It's cool to be calm

By Elena Conis, Los Angeles Times, Sept 5, 2005

Meditation can help kids focus, but does it have health benefits?

Los Angeles, USA -- TEN-YEAR-OLD Trae Smith knows how to deal with the stresses of school, an acting and modeling career and, of course, the typical family squabbles. He closes his eyes, counts to 100 and lets it all go.

Trae, who learned to meditate last year with his fourth-grade class at Toluca Lake Elementary School, said that tests and auditions used to make him nervous. But since he's learned how to meditate, Trae says, "everything is like a piece of cake."

As meditation goes mainstream among American adults, it's slowly making its way into schools and programs for children across the country. Anecdotal reports of its success have become common, with parents and teachers contending that it can calm kids down, level out their moods and help them focus. Some proponents say it can even manage serious conditions, such as anxiety and attention deficit disorder.

Now the practice is getting a closer look. Researchers are beginning to study groups of meditating children to determine how the practice might affect a developing brain. Although the findings have been encouraging, some child-health experts are cautioning that, until more is known, meditation shouldn't be touted as a cure-all for stressed-out, hyperactive or underperforming kids.

Most of these in-school programs draw on parents' and teachers' personal experience, rather than scientific research, points out a new report from the Garrison Institute, a nonprofit think tank that studies meditation and other contemplative practices. Dozens of such programs exist in schools across the country, the report said, with many more programs for children offered in after-school clubs, religious and meditation centers, and through independent organizations.

Research focuses on adults

A growing body of meditation research conducted in university and hospital settings has supported a range of health benefits, including reduced blood pressure and stress, improved immune function and better mood. But the research, says the report, has focused almost exclusively on adults.

Many meditation enthusiasts nevertheless have concluded the practice could have similar effects in children.

"Not a day goes by that I don't get a request from somebody" wanting to teach meditation to children or study its effects, said Susan Kaiser Greenland, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Inner Kids Foundation in Los Angeles. The organization, which teaches mindfulness meditation in schools and supports research on the topic, has cooperated with UCLA researchers studying the effects of meditation on pain, mood and attention in children.

Two major types of meditation are being scrutinized for the benefits they may offer in school settings: those that clear the mind, like transcendental meditation, and those that increase awareness of the moment, like so-called mindfulness meditation and other Buddhist-inspired practices.

Both are designed to help kids slow down in a world of busy, activity-packed days. And both must be altered for use in children. In many programs for young meditators, silent, seated meditation is either brief or nonexistent, and games and activities replace books or lectures to teach mindful awareness, or mindfulness, which Greenland describes as "noticing experiences without labeling them good or bad."

"This world we're in now, everything moves so fast," she said. "No one is taking the time to talk to these kids about slowing down or about what they're missing."

Students like it, want it

Meditation lessons at Toluca Lake Elementary School consist of breathing exercises and quiet nature walks. They began when teacher Steve Reidman turned to Greenland, a friend, to help him manage a particularly unruly class three years ago. "It was like night and day by the end of the [first] year," said Reidman.

The meditation techniques helped his students calm down "well before they got to the point of lashing out at each other," he said. Inspired by what he saw in Reidman's class, Toluca Lake teacher Dan Murphy's second-grade class started meditating too.

Students who've learned to meditate in school say they've learned to control their emotions before tests and big sporting events, even during fights with parents and siblings, by simply pausing and slowing their breathing. Fourth-grader Vanessa Macademia says the technique relaxes and refreshes her, "especially when I'm sad or really mad or just want to destroy some other person."

At the small, private Odyssey Middle School in San Mateo, each day starts with physical activity followed by meditation — building up to a class trip to Japan in eighth grade, where the students meditate alongside monks in a Buddhist temple. Head of school Steve Smuin says he sees students reaching for the technique before exams.

"Rather than saying, 'Let's cram,' they say, 'Let's take time to clear our minds,'" Smuin said.

As word spreads about how useful meditation can be, more students want to learn the technique.

At Conte West Hills, a magnet school for inner-city kids in New Haven, Conn., guidance counselor Linda Baker says attendance has skyrocketed in her after-school relaxation program, which guides kids through meditation, yoga and related activities.

