Using Meditation to Help Close the Achievement Gap

Norman E. Rosenthal, New York Times, June 2, 2016

Closing the so-called achievement gap between poor inner-city children and their more affluent suburban counterparts is among the biggest challenges for education reformers. The success of some schools’ efforts suggests that meditation might significantly improve children’s school performance–and help close that gap.

In 2007, James Dierke, then the principal of the Visitacion Valley Middle School in a troubled neighborhood in San Francisco, was determined to improve both the quality of education and student behavior in his school. He adopted a system called the Quiet Time Program, developed by the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. The program, implemented in partnership with the nonprofit Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education, involved introducing two 15-minute periods of quiet into the school day. During those times students could either practice Transcendental Meditation, which is taught as part of the program, or engage in other quiet activities like silent reading.

A major factor preventing underserved children from learning is the stress they encounter on a daily basis–from factors like poverty, deprivation, lack of steady parental input, physical danger and constant fear. Research shows that chronic stress can impair healthy brain development and the ability to learn, and that Transcendental Meditation, a stress-reducing technique that involves thinking of a mantra, can reduce stress and its manifestations–for example, anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Mr. Dierke wondered whether meditation might reduce students’ stress levels and help them learn.

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Anecdotally, favorable feedback poured in from both students and staff members. One seventh grader at Visitacion Valley said, “I used to be really fidgety, couldn’t stay in my seat for very long. Now, after meditating, I can sit down for a whole class without standing up.” Barry O’Driscoll, the school’s director of physical education for the past 14 years, said, “In the first seven years of my tenure, the school was dominated by stress and fighting.” But in the last few years, he said, “we have had very few fights.”

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It would be naïve to think that meditation alone could erase the effects of the many factors, like poverty, that are barriers to educational achievement. But Quiet Time is a relatively inexpensive intervention that teachers and students enjoy and which preliminary data suggest is effective.

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