Reasearch Monday: Transcendental Meditation in Schools

Matcha tea-loving interviewer, Susanne Cardwell, interviewed Staci Wendt, principle author of Practicing Transcendental Meditation in High Schools: Relationship to Well-being and Academic Achievement Among Students. The research study reveals the benefits of quiet time on anxiety, resilience, and other factors in high school student achievement. The school’s quiet time sessions included the option for students to practice Transcendental Meditation.

Susanne: Please tell us a little bit about your research history and your evolution to researching on transcendental meditation in high schools.
Staci: I have my PhD in Applied Social Psychology. In graduate school, I typically studied substance abuse and its relationship to stress and well-being. After I graduated, I started working for a research firm and brought in my topics of research. Those included students’ emotional health and juvenile justice recidivism research, and I’ve been at WestEd for four years. When I started there, the quiet time study was already in progress. At WestEd, I serve as a research analyst. Thus, my role in this study was to conduct the analysis for the piece. A second author on the paper, Jerry Hipps, collaborated with the other authors on the paper for the research design and the implementation of the Quiet Time program.

Susanne: In your research on Transcendental Meditation’s impact on the well-being and academic achievements among high school students, you examinethe Quiet Time program. What exactly happens during the Quiet Time program and what are its aims and rationale?
Staci: The Quiet Time program is intended to be implemented for fifteen minutes twice a day during the school day–maybe once at the beginning of the school day and once at the end of the school day. It’s an opportunity for students to read or rest or practice Transcendental Meditation–basically any activity where the students remain quiet. For this study, we encouraged students to participate in Transcendental Meditation during the quiet time portion. Because this is a preliminary study, we didn’t actually measure what students chose to do during that quiet time. This is more a study of the impact of quiet time and not specifically transcendental meditation, but we do know that some students practiced Transcendental Meditation. The purpose of the Quiet Time program is to reduce stress and promote brain functioning. This fifteen minutes twice a day where students can practice this quiet time is thought of as the body being in a restful alertness.

Susanne: Who implemented the Quiet Time?
Staci: Teachers at the study schools implemented the Quiet Time program.

Susanne: How did they teach the students to do Transcendental Meditation?
Staci: Students at the treatment high school learned Transcendental Meditation technique in the standard seven step Transcendental Meditation course, and that includes a recruitment lecture, a preparatory lecture, and a brief interview with a Transcendental Meditation teacher, personal instruction on Transcendental Meditation that lasted about one hour, and then three one hour group meetings to provide additional knowledge about practice and to discuss students’ experiences.

Susanne: You compared two schools. Please tell a little bit about the differences between the two schools.
Staci: Both of these school were located in the same geographic region; they are part of the same school district. They both are high schools, so they serve only high school students grades nine through twelve. There were some demographic differences between the high schools. For example, the treatment high school was 40.1% white whereas the comparison high school was 28.3% white. The treatment high school was 33% Asian and only 24.6% Latino, whereas the comparison school was kind of flipped, so it was 34% Latino and 26% Asian.
They were similar on the gender breakdown, both sitting at around 50%. They were similar on English language learner status of students, so the comparison high school was 18.9% English language learners and the treatment high school was 12.7%. The comparison high school also had more students with disabilities, so 13% of the comparison high school students were considered students with disabilities and only 5.6% at the treatment high school. In terms of our baseline comparison on the well-being measures, at baseline the treatment students had significantly higher levels of anxiety and significantly lower levels of resilience. The treatment students also had a significantly lower fall GPA. They also had a significantly lower amount of instruction time.

Susanne: How did quiet time, which included transcendental meditation, impact anxiety levels?
Staci: The Quiet Time program provides an opportunity for students to reflect on the day or spend that time just being quiet. That has been shown in previous studies–using that time to be restfully alert–to demonstrate an increase level in brain functioning. It’s thought that the Quiet Time program works at the simplest form of human awareness.You can think about this in terms of an adult’s life, too. If you’re feeling anxious and need to take a second to focus on your breathing or just kind of calm yourself down, that has an impact on anxiety levels. In terms of what the statistical impact was, you’ll remember that at baseline our students in this control group had significantly lower resilience levels and significantly higher anxiety levels. At follow-up, the treatment students had significantly lower anxiety levels and significantly higher resilience levels. Those effects were over a half standard deviation for the anxiety finding and almost a half standard deviation for the resilience finding. Those are considered in the statistical world as moderate to large effects.

Susanne: What exactly is it meant in your study by resilience?
Staci: Resilience… we used the resilience scale, which was developed by Wagnild and Young and published in their 1993 paper. It’s a fifteen item single factor instrument, which assesses emotional capability to cope with stress and adversity. Students rated on a scale of 1 to 7 how much they disagreed or agreed with fifteen items, and some example items include When I make plans, I follow through with them, I am friends with myself, and I feel I can handle many things at a time.

Susanne: How did quiet time, which again included transcendental meditation, impact resilience in the high school students studied?
Staci: At the start, the comparison students had significantly higher resilience compared to treatment students, but at follow-up, treatment students had significantly higher resilience compared to comparison students. That effect was what we’d consider a moderately large effect.

Susanne: How did quiet time impact students’ self-reporting of sleep, happiness, and self-confidence?
Staci: We didn’t have a baseline measure of the sleep, happiness, or self-confidence. So these measures are a little less reliable because they involved asking someone to think back to before they participated in the study. We’re humans; we don’t have the best memory, and our memories are kind of influenced by our current mood or current things that are happening in our lives. We did give the students a survey at the end of their participation and asked them a series of questions about how they felt now compared to how they felt before they did Quiet Time. In those findings, we found that the majority of students reported improved sleep: 79% of those students we surveyed reported improved sleep. 81% reported feeling happier. 77% reported feeling less angry and argumentative. 73% reported feeling more self-confident. 98% of students who reported meditating reported that they found meditation easy to do.

