How can Meditation Contribute to Increased Student Performance in Educational Settings?

John Christopher Harrison St. John’s University EDU 7297 Literature Review

HOW CAN MEDITATION CONTRIBUTE TO INCREASED STUDENT PERFORMANCE IN EDUCATIONAL SETTINGS? I. Introduction The word meditation carries with it a complex set of meanings, depending on the perspective it is approached from. Generally speaking, meditation is commonly thought to be an introspective practice of “turning within” oneself to investigate the mind. There are several supposed side effects to such a practice; namely a sense of physical calm, mental peace, and the development of metaphysical understanding. Traditionally, meditation was taught as a spiritual practice, developed within the Buddhist religious traditions of Southeast Asia to bring about certain desired mental states thought to promote the “enlightenment” of its practitioners. According to Thurman (2006), a Columbia University scholar and professor: meditation translates from the Sanskrit dhyana, bhavana, and even samadhi, which all designate organizations of the mind-body complex considered different from sensory and intellectual receptive states (as in learning) and intellectual reflective or discursive states, though they include these states sometimes. (p. 1765) Meditation was first brought into the western consciousness through a scholarly interaction with these eastern philosophies. Although almost every world religion can claim to have some sort of meditative or contemplative practice included within its ritual base, it has been primarily through the Buddhist tradition that meditation was introduced to the west as a comprehensive practice unto itself. Buddhism officially came to America sometime in the 1950’s, embroiled within the transcendentalist curiosities of the “Beat Generation.” It was formally adopted as a major American religious pursuit once monastic clergy from Japanese, Tibetan, and


HOW CAN MEDITATION CONTRIBUTE TO INCREASED STUDENT PERFORMANCE IN EDUCATIONAL SETTINGS? Southeast Asian monasteries came to the United States to teach. Along with the development of self-inquisitive psychology and the psychedelic drug experimentation of the 1960’s, meditation grew a firm root in American soil. Since that time, the practice of meditation has branched out to include diverse practices within many fields, including psychology, medicine, therapy, social work, and education. This literature review aims to establish a baseline for the use of meditation as an aid to student performance within an educational or classroom setting. In order to understand how meditation can be used to increase student performance within an educational setting, it is first important to formulate a working definition of what meditation exactly is. Formal meditation is best defined by looking to its origins within the traditional Buddhist literature. Initial primary source material on the subject of meditation exists in the form Sanskrit texts that were composed in northern India. Many of these texts were exported and translated into Tibetan as Buddhism migrated over the Himalayas. For our purposes, secondary texts were consulted in English translation, accompanied by the commentary of various Tibetan and American Buddhist teachers. Although there is substantial variation within the diverse methodological perspectives of Buddhism, most schools agree that meditation can be broadly broken into two distinct categories (Lamrimpa, 1992): 1. Samantha – a form of meditation, which creates a stable mind capable of focusing single-pointedly on any phenomena. 2. Vipassana – a form of meditation in which a calm, stable mind is able to perform analysis and inquiry into the nature of reality.


HOW CAN MEDITATION CONTRIBUTE TO INCREASED STUDENT PERFORMANCE IN EDUCATIONAL SETTINGS? These are broad categories, subject to interpretation, and encompassing a plethora of individual techniques and practices. For the purpose of this literature review, we will focus solely on articles dealing with what can be considered samantha meditation practice. In addition, we will also include a sub-category of samantha, referred to by its English equivalent: mindfulness. Mindfullness is described by Schoeberlein (2009) as a calm awareness of one’s bodily functions, feelings, content of consciousness, or consciousness itself. As this definition states, the practice of mindfulness involves an awareness akin to the singlepointed concentration most commonly associated with samantha and fits well within such a definition. From this point on, the terms samantha and mindfulness will be used in variation to describe the general state of focused concentration that this literature review aims to discuss and identify as meditation. Meditation as a practice within the educational setting Meditation and mindfulness as practices devoid of their religious underpinnings were first adopted as therapeutic techniques within the field of psychology to test methods for understanding various mental problems and treating them holistically. Psychologists interested in various topics such as: memory, decision-making, learning, and behavior change used mindfulness and mindful meditation practices to measure their positive impact (Langer, 1997). Since that time, according to Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson (1999), mindful practices have become an integral part of the methods used to treat adults with psychological problems or disorders, such as mood and anxiety disorders.


