One of San Francisco's toughest schools transformed by the power of meditation
There was a time when Visitacion Valley middle school in San Francisco could have featured in a gritty US crime drama. Surrounded by drugs and gang violence, the kids were stressed out and agitated. One day children came in to find three dead bodies dumped in the schoolyard. “In 2006 there were 38 killings in our neighbourhood,” says Barry O’Driscoll, the school’s head of physical education (PE). He says the lives of students were infected by violence in the community, and several fights would break out every day.
In 2007 a meditation programme called Quiet Time was brought in to meet some of these challenges. “When I first heard about it I thought it probably wasn’t going to work,” says O’Driscoll. “We get thrown a new thing every couple of years so I didn’t put too much faith in it.” But in April, just a month after meditation began, teachers noticed changes in behaviour. “Students seemed happy,” says O’Driscoll. “They worked harder, paid more attention, were easier to teach and the number of fights fell dramatically.”
In the first year of Quiet Time suspensions at Visitacion Valley – which has 500 students aged 11-13 – were reduced by 45% (pdf). By 2009-10, attendance rates were over 98% (some of the highest in the city), and today 20% of graduates are admitted to the highly academic Lowell high school – before it was rare for even one student to be accepted. Perhaps even more remarkable, last year’s California Healthy Kids Survey from the state’s education department found that students at Visitacion Valley middle school were the happiest in the whole of San Francisco.
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A lot has changed over this period, including three principals coming and going, but O’Driscoll puts the turnaround down to the one constant: the calming influence of the meditation programme. “It’s provided a lot of stability to our school, helping staff and kids get through the stress they have in their lives.”
The impressive results have led to more schools in the city introducing the programme. But Quiet Time took years to develop. Its origins are in the 1990s when two Silicon Valley investors – Jeff Rice and Laurent Valosek – developed a programme to teach meditation in public schools, inspired by the tragic Columbine high school massacre. “After the shooting, the usual culprits were blamed: guns, violent movies and video games,” says Rice. “But no one touched on the real problem – stress.”
So the privately funded non-profit Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education (CWAE) was set up. When they started everyone said it would be impossible to get 12-year-olds to sit for even a minute, but through transcendental meditation (TM) they proved critics wrong.
The programme, introduced to all ages, sees students sit for 15 minutes of meditation twice a day. Classes take place at students’ desks after the qualified TM teacher rings a bell. Students then repeat a personal mantra (a word from Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language) in their heads until they reach a deep feeling of relaxation. Sometimes the whole school meets to meditate in assemblies.
Before the students learn to meditate, the Quiet Time programme requires all staff to be trained in TM. O’Driscoll was sceptical at first about mediating himself, but since giving it a try he can concentrate better and feels less stressed.
The teacher has also seen dramatic transformations in his students. Eighth grader Stacy* has been meditating since she joined the school three years ago. “She used to have trouble at home and get into fights with her family,” says O’Driscoll. “Once Quiet Time started, she mellowed out and started getting along with people.” Stacy’s academic performance has also improved – she’s in the top 5% of the class.
But adopting the programme isn’t without it’s challenges. To do it properly Visitacion Valley middle school made the day 30 minutes longer. Other schools have taken a few minutes off lunch and tutorials.
As for getting the children to start meditating, O’Driscoll says the biggest hurdle was getting them to feel comfortable with their eyes closed. “They thought their classmates would be making fun of them, staring at them, maybe possibly even hitting them,” he says. Once the students got over that, they were open to trying to meditate.
O’Driscoll also says that leadership buy-in is essential for the programme to work as there needs to be support in terms of time and resourcing. It’s also important to start small. “Don’t just throw it into 2,000 schools,” he says. “Start with one class or year and let it grow from there.”
The UK has already started experimenting with meditation: 400 secondary schools offer programmes like the Dot B mindfulness meditation programme, which tends to take place once a week in personal, social, health education (PSHE) class. An all-party parliamentary group has also recommended the Department for Education designate three schools to pioneer mindfulness teaching, and set up a £1m fund to allow more schools to benefit from support in the practice.
In the outside world, TM has been criticised for the price-tag it comes with; the programme at Visitacion Valley costs $280,000 (£185,128) a year - paid for mainly through private donations to CWAE. That funds four and a half (full-time equivalent) Quiet Time staff on site to teach the classes and support students. Rice says they use TM because it takes those who do it to a deep level of relaxation, and it’s easy for children to learn. But he admits that “it takes a big time commitment in resources and attention commitment to do this. And that’s one of the challenges.”
However, Swarana Patel, a teacher in a north London secondary school where behaviour is often an obstacle, can see the benefits of a more intensive programme like this. “A lot of the kids have deep anger issues or problems focusing,” she says. “Maybe having half an hour just to focus on themselves so they get awareness and grounding, might have some impact.”
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And it could help reduce costs later. “Young people are incredibly stressed,” says Michael Matania who teaches mindfulness meditation to young people in London through a programme called Mindkit. “There’s an explosion of mental health problems among young people and it’s going to be incredibly expensive to treat in the future. It’s much cheaper to focus on prevention and building resilience, and mindfulness is the single best tool that you could possibly give them.”
As for Visitacion Valley middle school, the area around it is still violent, but now the children are not as affected by it. “We might get verbal disagreements, but the kids are able to talk through it and move on instead of punching each other,” says O’Driscoll, adding that the last fist fight at the school was three years ago. “It’s very peaceful here now.”
*The name of one student has been changed.
- This article was amended on Wednesday 25 November to clarify that Visitacion Valley middle school funds Quiet Time mostly through private donations to CWAE.