Teaching Meditation in High Schools

Susan WilkBy Ananda Meditation Teacher grad Susan Wilk

According to reports from the American Physiological Association (APA), teens experience stress at levels similar to adults, and at even higher levels during the school year.  From teaching adults, I knew the powerful benefits of meditation, and I reached out to local high schools. Some schools accepted my offer with a warm reception from teachers.  I share here some of my experience in hopes that it may be helpful to you.

In class, I ask students what stresses them.  When teachers are present, it is a little like pulling teeth, and the responses are usually a vague “school” or “exams.”  Students are noticeably more reluctant to share their feelings when their teachers are present—no surprise.  In one school, staff members were sensitive enough to absent themselves as soon as students mentioned being stressed out.  When I’m alone with the students, they share greater detail about their concerns.  I hear about stresses surrounding the prom and driving tests, dealing with a really bad day, the struggle against overwhelm and finding time to do everything they have to do, family issues, fear of “losing it,” and coping with grief after the death of friends and relatives.

I wondered how teaching teens might differ from teaching adults.  I was immediately struck by the intensity of stress the students expressed.  They told me of sleepless nights, headaches, anxiety about grades, exams, acceptance into college, and more.  While I expected those issues, I was not prepared for students’ high levels of stress.  I could feel it, see it in their faces and eyes, and hear it in their voices.  One student told me he felt “neurotic,” another put her head in her hands and said she couldn’t stand the pressure.  Despite excellent grades, she was terrified—to the point of feeling sick—of not doing as well going forward.  The others nodded silently in assent. They want help. These kids are like sponges soaking up the peace that meditation brings them.

According to the APA, teens underestimate the impact of stress on their lives.  I talk to them about the physical, mental, and emotional manifestations of stress, and the dangers of chronic stress.  I briefly offer practical ways (in addition to meditation) to combat stress.  I encourage adequate sleep and share the recommendations of the National Sleep Foundation and NIH to disconnect from electronics (including texting) at least one hour before sleep.  This is always met with looks of horror—sometimes from teachers as well.  When I caution against disrupting sleep by checking texts during the middle of the night or sleeping with cell phones under the pillow, more than a few guilty faces gaze back at me.

Most of my time with them is spent on meditation. I share clinically proven mental, emotional, and physical benefits of meditation, such as improved attention spans, memory, focus, sleep, relationships, and test results. We talk about spiritual benefits, and personal growth and development. I always repeat Yogananda’s sage advice: “Never accept that meditation is not for you. Remember, calmness is your true, eternal nature.”

I teach the students about the breath and pranayama, and we practice breathing exercises.  Guided meditations that address specific stresses mentioned by students are popular.  Affirmations also resonate with them. Teens are hesitant to repeat affirmations aloud, so we repeat them mentally.  I schedule time for Q & A.  If there are no questions (more common if teachers are present), I offer answers to FAQ’s such as chatty minds, the best times to meditate, and how often to meditate.

After we meditate together, there is a visible change in students’ faces, and even in the way they hold themselves. They smile more easily, and it is clear they are more relaxed.  Some want to learn more about breathing exercises, some report back to me that they repeat daily the affirmation(s) that resonate with them.  Others just sigh and say, “Thanks, I needed that.”  Another great part of this experience is that teachers have the same reactions.

Some practical observations:  Most high school students are willing to give meditation a try and take to it easily—like ducks to water.  Not all are willing, though, and I share those experiences, too.  Nothing outweighs the joy, but it may be helpful if you encounter something similar.

High school freshmen and sophomores can be uncomfortable when introduced to meditation.  Some giggle nervously and do not follow simple instructions such as sitting straight or putting both feet on the floor.  The first time this happened I was a little unsettled.  Now I overlook it.  Juniors and seniors are much more receptive, perhaps because of stressors such as SATs and college applications.

Regardless of age, some students simply won’t close their eyes, and they stare at me instead.  That took a little getting used to.  Making eye contact has no effect. A teacher told me that this is a symptom of teen “know-it-all” rebelliousness.  I wonder if some feel more vulnerable with eyes closed.   Whatever the reason, I gently point out to the students that they have to sit through class anyway, so why not give it try—even if they think it’s weird.  I proceed as if all is perfectly fine (and it is).  The good news: many come around.  For those who don’t, you can silently bless them, accept that it may not be the right time for them, and hope they will be open in the future.

I learned that results vary with the time of classes.  Meditation during first period classes will put a few students to sleep.  I once taught a first period class in a school chapel. The pews were perfect headrests for (needed) naps!  Keep in mind that thanks to conflicting circadian rhythms and school schedules, teens are terribly sleep deprived.  Expect lots of yawning.  It’s no reflection on you or your subject—or how it’s received.  In classes before lunch, hungry students can be restless or inattentive.  It can take a little more energy to engage them. Teaching the last period on Friday afternoon cast me as the last obstacle before the weekend and gave the term “herding cats” a new dimension.  Despite these challenges, meditating can be done successfully with a little extra love and patience.  The Friday afternoon class settled in and, much to my surprise, applauded at the end of class.  The lesson of all of this:  be flexible and roll with whatever comes your way.  Be an emissary of calm.  The kids will love what you have to offer.

It is an understatement to say that teens need our help, and there are many ways we can help.  A sample:  presentations of “meditation for stress management sessions” during school Health and Wellness Days; a bi-weekly meditation club with open enrollment, to deal with stresses as they arise; classes for students of diverse religious backgrounds to expose them to meditation in a spiritual context; and, meditation as part of a program on teen grief.  The students say meditation helps them so much— and that is gratifying.   I hope the door to a life of meditating has been opened for them.

For me, teaching in high school is tremendously rewarding.  Wherever and whenever I teach, I feel that I get more than I give.  Yet there is something unique about teaching teenagers.  It has been a special gift for me, and I highly recommend it.  I look forward to the new school year, and all that comes with it.  I wish you many blessings in your teaching—wherever and whenever you teach.

Susan Wilk, founder of No Place Like Aum, LLC and its sister business Focused Mind Dynamics, is an experienced, certified meditation teacher.  Her instruction is based upon the techniques of Paramhansa Yogananda.  Susan completed her meditation teacher training at Ananda’s Expanding Light in 2001.   She has taught meditation and stress management in personal, business, healthcare, educational, and non-profit settings since 2001.

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