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It's cool to be calm

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

September 05, 2005|Elena Conis | Special to The Times

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.

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