Meditation has gained increased popularity in recent years, and is a well-established practice in many Eastern cultures. Why, then, has this remained largely unpractised in schools?
Dr Veruska Oppedisano and co-authors have been studying the feasibility of implementing and evaluating a meditation intervention in primary schools, with exciting results and direction for future studies.
Read the original research here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.765158/full
Image source: Adobe Stock Images / Monkey Business
Hello and welcome to Research Pod. Thank you for listening and joining us today.
Eastern cultures have long used meditation as a spiritual practice of mindfulness. Meditation is described as the act of focusing all your attention on one object, either as a religious activity, part of a yoga practice or a means to be more relaxed or at peace. In recent decades it has been widely adopted by Western cultures, predominately by adults, to relieve stress, increase the sense of presence and develop self-awareness. It is no wonder, with the immense list of benefits on the brain.
By quietly focusing on the present and letting go of thoughts and external stressors, you can maintain a sense of being in the here and now. This helps to help calm down your sympathetic nervous system by disengaging with something that is stressing you out, thereby reducing the fight or flight response. More recently, meditation has been found to help with neuroplasticity in the brain – in other words, ‘rewiring the connections in the brain’. Studies have shown that the grey matter is increased in hippocampus areas of the brain, which means improved retention of information, executive functioning, cognition, memory, and creativity. Despite the growing list of benefits, meditation is only sometimes taken up during childhood, a time when the brain is extra malleable.
Oppedisano and co-authors have challenged this barrier with their research and taken this tremendous activity directly to schools to evaluate the benefits of including meditation as part of the school timetable. Their paper describes an experimental study of Quiet Time, a Transcendental Meditation technique delivered in the classroom, aimed to determine the feasibility of implementing and assessing Quiet Time in two pilot settings in the United Kingdom and Ireland. They wanted to know whether the schools, parents and students were willing to engage in this activity and which outcomes would be valuable indicators of whether Quiet Time works for children.
So, what exactly is Transcendental meditation, and how does it differ from regular meditation?
Transcendental meditation is a simple, learned technique with many studies demonstrating how it can aid wellbeing and learning. It requires using a sound or mantra to allow the mind to settle down to a state of peacefulness. Transcendental meditation differs from Mindfulness Meditation, which directs attention to a particular thought, object, or experience and aims to transcend or overcome thoughts. It has been shown to increase neural pathway coherence, especially in the brain’s frontal regions responsible for processes such as concentration, planning, and emotions.
Quiet Time is a programme that uses the principles of transcendental meditation introduced into schools and involves a twice-daily meditation for ten to fifteen minutes each at the beginning and end of the school day. Quiet Time has been implemented in multiple countries for over 60 years. In the United Kingdom, the David Lynch Foundation supports its school-based implementation. Qualified transcendental meditation practitioners provide four one-hour meditation lessons to train schoolteachers, which are then equipped to lead Quiet Time sessions in their classrooms.
Developing social, cognitive, and emotional skills during development is imperative to maximise the chances of healthy wellbeing and success later in life. Mental health problems affect a staggering 10 to 20% of children and adolescents worldwide. This means that it has never been more crucial to combat this with interventions that are both cost-effective and easy to implement. According to current research, meditation practices are associated with greater self-regulation and emotional stability and decreased anxiety, reactivity, and dangerous behaviour in adults. What’s more, is that meditation has almost no barrier to entry, can be done anywhere, and the costs are almost negligible.
Given this context, Oppedisano and her colleagues aimed to assess the Quiet Time technique to evaluate how it could benefit children. This particular study involved submitting young children in year 6 to a regular meditation practice to evaluate whether it could improve their executive functioning and emotional states. It involved 10-15 minutes of practice in the morning and afternoon. The comparison group was either using a commonly used focus application called Headspace, but did not complete any form of transcendental meditation. The results were remarkable, and it’s a wonder how the magic of meditation, which Eastern cultures and fans of yoga have long known, has escaped the school curriculum.
The researchers focused on middle childhood- around 10-11 years, since ten years old is the minimum age at which children can start practicing Quiet Time, or QT, meditation. In addition, this age bracket has been identified as a critical age for initiating changes due to anatomical changes and reorganisation of the brain during this Time. Children from UK schools were analysed separately from those in Ireland due to differences between school systems and cultural norms.
Before and after the intervention, students were asked to fill out a questionnaire about how they felt about meditation. To evaluate executive functioning, students were given two types of tests. The first was a colour-name matching assessment, termed the ‘Stroop colour-word test’ where the colour of the word does not match its name. In this experiment you are required to say the actual colour of the word, not what the word says. So if the word says ‘Blue’ but the colour of the letters are in fact red, then the correct answer is ‘red’. The test measures a person’s cognitive function as well as their attention. The second was a Spatial working memory test to test executive function, or the brain processes that allow us to plan, focus attention and remember things. Several ringing phones are displayed in front of the children. The objective of this test is for the participant to determine the correct order of the ringing phones by touching them and using process of elimination.
Social preferences were assessed using a famous behavioural test called the ‘Dictator Game’, which measures altruistic sharing and how likely someone is to share. In the Irish cohort, a few other factors were measured, including mental health and general wellbeing.
The results were as follows:
The findings indicate that schools and students were eager to participate in QT, as shown by solid enrolment as well as retention rates in both contexts. Furthermore, the majority of the Irish students stated that they were eager to participate in the activity. In the UK setting, the intervention was not implemented well as it coincided with the year children sit their national Key Stage two assessments. However, this study shows promise that children are willing to meditate in a school setting. It is important to note that the researchers could only get some of the data they needed from the schools, depending on the setting. Completion rates, consistency and implementation differ significantly depending on the school and environment, making studies like these challenging.
Nevertheless, the researchers deduced that transcendental meditation improved working memory. Results from the spatial working memory test showed that students who were in the meditation group made less mistakes than those in the control group. Results from the Stroop colour matching test demonstrated that reaction times were slightly faster for the children which had undergone the Quiet Time programme compared to those who didn’t. What’s more, in the Irish setting girls in the meditation group experienced fewer feelings of aggression, fear, and frustration.
Schools are slowly incorporating a more significant focus on mental health and wellbeing. Meditation has recently gained popularity and attention as a school-based intervention to improve mental habits and promote wellbeing. Studies examining meditation programs in schools have shown mixed results, likely due to variations in program content, delivery methods, training requirements, and differences in research approaches.
Meditation has been shown to alter the brain’s structure, potentially influencing numerous areas of development. As a result, this study may provide a guide to the skills that meditation may influence in middle childhood. Although this was a pilot study, meaning the number of participants was too small to find significant effects, the team was able to show the likely impact of the Quiet Time intervention if applied more widely.
This study offered an incredible opportunity to see how kids adapt to meditation and confirm the proper measures to assess its effectiveness. Unlike other meditation strategies, Quiet Time only requires 10-15 minutes of daily practice in class, making it more feasible in busy school settings. While there is some indication that TM may be more beneficial for working memory, the researchers conclude that additional research is needed.
In summary, this study has assessed a commonly used transcendental meditation technique in primary school and shown promise that the method can be implemented with positive effects on students’ learning. This study has paved the way for additional studies into the advantages of meditation for young children when taught in a school context. Given the promise of this study among others, it seems that meditation could offer huge benefits to children, many of which are still to be revealed.
That’s all for this episode – thanks for listening. Links to Dr Oppedisano’s research can be found in the show notes below and, as always, stay subscribed to Research Pod for more of the latest science!
See you again soon.