"In the beginning we had five kids, now we have waiting lists," said Baker, who started the program five years ago.

In an attempt to quantify the effects of such techniques in children, Randye Semple, now a research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, taught breathing and mindfulness exercises to a group of 25 9- to 12-year-olds with reading difficulties, including several with anxiety and attention deficit disorders.

By learning to see the negative spaces formed by a cluster of blocks or to describe how a piece of music made them feel, the students became more adept at using all of their senses. As a result, they began to explore new sights and sounds before labeling them good or bad, fun or boring.

"We got amazing results," Semple said. Over the course of 12 weeks, the mindfulness practices helped the children to stop making snap judgments. They were also less anxious and depressed and more able to focus — results that ultimately helped improve their reading skills too, Semple said.

Better moods, less anxiety

With research on meditation in children yielding largely positive results, some schools are using meditation techniques to treat — or prevent — common emotional and psychological disorders that can be barriers to learning, such as anxiety and attention deficit disorders.

Research on students at the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse in Detroit, where students and teachers do 10 minutes of transcendental meditation at the start and end of each school day, showed that meditating students had better moods and less anxiety than a group of non-meditating students used for comparison. The study was published in Focus on Complementary and Alternative Therapies in 2003.

A study of inner-city students with hypertension in Augusta, Ga., showed that transcendental meditation could have physiological benefits too. In a report on the study published in the American Journal of Hypertension last year, Dr. Vernon Barnes, professor of physiology at the Medical College of Georgia, showed that students who stuck to a program of 15 minutes of meditation twice a day lowered their blood pressure by more than three millimeters on average and kept it low for up to four months.

Preliminary evidence on meditation's ability to reduce anxiety and its symptoms in children is promising, said Susan Smalley, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA. This fall, she'll begin a pilot study examining the effects of mindfulness meditation on fifth-graders with attention deficit disorder.

She's particularly encouraged by findings that suggest mindfulness practices can "rewire" the brain.

Studies in adults have shown that the brain's prefrontal cortex (a region at the front of the brain) plays a big role in focusing attention. People with attention disorders display less activity in this region than people without the disorder.

Jeffrey Schwartz, a research psychiatrist at UCLA, said willfully directing attention increased activity in the prefrontal cortex. And mindfulness meditation, with its emphasis on paying attention, appears to strengthen the prefrontal cortex, said Schwartz, whose own research has examined how mindfulness techniques can be used to overcome obsessive compulsive disorder.

"That's what's so exciting for so many people about doing this [meditation] with kids," said Inner Kids' Greenland. "If you can start early on to help them train their ability to pay attention, the brain will become a stronger muscle."

But because the prefrontal cortex is one of the last regions of the brain to develop (usually not until the 20s), some psychiatric experts caution against applying such evidence to children.

Teaching children a technique their brains are not ready for could potentially frustrate them, creating or aggravating anxiety instead of allaying it, said Amishi Jha, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who served as a scientific advisor for the Garrison Institute report. Her own research focuses on the brain patterns related to memory and attention.

Furthermore, said Jha, it's possible that meditation techniques could help one type of attention at the expense of others. Meditation strengthens selective or focused attention, which is crucial for, say, reading a book. But improving only selective attention might hurt the development of flexible or open attention, she said, which people use to monitor their environment as a whole. Both types are critical for learning. Children need selective attention to stay focused, but if their flexible attention is weak, they'll have trouble taking in more than one piece of information at a time.

Studying the effects

Researchers agree that we are at the very beginning of understanding whether meditation can affect a child's brain and body — and, if so, then how.

Still, many parents and teachers are convinced of its benefits.

They say that with meditation, "some kids will suddenly go from Ds to Bs and A's — and that's great," said Dr. Donald Greydanus, a professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University at Kalamazoo and the author of several books on adolescent health and behavior.

"Folks like me are always eager to look at new data," Greydanus added, "but at this point the research just isn't there."

Trae Smith is convinced of meditation's usefulness, however. Asked whether he'll meditate now that he's in fifth grade — where the math is full of fractions and the language arts get tougher — he said: "I think I'll be doing it a lot this year."

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