HOW CAN MEDITATION CONTRIBUTE TO INCREASED STUDENT PERFORMANCE IN EDUCATIONAL SETTINGS? In a similar vein, educators, curious about the potential impact of these practices within the classroom, have begun to experiment with meditation and various mindfulness techniques as well. The literature suggests that educational research into meditation, which began in the early 1970’s, continues to this day to produce results that claim to identify a positive correlation between meditation and academic performance within the classroom (Lin, et al., 2007 & Napoli, 2005). In one of the more comprehensive treatments, Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness: A Guide for Anyone who Teaches Anything (Schoeberlein, 2009), outlines some of the more recent work within the field of mindfulness education. According to Schoeberlien: Teaching mindfulness directly to students augments the effects of the teacher’s presence by coaching youth to exercise simple, practical, and universal attention skills themselves… this specific approach to paying attention and honing awareness improves mental focus and academic performance. (p. 1)



The purpose of this literature review is to present selected research done on the subject of meditation as it applies to the field of education. Although the westernized academic study of meditation is a fairly recent subject of research, there are several authors working in this field who have been able to develop highly comprehensive analyses that demonstrate the value and application of meditative techniques within the sphere of education. There is a wealth of material available from the past few decades in relation to how meditation can be used as an aid to improve concentration, foster


HOW CAN MEDITATION CONTRIBUTE TO INCREASED STUDENT PERFORMANCE IN EDUCATIONAL SETTINGS? intellectual growth, lessen the effects of stress, and improve interpersonal relationships – all areas proven to be directly related to academic performance. To fully understand how meditation can be used with a positive correlation to educational achievement, one must first develop an understanding of the obstacles students may face within the educational sphere that meditation could potentially be used with to improve. To narrow the scope of this literature review, we will namely be concerned with broad categories, rather than a comprehensive analysis of all the potential obstacles students face with regard to education. Further intentions will aim to catalogue further into a comprehensive inquiry, but for the time being, we will be limited to the following themes. How meditation can aid academic performance with regard to obstacles such as: a) Stress b) Attention and behavioral problems; including ADD and ADHD c) Emotional problems; including depression Although the multitude of factors that could potentially influence or affect student performance negatively is varied depending on perspective, the above themes represent issues commonly accepted to be of negative influence among many prominent educational researchers (Oman, 2008).


Analysis A. Stress Stress is considered by many to be one of humanity’s foremost burdens.

According to Benson (2005), over an extended period of time, stress is known to


HOW CAN MEDITATION CONTRIBUTE TO INCREASED STUDENT PERFORMANCE IN EDUCATIONAL SETTINGS? negatively affect a person’s physical and mental health. At the sake of gross exaggeration, the media has bombarded us with reports on how stress is the cause for everything from cancer to schizophrenia. Even without such an aggressive perspective, one can certainly argue that stress is a major concern with regard to personal health. As stated by Lin et al. (2010), “stress is a major cause for a number of social problems, such as the increase of people with depression, reduced ability to manage emotions, and deterioration of personal and familial relationships” (p. 66). School environments in classrooms from kindergarten up through higher education reflect common societal norms that are characteristic of exhibiting typical social customs and practices. Thus, the negative impact that stress is proven to have on personal health exists on the same scale within the classroom. This becomes a major concern considering how stress impacts student performance. As stated by Fisher (2006): In a materialistic, competitive world they [students] are subject to many of the same stresses and strains as adults. They are bombarded by an information overload of words, images and noise. They are prey to the frustration and anger of others and often experience negative emotions more deeply and intensely than adults. They find it difficult to articulate their problems. No wonder so many find concentrating in class difficult and are impulsive in their behavior. (p. 148) As is evident from this statement, students come into the classroom carrying with them the same ills and burdens that affect the rest of our society. Since stress has been proven to be a major cause for concern among the general population, student populations must be considered with the same degree of scrutiny.


