • Imagine Yoga & Wellness Center in Bowie offers Peaceful Kids. The weekly program, for ages 3 and up, combines yoga, art, meditation, singing and more. imaginetheplace.com/wp/yoga/yoga-classes/peaceful-kids
  • Broadneck Community Library in Annapolis offers a free monthly yoga class for teens ages 13-18. Check the library’s website for dates and times. aacpl.net/location/broadneck

By Mary Stegmeir

First two photos taken at The Tidewater School of students in morning meditation. Photos by Mary Stegmeir

Last  photo courtesy of IO Workshop