04/23/2011 12:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Meditation Can Give Our Kids an Academic Edge

Are America's students being prepared to compete in a world economy driven by science and technology? Declining math scores and lower academic achievement among U.S. students raises concerns. According to the 2010 International Student Assessment, American students ranked 25th on math among peers from 34 countries, and scored in the middle on science and reading, while China's Shanghai topped the charts.

Slashed education budgets and teacher layoffs make matters worse, but here's some good news: innovative approaches to academic achievement have emerged that focus on mind-body development and stress reduction -- with scientific research validating the results.

A study published in the March 2011 edition of the journal Education found that students who practiced the Transcendental Meditation ("TM") technique showed significant increases in math and English scores over a one-year period, compared to controls.1 The study, conducted at a California middle school, reported that 41 percent of the meditating students showed a gain of at least one performance level in math, while only 15 percent of the non-meditating students showed improvement.

Meditation And The Student Brain

When I was a high school student, like many others, I struggled with math. I thought of myself as primarily a "right-brain" person, excelling in art and literature but with an aversion to numbers. I learned the TM technique at the beginning of my junior year, and that semester, for the first time ever, I got an A in math. It seemed that something had changed in the way my brain was working. The numbers no longer danced in front of me; they fell into place and solutions came with ease.

My friend Denise Gerace teaches meditation at a high school in the Southwest. "Students these days are very distracted with cell phones, texting, the Internet and the speed of their lives," she says. "Brain researchers tell us that TM helps the brain work in a more orderly way and allows all the different workstations in the brain to better cooperate. That's why meditating students can focus and get their class work done more easily."

Researchers have long known that various meditation practices affect the brain -- and different techniques change the brain in different ways.2

Says William Stixrud, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at George Washington School of Medicine: "There's good evidence in several studies on Transcendental Meditation that it improves the brain's executive functions. This is in part because TM increases the coherence of brain functioning, and in part because it reduces stress."

Giving Parents Confidence

I often receive calls from parents researching alternative ways to improve their children's performance in school or help them focus on homework long enough to finish it. Parents are encouraged to hear that effective meditation can be easy, simple and free of religious trappings -- and that it doesn't require concentration or sitting perfectly still.

They are also heartened to learn about the growing evidence validating the effects of meditation on mental performance and overall health. For example:

  • University of Connecticut researchers recently found that after four months of TM practice, 106 at-risk adolescents in three New England high schools showed significant reductions in stress, anxiety, hyperactivity and emotional problems compared to non-meditating controls.3
  • A two-year, randomized controlled study at American University followed 298 college students and assessed mental and physical health, changes in brain function, and cognitive development, and found that the TM group showed significant improvements in all areas while the controls showed little positive change.4
  • A recent University of Michigan study monitored 60 meditating students at two middle schools where TM practice was offered as an option during quiet time. The study found that after four months of practice, the meditating students scored much higher than controls on measures of affectivity, self-esteem and emotional competence.5

I invite my readers to share knowledge they may have of research on similar programs or innovations that have also shown good results in our schools.

Meditation In The Classroom

Meditation as an educational protocol in the U.S. is not an entirely new idea: the TM technique has a 40-year track record in the classroom, with meditating students scoring in the upper 1 percent on national tests and consistently winning top awards in science, math and the arts. Previous studies on this meditation have shown reduced anxiety and increased grade point average, IQ, creativity, problem-solving abilities and recall.6

When you see a classroom of high school students sitting quietly with eyes closed, meditating together -- kids of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds -- it's awe inspiring. How is it that they can be so peaceful and absorbed? It's because during TM practice, the mind settles inward spontaneously, led by its own nature to seek greater satisfaction. In an effortless way, the technique allows the mind to access reserves of energy, creativity and calmness that reside within everyone.

Should we push our students harder, like the Chinese, or would it be more effective to give them a tool to improve their brain functioning, dissolve stress and develop their mental potential?

More and more, jobs are demanding higher-level skills and greater powers of executive function, such as the ability to solve non-routine, multi-step problems. Workers who garner the competitive wages will be those able to analyze a situation, hypothesize about causes and effects and craft new and innovative solutions -- some of the very skills known to unfold through effective meditation.

As students prepare for their careers, and later when they enter the workforce, a reliable meditation technique may be their best ally.

VIDEO: Meditation For Students: Better Grades, Less Stress

1. Education 131:3, 2011
2. Cognitive Processing 11:1, 2010
3. Annual meeting of the Society for Behavioral Medicine, March 2008
4. American Journal of Hypertension 2:1326-31, 2009
5. University of Michigan Integrative Medicine, Explore 5:422-5 2006
6. Intelligence 29: 419-440, 2001; International Journal of Neuroscience 13: 211 217, 1981; 15: 151-157, 1981; Personality and Individual Differences 12: 1105-1116, 1991