HOW CAN MEDITATION CONTRIBUTE TO INCREASED STUDENT PERFORMANCE IN EDUCATIONAL SETTINGS? Whenever a student’s predetermined characteristics or “baggage” impact their performance in a negative way within the classroom, attention must be paid to helping them improve. Providing a respite from stress to students suffering from it is necessary in order for their performance to reflect growth. The literature suggests that meditation may be that respite. According to Brady (2004), a veteran educator working with adolescents and teenagers, “when given the opportunity to see how their minds work, they [students] enjoy doing so; and the experience will, in many cases, reveal sources of stress that meditation can relieve” (p. 84). This particular educator is one among many who believe that meditation can offer relief to students suffering from the burden of stress. Within the field of medical research, meditation has been gaining significance as a method for alleviating and coping with stress as well (Carrington et al., 1980). According to Kabat-Zinn (1994), there is a growing body of empirical research that supports the potential contribution of mindfulness meditation to health promotion and quality of life. Among the growing community of meditation-oriented educators and practitioners, it is commonly asserted that meditation or mindfulness study can offer a tremendous benefit to students suffering from stress. Although, as previously mentioned, meditation can come packaged in several forms or “flavors,” the general concept of meditation as a process to investigate the innerworkings of the mind, has been proven again and again to provide results as an aid to stress management. Within the consulted literature, meditation has been highlighted as a method for its ability to reduce mental stress (Walsh, 1983).


HOW CAN MEDITATION CONTRIBUTE TO INCREASED STUDENT PERFORMANCE IN EDUCATIONAL SETTINGS? Although stress is only one problem among many that affect student performance in the classroom, the literature suggests that it is a major cause for negative student performance. Furthermore, once stress is no longer a contributing factor to poor student performance, other issues can be addressed. In addition to its stress-reducing applications, the literature suggests that meditation can also be used as a tool in addressing attention and behavioral problems as well (Singh, et al., 2007).

B. Attention and Behavioral problems; including ADD and ADHD Educational research suggests that behavioral problems can impact student performance within the classroom. According to Singh, et al. (2007), “adolescents with conduct disorder frequently engage in aggressive and disruptive behaviors” (p. 56). These behaviors not only negatively impact the academic performance of the students who engage in them, but also can impact the other students in the classroom as well. Problems such as conduct disorder and attention deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD) are a major cause for concern because of their proven negative impact on student performance (Napoli, 2005). When behavior impairs student ability to function appropriately within a classroom, a negative correlation exists with regard to academic performance. According to Dumas (1989), human behavior is a function of the contingencies of reinforcement and punishment to which individuals are exposed in their daily lives and that changes in these contingencies are necessary to modify undesirable behavior. In other words, poor behavior can be traced to a series of actions, reactions, and consequences that have


HOW CAN MEDITATION CONTRIBUTE TO INCREASED STUDENT PERFORMANCE IN EDUCATIONAL SETTINGS? occurred in past experience. If behavior is problematic, then changes to learned actions, reactions, and consequences must be made. Dumas (1989), among others, suggest that mindfulness training is a useful tool to use in restructuring human, and thus student, behavior. Many behavioral problems in students can be traced to their family interactions. According to Dumas (2005), “parentchild interactions play a major role in child development and socialization and have long been the focus of programmatic efforts to change them when they are dysfunctional” (p. 779). Based on research done using what she terms “Behavioral Parent Training (BPT)”, which involves the use of mindfulness techniques, Dumas (2005) was able to find that “children whose parents participated in BPT were better adjusted at home after treatment than 80% of children whose parents did not participate” (p. 779). This rate of success is based in part on the idea that “what we do, we do automatically and mindlessly, without the guidance of explicit plans or the intervention of conscious acts of will” (Dumas, 2005, p. 780). This idea relates to behavior in that automated patterns of mindless activity, whether they are positive or negative behaviors, can be restructured, by paying deliberate attention to the present moment. Since mindfulness can be defined according to Kabat-Zinn (1994) as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (p. 4), it is clear how such a technique could be used to influence behavior. Another, potentially more extreme, example of how behavior can negatively affect student performance can be seen in investigating how Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) impacts student performance. The impact of ADD and ADHD on student performance has been well documented in the


HOW CAN MEDITATION CONTRIBUTE TO INCREASED STUDENT PERFORMANCE IN EDUCATIONAL SETTINGS? literature and is commonly well known due to extensive media coverage and prevalence within diverse educational settings. According to Bray, Peck, Kehle, & Theodore (2005), there is evidence that meditation can help children who suffer these kind of attention problems. Conis (2005) also reported that parents, teachers, and children engaged in meditative practices are able to treat or prevent problems that block learning, such as attention deficit disorder. Considering how meditative practices offer a structured method for channeling the mind toward prolonged periods of focused attention, one can see how such a practice would be beneficial for students suffering from ADD/ADHD. Although tedious at times, there is substantial evidence in the literature that provides evidence that meditation can increase attentiveness even in students who suffer from these disorders (Singh, et al., 2007).

