Inner Peace in Schools: Good Science or Mumbo Jumbo?

Kids these days.

What’s happening to American youth?

When I was your age. . .

These phrases are as old as the hills. Throughout history, each generation has bemoaned the morals and character of the next generation. Everyone wants to believe that “kids today” behave worse than when “we” were kids. This belief has probably existed since the very first generation of cavemen noticed their teenagers doing something different than what they themselves did at that age. With each passing group of “rebels,” opinions have abounded concerning what to do about these so-called immoral and unethical children. Is it the responsibility of the parents, the community, the schools, the government, or the children themselves to guide our wayward youth to moral living? What is moral living anyway?

While I don’t have all the answers (at least, not today), I may have a suggestion for where to begin our discussion of what to do about “kids these days.” It starts with two kung-fu-fighting pandas from the movie Kung Fu Panda 2, and their journey to discover moral living through inner peace.

Shifu inner peace

Po, having been named Dragon Warrior in the first Kung Fu Panda movie, struggles to face the demons of his past in the second installment of the story. He must decide who he is and the course his life will take. While Po despairs about the choice he must make, the wise Master Shifu (who is a red panda), tells him, “Anything is possible, when you have inner peace.”

But is inner peace just a plot device to keep kids engaged in a cartoon movie? Or is there empirical evidence to support inner peace as the key to moral living? Basically, is it good science or mumbo jumbo?

Well, it seems that Master Shifu was really on to something when he said those words. Po is not the only one who has been able to conquer his demons using the moral education of inner peace. The benefits of inner peace have been tested, and not just by some monks in rural Nepal sitting in silence for twenty years.

Dali Lama fist

Instead of Nepal, let’s travel to West Baltimore, where an elementary school has implemented a radical approach to teaching morals through finding inner peace. In 2010, administrators at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School, disappointed with low academics and high behavior problems, replaced detention with meditation. Holistic Life Foundation helped the school start a “Mindful Moments Program.” Elements of the program include:

  • 20-minute whole-school guided meditation at the beginning of each day
  • Weekly yoga classes for all students in pre-K through fifth grade
  • A Mindful Moment Room for disruptive or distressed students to breathe, meditate, problem solve, learn conflict resolution and re-center in order to return to learning in the classroom

Since Coleman Elementary began this program, they have had zero suspensions.

Instead of using punitive discipline methods, Mindful Moments gives students a chance to improve their situation and learn something from their actions. Since Coleman Elementary began this program, they have had zero suspensions.  As of today, 42 other Baltimore area schools have implemented the Mindful Moments program with similar results. Problem behavior is down and academic achievement is up. These students are learning how to find inner peace in their schools and it works. You can read the CNN report of Robert W. Coleman Elementary School’s meditation program here: Detention to Meditation

The students learn to seek their inner peace and it works.

Or you can watch it here:

 

But perhaps you’re still skeptical. That works great for those kids and those schools, but will it work in my school? How can I get my administration, staff, and especially the students on board with using precious resources to go sit in a room and be quiet? Is it going to turn into a situation like George Costanza yelling, “Serenity now!”

Image result for george costanza serenity now

For those who need a little more proof, here’s some empirical research that demonstrates why your kids’ brains need meditation.

A research group led by Yi-Yuan Tang conducted a study on the affects of short-term guided meditation training. After one week of guided meditation for 20 minutes a day, they found improvements in attention, emotional regulation, mood, and response to stress (Tang, et al., 2007).

Only five days of meditation training improved cognitive and emotional brain functions and reduced mental stress.

In addition, and for the real nerds among us, the guided meditation experimental groups experienced lower levels of cortisol (the hormone activated in response to stress) and increased neural networks in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) (Tang, et al., 2010).

ACCThe ACC sits right in the center of your brain and is responsible for connecting the left hemisphere of your brain to the right, as well as connecting the back of your brain (the emotional center) to the front of your brain (the reasoning center). Increases in neural networks in the ACC and decreases in cortisol levels contribute to better emotional regulation and stress management. Benefits were seen after as little as 5 days and only got better after two weeks, one month, and three months of daily guided meditation.

What all this means in lay-person terms, is that 20 minutes a day of guided meditation makes your brain work better. 

Bringing it back to Master Shifu and the Dragon Warrior, Po found inner peace (SPOILER ALERT!) and saved China by catching flaming cannonballs with his bare hands.

Po Cannonball

While I seriously doubt you and your students face actual cannonballs of fire shot at you from ancient Chinese boats (but you never know), inner peace will allow you to handle the every day ‘cannonballs’ that life throws at you. Inner peace frees you and your kids from the negative emotions and thoughts that can take control of your actions.

We may not have the answers for what to do about all the “immoral and unethical kids these days.” What we can do is begin building better brains, and therefore better students, with the simple method of starting each day in quiet. Then you will see the truth that anything really is possible, when you have inner peace.

Serenity Now!!

References

Tang, Y. Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feng, S., Lu, Q., Yu, Q., Sui, D., Rothbart, M. K., Fan, M., Posner, M. I. (2007). Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(43), 17152-17156.

Tang, Y. Y., Lu, Q., Geng, X., Stein, E. A., Yang, Y., Posner, M. I. (2010). Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(35), 15649-15652.

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