How To Start a Meditation Program in Your School - USA Perspective
Training, consistency, and trust are keys to successfully implementing a school meditation program.
Quiet Time (QT) is a program of mandatory quietude and optional meditation that happens schoolwide, twice a day at Visitacion Valley Middle School (VVMS) in San Francisco. It was implemented by the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education (CWAE), a San Francisco nonprofit organization that is a national leader of whole-school implementation of QT. Here are some of the pieces that needed to come into place for QT to run and succeed at VVMS as well as tips for how you can get started and trained.
Setup and Process
To ensure success, the setup is critical. Students must be in their seats with their desks clear (unless they will be reading or writing during QT, which is permitted for students who elect not to meditate) and not talking. Though it may take time, a high-quality setup ensures a safe and consistent space for the students to close their eyes and optimizes the success of each session. (Download the Quiet Time Primer PDF PDF 178KB.)
A good duration for QT in middle school is 15 minutes. After setup, the teacher uses a small bell to signal the steps of QT.
The first bell at the beginning of minute zero signals the start of QT.
The second bell at the end of minute 12 signals that there are three minutes remaining in QT.
The third bell at the end of minute 15 signals the end of QT.
Requirements for Success
For a program like QT to succeed, space, time, training, and resources are required. There are also less tangible but equally important requirements that include the following:
Buy-In: How to get buy-in will vary depending on your district and community, but in general, education about the program -- especially clarifying that the meditation is non-religious -- and transparency are key. Dierke approached his entire staff with the idea, and had experts come in and present information and statistics to help the faculty make an informed decision. There were presentations for parents so they could learn about what the program entailed, what their students would be doing, and why the school believed it would help. Dierke also worked with the district's legal department to develop a parent permission form (PDF PDF 2MB) that parents must sign in order for a student to be trained in meditation.
Carlos Garcia, superintendent of schools for the San Francisco Unified School District, also recommends starting small with voluntary participation. "When people volunteer and start seeing the benefits, then they go out and start to champion the cause," he says.
Ownership: Once the program is running, it's important that both teachers and students are invested in continuing it. "The way you get a whole school of students to do this program is when you're not trying to get them to do it; it happens when the school community has decided that they want this," explains Noah Schechtman, a QT instructor at VVMS.
Consistency: Having all students doing it at the same times every day helps set expectations, makes it habit-forming, and gives students something they can count on no matter the class, teacher, or day. Building it into the structure and schedule of the school also ends up weaving it into the fabric of the school's culture.
Trust: Closing your eyes for 15 minutes can feel strange, and for many of the students at VVMS who come from high-risk backgrounds, it can even feel like you are exposing yourself to danger. When the students know they are in a safe space and that everyone else is participating in the same activity, they can let go of some of that fear.
Relevance: The benefits of the program -- feeling more focused and less stressed -- can seem abstract and subjective to some students. If you can help make the connection between a focused, disciplined mind and students' own challenges and goals -- athletic performance, academic achievement, creative expression, or anything else that is relevant to them -- it will help them gain more from the technique.
Incentive: Trainers and teachers at VVMS admit that sometimes, it comes down to pizza. Having students understanding relevant outcomes is an important way to motivate students, but it's also good to occasionally have incentives that are immediate and tangible. At VVMS, homerooms compete with one another for who has the most people meditating during QT, and the winning class gets a trophy and sometimes a pizza party as reward.
How to Get Trained in Meditation
To teach meditation, you will need experience with the practice first. Most forms of meditation are more effective if taught by an expert rather than self-taught. If you have never tried meditation, there are many ways to learn and develop your practice. For some suggestions, see the list of resources for learning meditation on our Resources and Downloads page.
If you are experienced with meditation, you can follow published guidelines such as these to lead meditation in your own classroom:
"Mindfulness: A Teacher's Guide" at PBS.org
"Tips for Teaching Mindfulness to Kids" from the Greater Good Science Center
"How To Teach The Relaxation Response" a series of seminar videos by Herbert Benson, graduate of and associate professor at Harvard Medical School
There are also several organizations that provide training for teachers and students in meditation and mindfulness practices. For example, CWAE, the organization that implemented QT at VVMS, is currently deploying QT in 10 other schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, and have a national demonstration project planned over the next five years; Learning to BREATHE is a mindfulness-based curriculum for adolescents, developed by Patricia Broderick, a research associate at the Penn State University Prevention Research Center; Mindful Schools is a program using mindfulness to teach kids how to manage emotion, handle stress and resolve conflict. For more programs like these, visit our Resources and Downloads page.
At VVMS, Transcendental Meditation (TM)* is the form of meditation practiced during Quiet Time. TM is learned through a standardized training process by certified instructors. There are four full-time, on-site QT instructors at VVMS from CWAE who train teachers and students and facilitate and maintain the program year-round. The cost of the program varies depending on the size of the school, grade range (high school is less than middle school), and how at-risk the population of students is, but can range from $500 to $1,000 per student. Currently at VVMS, the majority of the funding for the program is provided by the David Lynch Foundation, a nonprofit that funds stress-reducing programs such as QT for at-risk populations.
Training at VVMS is handled by the QT instructors and happens in three main stages. Stage one consists of teaching the staff how to meditate, stage two involves teaching the staff how to facilitate QT in their classrooms, and stage three deals with training the students. Student training is done in two steps: first, all students receive training in the purpose and general guidelines of QT. Next, interested students receive meditation instruction consisting of four 50-minute classes. The QT staff works with teachers to make sure the training causes minimal disruption to instructional or work time for the students.
Pitfalls to Avoid
Meditation must be voluntary. There should be multiple options for other activities such as drawing or sustained silent reading in a safe and quiet environment.
The non-religious forms of meditation discussed here have been used successfully in educational settings to reduce stress and improve attention and self-regulation. Clearly informing participants that meditation is a non-religious and scientifically validated stress-reduction technique can help prevent misunderstandings.