C. Emotional Problems; including depression Another class of well-documented factors that can affect student performance within the classroom is emotional problems. Although not as easy to identify and document, emotional problems can play a key role in whether or not a student will be successful in school. According to Oman (2008), conditions such as anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies, and hopelessness all contribute to poor student performance. LeCroy and Rose (1986) emphasize that teachers are expected to be aware of the emotional challenges that their students face and should play a role in meeting their needs in providing methods for dealing with them.


HOW CAN MEDITATION CONTRIBUTE TO INCREASED STUDENT PERFORMANCE IN EDUCATIONAL SETTINGS? Since it’s already been established that students are susceptible to the same physiological and psychological conditions that adults are, emotional problems such as depression can be a major concern when it comes to performance in school. Furthermore, it is plainly evident from current cases documented extensively in the news that these emotional problems can potentially escalate to such a degree that instances of school violence, self-mutilation, and even suicide are not uncommon. Extreme examples such as the tragedy at Columbine and the recent suicides related to cyber-bullying are cause enough for concern. There are many case studies that support the idea that meditation can not only decrease stress, increase attention and promote good behavior, but can also alter mood. In an article about relaxation training in Hong Kong, Cheung (1999) was able to produce positive results with the use of meditation to improve the mood states of junior high school students. In another study (Napoli, 2002), the author was able to prove that relaxation techniques, including meditation, were able to induce positive changes in mood, behavior and attitude when the students were taught to pay attention to their breath. Emotional problems can manifest themselves in how students outwardly react to their environment. Since negative emotions have a tendency to produce negative, aggressive behaviors, there can be a problem in a classroom when a student is suffering from emotional problems. According to Leoni (2006), meditation can encourage a calmness and relaxation that can allow students to separate negative emotional states from their behavior: “Meditation does not reduce the intensity of one’s feelings, but it does allow us to separate the feeling from our need to act it out” (p. 122). Clearly, meditation is a


HOW CAN MEDITATION CONTRIBUTE TO INCREASED STUDENT PERFORMANCE IN EDUCATIONAL SETTINGS? technique worthy of further investigation with regard to its ability to influence and/or alter mood. IV. Conclusion

Although the scope of this literature review was limited to the application of meditation as a technique for improving levels of stress, poor behavior, attention problems, and emotional duress, there seems to be a positive correlation between the practice of meditation and student performance. The literature suggests that the topic of meditation is growing as a field of study and research among educational professionals. There seems to be substantial evidence promoting the positive application of meditation as a tool to use within the classroom and little to no research suggesting the opposite. Academically, the literature doesn’t provide a substantial amount of quantitative data with regard to how meditation can affect test scores or grades specifically, but from the perspective of the “whole child” approach to education, meditation seems to offer substantial benefits. Case studies, including step-by-step instructions on how to apply the theoretical methods of meditative practice would be helpful in providing practical knowledge to administrators and teachers looking to explore meditation as a strategy to increase student performance within the classroom. This data seems to be lacking somewhat in the literature to date. Most of the research presented here was done in a generalized way, with little attention paid to specific, experimental test settings. Overall, the topic of meditation seems to be a worthy subject for educational research. However, most of the literature is geared toward the psychological applications of mindfulness-based relaxation techniques. A thorough, high-yield study, conducted over several years of concentrated meditative coursework is necessary to determine


HOW CAN MEDITATION CONTRIBUTE TO INCREASED STUDENT PERFORMANCE IN EDUCATIONAL SETTINGS? conclusively whether or not meditation is an effective academic strategy. For the time being though, it is sufficient to accept the fact that meditation is a useful tool for improving certain negative obstacles to student performance.



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