Mindfulness meditation might be the new yoga, but does it have a place in the classroom?
Skipping recess to meditate might not be what most kids would choose to do. But in the lunchroom at Isaac Sheppard Elementary school in North Philadelphia, a loud bunch of third and fourth graders are about to get quiet. They gather around teacher Jamie Roberts. She's going to take them to her classroom for meditation club and gets their attention.
"Remember when you hear the bell, that's to remind you to return your attention again and again to the way it feels to be walking."
Nearly 20 kids start following Roberts up several flights of stairs. At the front of the line, a child strikes a bell and the group is silent.
When they enter Roberts' classroom, they congregate in a circle. Some finds spots on the floor, others wriggle into chairs. Roberts talks briefly, and then a designated student recites a series of phrases that the group repeats. They say things like "May we be safe and protected."
During the guided meditation, the kids are doing different things. Some look around, squirm in their seats, make funny faces, or whisper to a friend. Others close their eyes and take deep breaths. By the end, the group appears calm.
The students then tell me about what it feels like to meditate. A third grader named Andrew talks softly as he describes his experience.
"Meditation changed my life because I was like stressed out. And when I found meditation, it kept me happy and calm."
Another club member named Serena explains that meditation has helped her calm down.
"I felt really really mad. I just felt like I want to hurt people. But when I got here, I felt calm and I feel relaxed."
The club's origins trace back to 2010 when Jamie Roberts was doing meditation on her lunch break to deal with her own stress. Some kids wanted to learn to do the same, and so they started a club. In the club's first year, Roberts says a shooting happened outside of the school and it left many of the kids shaken.
"That night a lot of kids had trouble sleeping. When we had meditation, I asked if anyone wanted to talk about it," Roberts explains. "One girl raised her hand. Said she couldn't sleep last night but then meditated, and could sleep. Two other kids nodded had done the same thing."
Some kids have taken more to meditating than others. A third grader named Nahyana describes what seems to be a mindfulness practice known as the Body Scan.
"If your shoulder or head hurts, you can just close your eyes and and take deep breaths and go to your shoulder or your head," she says. "You just feel how it's feeling and maybe after you'll feel better."
Two-miles away from Isaac Sheppard, a high school meditation club has taken shape at Mariana Bracetti Charter School. In her classroom after school, teacher Andrea D'Asaro does some guided meditations and breathing exercises. One of the club's members is Kiron Gaines.
"Before mindfulness, I just felt confused. It was like everything was happening too fast. But now that I've been doing mindfulness, sometimes I'll stop, take a deep breath and think about it."
Student athletes, including Ronald Palmer, have also done mindfulness training with Andrea D'Asaro. Palmer says doing focused breathing has been helpful on and off the wrestling-mat.
"Say if you're about to get in a fight or argument with somebody, and you don't want to fight and you want to make the right decision," Palmer says. "You come back to mindfulness, take a deep breath and you walk away from the fight. I did that a lot of times."
So what's happening in the brain when someone does mindful breathing?
University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson can help explain. He's a leading researcher on the impact of mindfulness on the brain, and founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.
"Breathing more slowly can help to reduce the autonomic arousal, which can be deleterious and can result in more impulsive decision making," Davidson explains. "And when people are actually paying attention to what they're doing, they actually report increased levels of positive emotion and well-being, compared to periods of time when they're distracted."
Most of the evidence right now on mindfulness-related practices comes from adults; and according to Davidson, few rigorous studies have been done on children and teens. His group is interested in finding out more about the impact of mindfulness training on things like the regulation of attention and emotion, the ability to focus on a specific goal and cognitive control.
"To the extent mindfulness practices help directly in promoting these kinds of regulatory skills and also secondarily help in reducing the impact of stressful events and enabling people to cope more adaptively with those events, we would expect to see gains on these kinds of functions," Davidson says. "But we really need to do the research before we can more definitively say this is helpful during this period of life."
Among the few evidence-backed programs to teach students mindfulness is the Learning to Breathe curriculum created by Penn State researcher Trish Broderick. She works with teachers to first develop their own mindfulness practices before they get trained in the curriculum and teach it to students. In a recent study- at two comparable suburban public high schools in the Philadelphia area- Broderick tested what would happen when one of the school's concert choirs did the curriculum weekly for 15 to 20 minutes over 18 weeks.
"We looked at emotion regulation in students. In other words, were they aware of their emotional states? Were they clear about what they were feeling?" Broderick explains. "We looked at their stress level and asked about somatic symptoms; including how cranky they felt, whether they could concentrate or if they had aches and pains?"
The study showed students made improvements on these measures; while the comparison group, which did not do the curriculum, either stayed the same or did a little worse. Broderick finds the results promising, but acknowledges the study's limitations; including self-reported-data by students, the limited sample size and scope of the target group.
"We would certainly like to know what it would be like to do it in all the classes in a school as part of a regular curriculum. That would be the next step in terms of making this more sustainable."
Researchers like University of Virginia's Tish Jennings are getting closer to finding out whether students benefit when teachers bring mindfulness-related practices into the classroom. She's currently running a randomized controlled trial with 224 teachers, who as a group, oversee thousands of students across 36 New York City public elementary schools. So far, Jennings says half of these teachers have gone through mindful awareness and emotion skills training as part of a professional development program she created.
"If you can help teachers in this way, can you improve the classroom climate? In turn, does it also improve student academic and behavioral outcomes?" Jennings says. "So we're collecting data from teachers and also asking teachers to report on their individual children."
Jennings' findings could be a game changer for how mindfulness-related practices take shape in schools.