Teaching Meditation in School? 4 Reasons to Reconsider It

Author // Vince Gowmon, R.T.C.

I take issue with teaching children meditation in school, particularly when done without a wider view of the systemic causes for child dysregulation and a more thorough understanding of trauma.

Yes, meditation has been proven to be effective with young ones. I know there’s research to back it up. But…

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Take a moment to consider the four points below, and ask yourself: What is the real issue at hand? What do children fundamentally need? And if we addressed the issues I lay out, while better meeting children’s core biological needs for love and safety, would we still need to teach meditation? Or wouldn’t the desired result of meditation—calm—arise more organically?

“If a child acts disruptive within the school system, don’t be too quick to assume there is something wrong with her. She simply may be doing her best to say that the system is not large enough to house the fullness of her creative spirit.” —Vince Gowmon

1. Anxious systems

The problem is not the child, but rather the systems they are part of. The anxious child is but a reflection of an anxious family, school, or societal system rife with disruptions in the formation of secure attachments.

Most parents and teachers know this: that when they are anxious or disconnected, their children and students act out what is being modeled verbally, physically, and energetically. They absorb and mirror back the “frequency” of the space as set, in large part, by the adults.

Indigenous peoples have long-held wisdom on this matter. Certain tribal communities see a dysregulated or emotionally imbalanced individual as a reflection or barometer of the collective consciousness of the village. In their angry or fearful outbursts, the person signals what the community is not paying attention to. Instead of just pointing at the individual, the elders point at themselves and the collective.

Certain wise adults in the West understand this in their bones. I’ve met many in my travels who hold this wider, relationship-systems perspective. Therefore, instead of pointing at the dysregulated child from a pathological perspective, they point more at themselves. They seek less to fix the child and make it solely about him or her, and choose more to heal themselves and the broken systems they, and we, uphold.

“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not to join their chaos.” —L.R. Knost

2. Relationships and co-regulation

Young children learn to self-regulate in relationship with the soothing, physically affectionate presence of an attachment figure—not alone. It’s through co-regulation that the developing brain builds this capacity.

The West’s proclivity to individualism causes it to ignore what indigenous communities have known for millennia—that relationships are foundational to the health of the developing brain, the growing child. It’s why mothers and fathers carry their children in slings while tending to the fields and housework; and it’s why, in certain indigenous communities, the aunts and uncles are the disciplinarians—it allows the parents to better meet the child’s biological need for safe and loving connection.

Indeed, in our individualistic Euro-western culture, where nuclear families and segregated classroom structures reign, we have overlooked the power of relationships. Considering a child’s mental health struggles as distinct from their environment is a clear example of this. We fail to take personal and collective responsibility for what a child endures, and for our impact on them; few wish to do the necessary reflective and healing work.

The results are a myopic social system bereft of compassion and wisdom, and the continued pathology and over-medication of children, leading to prescriptions for well-being—in this case, meditation—that are individual in nature, or outside a co-regulating, relational, or attachment context.

We isolate the child from the system in our diagnosis, and then do so again in the treatment.

I recognize this is changing. We are slowly waking up. But there is a long way to go!

“Remember: Everyone in the classroom has a story that leads to misbehavior or defiance. Nine times out of ten, the story behind the misbehavior won’t make you angry. It will break your heart.” —Annette Breaux

3. Surfacing old wounds

Research shows and common sense knows that meditation can trigger suppressed emotional pain, thus potentially re-traumatizing an individual. As Cheryl Miranda warns in an article for the website ACEs Connection, “Asking someone with trauma to pay close, sustained attention to their internal experience, we invite them into contact with traumatic stimuli—thoughts, images, memories, and physical sensations that may relate to a traumatic experience. This can aggravate and intensify symptoms of traumatic stress, and in some cases even lead to retraumatization—a relapse into an intensely traumatized state.”

My experience working with people with trauma tells me that the greater the trauma, the slower the client needs to dip into somatic or body awareness. The individual needs to be “resourced” enough to experience uncomfortable sensations, emotions, images, or memories that may arise, while staying within what Daniel Siegel calls the “window of tolerance.” Without individual attention from a skilled practitioner, let alone pre-assessment of a child’s current and past experiences, each meditating child is vulnerable to uncovering the unexpected in a way that is overwhelming to their fragile psychophysiology.

“If you trust play, you will not have to control your child’s development as much. Play will raise the child in ways you can never imagine.” —Vince Gowmon

4. Play

I’m hoping we can all agree that play is a child’s foremost “mindful” activity. Not sitting on the floor, eyes closed, still like a rock, scheduled, structured… but rather drawing, running, rolling, laughing. There is plenty of research showing how play, specifically with movement and in nature, regulates a child’s nervous system and thus calms their mind.

For instance, an article by Diana Yates for the Illinois News Bureau reported:

A study of more than 400 children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has found a link between the children’s routine play settings and the severity of their symptoms, researchers report. Those who regularly play in outdoor settings with lots of green (grass and trees, for example) have milder ADHD symptoms than those who play indoors or in built outdoor environments, the researchers found. The association holds even when the researchers controlled for income and other variables.

The self-directed, unstructured, and unsupervised nature of pure play is a natural form of self-soothing that’s instinctive to a child, far more than structured meditation. The sheer joy of it, the freedom to imagine and move according to the whims and wishes of the body, to explore the deep healing presence of grass and trees, and engage with other wild children, is such a tremendous gift to the child’s nervous system and growing brain.

For this reason, play will always carry much more weight than prescribed meditation. It is the language of a child’s soul!

“Either we spend time meeting children’s emotional needs by filling their cup with love, or we spend time dealing with behaviors caused from their unmet needs. Either way, we spend the time.” —Pam Leo, from Connecting Through Filling the Love Cup

Again, I know the research shows that teaching meditation helps. But in truly grasping the larger relationship systems view I propose and the pervasive traumas underpinning our Euro-western social constructs, you may find it hard to deny that teaching children mindfulness is a bandage approach to cover up collective pain most adults are afraid to look at, let alone feel. The irony is that teaching meditation blinds us to the environmental ailments that are causing young nervous systems to become dysregulated in the first place.

“I believe that to teach them effectively you must touch their hearts long before you begin to teach their minds.” —Vicki Savini, from Ignite the Light

Pathways Issue 63 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #63.

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