Meditation Instead of Detention

Schools across the nation are implementing meditation as an alternative to detention, and they are getting great results. I know what some of you are thinking—“That’s some flakey California Hippie stuff. It doesn’t work in the real world.” But it does. Some of these programs are in inner-city, at-risk schools. In these schools, drop-out rates and the numbers of repeat offenders were escalating. Meditation programs have resulted in a decrease in detentions and suspensions while attendance, graduation rates and test scores increased. Doesn’t that make you just a little bit curious?

Detention is not an effective behavior deterrent. It is “time out,” a place to which a child is sent. Period. They are not thinking about what they did or could do differently. The only thing a child takes from detention is a feeling of defeat or worthlessness, sometimes even rage or revenge. For repeat offenders, there are long-term effects, including anxiety, low self-esteem, and increased aggression. They are more likely to be bullied or become bullies, since their understanding of healthy boundaries and self-respect is skewed.

When children experience sustained repetitive or excessive stress, the hormones produced can actually damage and/or alter their brain. These biological effects interfere with critical brain functions such as focusing, learning, self-regulation and decision-making. Children may become stuck in a “fight, flight or freeze” mode. They develop persistent fear responses, becoming hypervigilant or overly sensitive to contextual cues. In other words, it will get worse, not better. There IS a better way, and it’s the meditation program.

Okay, I confess, I am that California Hippie (no apologies), but I am also a career educator and behaviorist. Having studied childhood behavior, neural development and trauma-informed care, I am particularly excited about this approach. There is real, evidenced-based science supporting the genius of this concept. In this program, children learn how to be calm and conscious, instead of reactive and impulsive.

Take a look at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School, Baltimore Maryland. When students “act out,” they do not go to detention. Instead, they are sent to the Meditation Room. This room sounds like the college dorm of your dreams. Bright and sunny, with lamps, decorations, and giant purple pillows. The children are encouraged to sit comfortably, breathe and meditate. They find themselves calming and beginning to feel centered. They are then better able to discuss what happened and what they might do differently next time.

The Meditation Room was designed in partnership with the local non-profit, the Holistic Life Foundation. Kirk Phillips, the Holistic Me coordinator at Robert W. Coleman, says that “there have been zero suspensions last year and zero so far this year.” Nearby Patterson Park High School also uses the mindfulness programs, and their suspension rates have also dropped, and attendance increased. These kids are learning life skills that they can use long after they graduate.

Then there is Visitacion Valley School Middle School and Burton High School in San Francisco. They have also enjoyed great success with their meditation programs. This is especially noteworthy, because these schools are located in higher-crime, at-risk neighborhoods. These kids see guns every day. Violence was spilling over into the schools. Before the program, there were 3 to 5 fights in school daily.

Unlike the Baltimore schools, meditation was implemented as a daily (non-punitive) program for the entire student body. By extending the school day by 30 minutes, they were able to incorporate two 15-minute meditation periods. The results were remarkable. After four years the middle school suspensions decreased by 79 percent and attendance and academic performance noticeably increased. Burton High School (once called the “fight school”) experienced similar success.

I believe meditation programs should be implemented as a replacement for detention in all schools. These programs are giving kids valuable life skills, building self-esteem and changing futures. Based on the rate of retention alone, I’d say this is the real “No child left behind.”