In November 2016, CNN, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, Upworthy, and a smattering of local news outlets reported on the success of an urban school in West Baltimore called Robert W. Coleman Elementary that had been piloting a program replacing detention with meditation practices in specially designated “Mindful Moment” calming rooms. In collaboration with trained adult guides from the not-for-profit Holistic Life Foundation, students practiced mindfulness through meditation, yoga stretches, and deep breathing designed to teach students more beneficial coping skills when feeling distressed or in conflict. There was also a daily practice of students starting the school day with an intercom announcement guiding them through a 15-minute meditation practice. Students were encouraged to practice yoga both before and after school, to create a more skillful sense of capability with regard to self-managed emotions. The school principal claimed that the program lowered student suspensions, and that there were far fewer disciplinary actions since the rollout of the program.
Baltimore is not alone in the movement away from traditional discipline meted out as detentions and suspensions. A middle school in Wayzata, Minnesota and elementary schools in both Syracuse and San Francisco have followed suit, hoping to integrate wellness methods into the growing practice of tending to the whole child in order to support greater mental health and availability to learning. Globally, countries like Australia, Great Britain, Ireland, Scotland, Thailand, Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands have all taken steps to initiate a Mindfulness in Schools project, aimed at enhancing emotional wellbeing, improving concentration, and promoting more effective learning environments through calmer classrooms.
With such a build-up and so much evidence-based information behind the schools-based push for wellness and integrative health, I couldn’t help but wonder whether meditation could help my own wild bunch. I have two boys and girl, ages 12, 5, and 10 respectively, who all struggle with attention problems. My youngest two, in particular, have had concentration and focus issues from their earliest days in pre-school (which is where a lot of attention problems exist, given the age, but their issues were more intense than usual). I rather doubted that I could manage to wrestle the three of them to the ground long enough to get a criss-cross-applesauce out of them, let alone having them meditate or try yoga poses. But, lured by the glowing promise of increased attentional capacity and better self-management, I decided that I would dive for the gold ring and give it a go.
During a school break in December, I gamely gathered my little chicks together, and with visions of peaceful lotus positions and grateful faces infused with calm, I explained that I would be teaching them some simple yoga positions, and then ending our session with a 5 minute mindful meditation practice. My eldest looked at me grimly, my middle child with serious doubt, and my youngest with utter blankness, but the general trust of the very young. People usually make fun of me for my eternal optimism and my willingness to keep faith amidst bleak situations, but after this first session, I was anything but calm and more than wiling to make fun of myself for this bright idea. My brilliant yoga session turned into the two eldest competing irritatedly with one another for who could hold their positions the longest or who was “the bendiest.” My youngest turned every pose into an opportunity to do somersaults across the floor, and peeked at me incessantly through one half closed eye during meditation (which I knew because I peeked at him through both half closed eyes to see what mischief he was getting into). When we sat and talked about how our yoga session went, the comments ranged from promises to “never do THAT again” to questions about where I “even got THAT idea” to the little one declaring that he was both hungry and had to poop.
Certain people might have gotten very discouraged from such a decidedly lackluster response, but I believe everything takes a few tries if it’s worth doing at all. (If I didn’t believe this, my kids would still be eating baby cereal and nothing else, given how they responded to the introducing-new-foods debacle). I have since tried to incorporate a yoga session every Sunday morning, doggedly persisting through the grumbles and complaints of “This again???” and gradually incorporating more poses and incrementally longer meditation periods. I’ve added in guided meditation with music (that is available for free on YouTube), and aromatherapy oils for added calmness. My sessions with my children are not nearly as complete as what I have done in my own decades-long practice, nor does it resemble what I teach in the yoga club at my job. But the idea is not to turn them into yogis (yet!), but to begin to teach them a better way of handling their swirling thoughts, and to see if maybe, just maybe, they might someday become more focused and confident as a result of their practice.
This is an ongoing experiment that I will report again on, because I am interested in seeing whether there is merit to this idea of meditation gradually softening the rough edges. Very few of the children I’ve known (either my own or my students) have ever raced to me, eager to begin the practice of meditation. But I have noticed that over time, many of them integrate the skills they are taught without realizing it, turning to deep breathing when they are stressed, closing their eyes and trying to center themselves when agitation threatens to overwhelm them, most of them trying to achieve a greater calm than the state of their lives will sometimes allow.
It certainly can’t hurt to try. This is an experiment with no casualties. At best, I might someday be able to report that my children have a better way of coping that they have come to depend upon and can implement on their own as needed. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, they’ll grow up someday to joke to their spouses about how their mom sure was a whack-a-doo, and made them do some crazy granola stuff growing up, but she spent every Sunday with them because she loved them.
At least, the optimistic side of me likes to think that!