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Classroom meditation helps over-stimulated children

Meditation and other relaxation techniques are helping youngsters improve academic and social performance in innovative methods being introduced in some French schools.

Aimed at helping children of all ages to calm down and prepare themselves to concentrate on their lessons, the short meditation periods have been widely praised by parents and teachers.
Although still to be approved by the Ministry of Education, former education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem welcomed one initiative, to help pupils with philosophy and meditation.

Work by the Fondation SEVE and the Association Méditation dans l’Enseignement targets modern-world difficulties to help calm increasingly agitated pupils at the beginning of a class.
Started six months ago, the Fondation SEVE has taken philosophy to 16,550 primary school children in 228 villages all over France. This month it is training 1,200 teachers and volunteers to continue the work and another 1,200 are signed up for September. Talks are underway to get the workshops authorised by the education ministry.

The idea of philosopher and sociologist Frédéric Lenoir after the Paris terrorist attacks, he felt it could help children cope with such events by helping them to have a critical approach, form their own opinions and learn to respect and live with others.

He felt it was best for primary children – they do not learn about great philosophers but are encouraged to develop their own philosophy by expressing ideas about happiness and friendship without judgment.
Liliana Lindenberg organises the workshops and says the children are very receptive. “There are usually three or four workshops so that by the end even the shyest pupils participate. It may be the only time they feel they can really speak without fear of criticism.”

The foundation uses short periods of meditation at the start of a workshop: “They come in to the classroom from the playground in an excited state and this calms them down.
“Teachers have been delighted by the way it works and started using it themselves. The pupils, too, like it and say they even use it at home. One girl said she was so cross with her brother she wanted to hit him so she went into her bedroom, meditated for a short while and she was no longer angry.”

The foundation website has quotes from some children who took part in workshops, with Eva, 9, saying: “Friend­ship is a light which never goes out” while 11-year-old Robin adds: “Med­it­ation is when you’re annoyed and you make yourself empty and put back the counter of your emotions to zero.”

Association Méditation dans l’Enseignement started two years ago and has run courses in 110 schools, worked with 4,000 children and trained more than 200 instructors.
President Candice Marro discovered meditation when working in the UK and is enthusiastic about its reception in France, hoping the education ministry will authorise it this autumn.
“I thought there would be more resistance but I’ve found teachers and pupils are very open to the idea and find the experience immensely beneficial.”
The 10-week, twice-weekly courses in classes from maternelle up to lycée introduce mindfulness meditation, which is not about putting the children into a trance but about them concentrating on the present moment and their body by thinking, for example, about the way in which they breathe.

Exercises are adapted to the age of the pupils and Ms Marro said: “It settles your nervous system, and trains your brain to be attentive. It is necessary today because of the increase in use of computers and phones which means there is too much stimulation. Children can become hyper-active – or the opposite when they can’t do anything.

“We carry it out first thing in the morning or after the mid-day break and teachers report that they feel less stress in the classroom afterwards and pupils focus better on the lessons.”
Four out of five pupils say they feel calmer after meditation and better able to concentrate, while two in three say they do the exercises on their own after the course has finished.
“It is not necessarily easy but we find it very rare that a difficult child won’t benefit from it.”

Sandrine Pomarède has been a collège history and geography teacher for 17 years and said students in 6ème were finding it more and more difficult to concentrate and were less self-reliant.
The association worked with two 6ème and two 5ème classes at Collège Michelet in Toulouse and Ms Pomarède was so impressed she thinks meditation should be on the national syllabus.

“I noticed an improvement after four sessions. They were more relaxed and focused in class and more self-confident. It also taught me to be more attentive to their needs.
“Now if a pupil is tired because perhaps they haven’t slept well I will leave them be rather than try to get them to do something which will only increase tension and not solve anything.”

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