Teaching meditation in schools is becoming a recognised technique to improve mental health amongst students. Educators across the world are realising the significant benefits for students, schools and communities. Research combined from different studies around the world has shown that meditation in schools can have positive effects on student's personal well-being, as well as their social and academic skills.
I spoke to Rodolphe Sinimale, a change-maker and social entrepreneur from Réunion Island to find out more about bringing meditation to schools. Réunion is a French island in the Indian Ocean just East of Madagascar. With a high unemployment rate, particularly among the young, mindfulness in education is an integral tool enabling the island's future generation to be equipped to deal with growing social tensions and difficulty finding work.
Rodolphe spoke to me about two pioneering projects taking place in Réunion in state schools, one in a middle school, college Hubert De-Lisle and one in a primary school l'Ecole Primaire Antoine Lucas.
The aim is to use meditation to help the students to cultivate loving-kindness, emotional intelligence, focus and compassion. For Rodolphe, and the community of teachers and leaders backing this project, it's important to be active in making a positive contribution to society and the world around us. When I asked him why he wanted to bring meditation to schools he spoke of one night in Madagascar where he was threatened by armed men, he said "when faced with your own mortality, we realise what's important, and that's taking care of each other. Since then I try to cultivate compassion and loving kindness every day, even if it's not easy, and meditation is really a great way to do that."
Rodolphe says that the workshops and programme itself took about "two years to get off the ground as it takes a lot of planning, organisation and, mostly, energy to develop. You also need leaders with vision, wisdom and courage to make that much needed step." Pascal Chabernaud is the director of innovation at the French Ministry of Education (l'Education Nationale) and it's thanks to him that the mindfulness project was welcomed to schools in Réunion. Pascal is aware of the important role teacher's play in a student's development and his dream for education is that it should be open, shared, collaborative and positive.
The first time Rodolphe went into school to teach meditation he could feel his heart beating fast with nerves but he said that right away he saw the "light, simplicity, enthusiasm and creativity" of the students which deeply inspired him.
Through the meditation classes, significant changes appeared very quickly in the children. For example their ability to say "I'm angry" and accept the emotion, instead of getting angry and finding it challenging to articulate how they are feeling. It was also noticed that there was an improvement to their ability to be present and collaborate with one another.
Rodolphe comments "it was beautiful to watch them transforming." He does notice that there are certain challenges with working within institutions and the education system but says that "there is so much suffering in today's world, we must act and try to have a positive impact in any way that we can."
At the middle school, college Hubert Delisle, meditation workshops are offered to students in years 7 and 9. According to head teacher, Lionel Mailfert, a revolution is underway. He says that he is driven by the desire to "offer students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, a practice that allows them to be happy, to live in harmony with others and to succeed in their learning."
Since such a practice has been introduced, some students have even seen their marks go up. During the meditation, the students are invited to allow and accept thoughts to come and go without judging them. They are asked to bring awareness to their breathing and alongside the meditation itself they also get to study into the biology of the brain and how stress has an impact on the body.
Long-term objectives of bringing meditation to the school is to stop bullying, to create a safer space and a more peaceful school life, as well as developing students' self-confidence. Students and teachers have noticed the benefits for themselves. Lucas, in year 7 said "It helps us to relax, de-stress and reflect" and Ms Delebarre noted "the students are less stressed, it's much calmer and they find it easier to listen."
The programmes underway in Réunion are gaining interest from other schools and teachers, as well as from community leaders. It's clear how much difference a handful of people can make to get a movement started.
The movement in Réunion was part inspired by a quote from the Dalai Lama "If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation." Some might argue that this is an idealistic and simplistic viewpoint but the real and experienced benefits of students and teachers in Réunion Island definitely show that meditation can positively impact students and hopefully in turn, the world around us.
One of the mindfulness exercises: planting the loving kindness seed, and taking care of it everyday with compassionate thoughts
Rodolphe and his dog Sushi photographed by Stephanie Lorente
You can find Rodolphe Sinimale at his website here.