Susanne: What are some of the benefits of Transcendental Meditation?
Staci: Other studies that have focused specifically on Transcendental Meditation have found benefits such as improved physical health, decreased psychological distress, increased social and emotional learning competence, enhanced self-actualizing abilities, increased intelligence and creativity, reduced substance abuse, and greater work productivity. Those studies weren’t specific to high school students, but to the broad overview of Transcendental Meditation.

Susanne: What did your examination of the literature suggest about psychological distress as it relates to high school students?
Staci: This is a developmentally difficult time for this age group because they are experiencing physical, social, and emotional changes. This is when students are starting puberty or are in the middle of puberty, so they have those physical changes happening. They might feel like “aliens” in their own bodies. There are also different social dynamics. Especially for freshman high school students, it can be a very difficult transition because they have typically been in an elementary school, which is smaller or maybe even grew up with the same group of kids. Entering in high school can be challenging because they are on a different schedule, changing classes, and they typically have less one-on-one contact with an adult compared to earlier in their education. It can also be different just from going through puberty and having hormonal changes. That can also impact emotional changes. High school students are also learning how to navigate their own emotions. Thus, this can be a stressful time for students.

Susanne: You measured positive mood, anxiety, resilience, self control, and emotional intelligence in your study of teenagers implementing either Transcendental Meditation or quiet reading. Please tell us more about these measures.
Staci: I mentioned the resilience scale, but I can talk about the other scales as well. We used previously developed scales that are found in the literature. To measure positive mood we used the Profile of Mood States Brief Form. McNair and his research team developed that, and it is published originally in their 1971 paper. It’s a thirty item inventory assessing a six five item scales. The six scales measure tension-anxiety, depression-dejection, anger-hostility, fatigue-inertia, and confusion-bewilderment and vigor-activity. So, for the current study, we used the measure of vigor-activity. The items for this scale include participants rating how much they felt each mood during the previous week using a five-point response scale. That ranged from not-at-all to extremely, and the moods were lively, active, energetic, efficient, full of pep, and vigorous. Higher scores on that scale indicate higher positive moods. In our study, we found the scale to have moderate internal consistency. So, the alphas were .76 at pretest and .72 at posttest.
To measure anxiety, we used the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for Children, and that was developed by Spielberger and colleagues and published originally in their 1973 paper. This was a 20 item scaled that assesses state and trait anxiety. State anxiety is what level of anxiety you are feeling right now, whereas trait anxiety is kind of your general level of anxiety. Students rated on a three-point scale how often they felt each item. Examples of items include I have trouble deciding what to do, I notice my heart beat fast, and I worry about what other people think of me. Higher scores indicate greater anxiety. Self-control was measured using a 13 item self-control scale, developed by Tangney and colleagues and originally published in 2004. Students rated on a five-point scale from 0=not at all likelyto 4=very much likelyhow much each statement reminded them of themselves. Example statements included I do certain things that are bad for me if they are fun, I wish I had more self-discipline, and I have trouble concentrating. Higher scores indicate greater self-control. For emotional intelligence, we used the Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory that was developed in 1997, and it measures emotional and social functioning in adolescence, and it includes five subscales measuring adaptability, interpersonal, intrapersonal, general mood and stress management. Example items include I care what happens to other people, I must tell the truth, and I get angry easily. Students rated each of the items on a four-point scale, ranging from 1, not very true of me, to 4, very true of me.

Susanne: You also measure the instruction time, English Language Arts scores, and Grade Point Averages of the students. Please tell us more about these measures.
Staci: The academic related outcomes were obtained directly from the school district. Instruction time is the percent of time that individual students receive instruction. It is equivalent to class attendance. A score of a 100 indicates that a student was present for all of the instruction time. At the time of the study, the standardized test that was being used was the California Standard Test. So, that was collected in the spring of 2012, which is a baseline measure, and the follow-up was collected in the spring of 2013. That test, at the time, was administered to all the students in grades 2 through 11 throughout California. The grade point average was reported by the district and that was the grade point average for each students, and we obtained it from Fall 2012 and from Spring 2013. At baseline, the treatment students had significantly lower amount of instruction time and significantly lower Fall GPA.

Susanne: What were the results for students who meditated?
Staci: We don’t know exactly what the students did during the Quiet Time, but the students who participated in Quiet Time demonstrated significantly increased resilience and significantly decreased anxiety. For the treatment students, we also gathered at the end of the study their perceptions of how much time they spent meditating. We asked students How often during the week did you spend meditating? This was only for treatment students. Students who reported more meditating or meditating more frequently had significantly higher levels of resilience compared to students who reported meditating less frequently. They also had significantly higher levels of instruction time compared to students who reported meditating less frequently.

Susanne: Does your study recommend implementing Quiet Time, which includes Transcendental Meditation, into schools?
Staci: This study was a preliminary study, so it’s not the highest level of rigor in design. To be able to make some more causal claims, we need to implement a randomized control trial or use a statistically matched control group. Our findings from this study, which can be viewed as a foundational study, found positive results for students who participated in Quiet Time. Future research is necessary, but I think our conclusion from the study is that the preliminary results point to positive results from Quiet Time.

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Yuki thinks simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. His most significant accomplishment is learning how to sit with a good cup of tea and listen. When not online, Yuki talks with all things wild and free. He is a blogger and a matcha lover.

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