Teachers and staff at San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley middle school know all too well the problems related to violence in American schools. For years the school was plagued by drugs, gang violence, and daily fistfights. Students even started their school day once by discovering three dead bodies that had been dumped on the school’s grounds. That has all changed though, and teachers haven’t had to break up a fight in over three years.
The radical change is all thanks to two daily 15-minute sessions of meditation.
Barry O’Driscoll was skeptical of meditation at first, but has championed its incredible success. “In 2006 there were 38 killings in our neighbourhood,” said O’Driscoll. “When I first heard about it I thought it probably wasn’t going to work. We get thrown a new thing every couple of years so I didn’t put too much faith in it.” That was in 2007, and through the daily silent meditation an incredible thing happened – students began to seem happier, work harder, and suspensions dropped 45% in the first year.
The meditation process responsible for the positive change is called Quiet Time and has its origins nearby in Silicon Valley. Jeff Rice and Laurent Valosek developed the program based on Buddhist meditation to teach transcendental meditation (TM) in schools in wake of the Columbine High School massacre. Following the 1999 shooting, Rice noticed that people were blaming music, TV and video game violence, but nobody was looking deeper at how stress factored in.
Initially dismissed as new age mumbo jumbo, administrators were doubtful they’d have much luck getting a school full of junior high kids to sit still with their eyes closed for 15 minutes. The program wasn’t simply tossed in without preparation though, and all staff members went through training on TM before launching the new experiment. At first student were hesitant to close their eyes, worrying that they’d be made fun of by their peers or that somebody would throw something at them. Once they overcame that hurdle, they began to learn how to meditate while repeating a personal mantra (a word from Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language) in their heads until they felt relaxed.
Similar programs have also found success in the U.K. Caroline Woods, a teacher at The Dharma primary school in Brighton, has found that just two minutes of quiet meditation has made her students less stressed and more focused.
“What we are trying to do is help them become more aware of themselves in a non-judgemental way,” said Woods. “By the time the students leave in year six, they have an emotional intelligence and a set of skills that really equip them to cope with everyday life.”
School practitioners of the program note it’s crucial that staff and teachers embody the practice if the students are to benefit from it. “If you are not living the mindfulness principles yourself, the kids will know, they will be very cynical and you will probably put them off,” said Claire Kelly, operations director for the Mindfulness in Schools project.
The Quiet Time program has received its fair share of criticism though, mostly for its expensive costs; the program at Visitacion Valley cost $280,000. It received most of its funding through private donations. Finding those donations is a task that undoubtedly comes easier for a high income city like San Francisco, whereas schools in lower income communities might struggle. Rice admits it does take a big time commitment (Visitacion Valley added 30 minutes to its school day to accommodate the program) and resources.
Those costs aside, O’Driscoll commends the program’s impressive solution to curbing their school violence in an area that is still very much plagued by crime. “We might get verbal disagreements, but the kids are able to talk through it and move on instead of punching each other. It’s very peaceful here now.”
It appears the West is finally applying some of the long-held Eastern beliefs that a little quiet time can work wonders on a child’s mindset.