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Meditation 'vital to help children deal with exam stress and social pressure'

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 18/02/2020 Rebecca Speare-Cole
a person sitting on a bench in front of a wooden fence © Provided by Evening Standard

Meditation is vital to help children and teenagers deal with exam stress and social media pressure, an expert has said.

Will Williams, founder of Beeja Meditation, has been advising the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on how developing the skill can improve a child's academic performance as well as their general wellbeing.

He has been working with 36 education ministers from around the world since last year to introduce the activity into the school day.

So far, he has taught more than 1,700 British schoolchildren to meditate.

a group of people in a room: The Beeja Meditation founder said that exams and social media pressures put a heavy load on the nervous system for children and teenagers. (Will Williams/Beeja Meditation) © Provided by Evening Standard The Beeja Meditation founder said that exams and social media pressures put a heavy load on the nervous system for children and teenagers. (Will Williams/Beeja Meditation)

Speaking to the Standard, he said exams and social media pressures put a heavy load on the nervous system for children and teenagers.

He called meditation "a keystone competency", which is "vital" for resetting the nervous system and creating more connectivity in the brain for "better neuronal coherence".

"We have created a world where everything is moving a million miles per hour and there is a huge chasm between what we are biologically able to process and how fast everything is moving," the Beeja Meditation founder said.

"Humans are experiencing up to 30 times more stimulation than they were 100 years ago. The brain is overwhelmed by information."

a person sitting on a sofa: Will Williams, founder of Beeja Meditation, says the skill can improve a child's academic performance as well as their general wellbeing. (Will Williams/Beeja Meditation) © Provided by Evening Standard Will Williams, founder of Beeja Meditation, says the skill can improve a child's academic performance as well as their general wellbeing. (Will Williams/Beeja Meditation)

He said this constant over-stimulation, especially in younsters whose brains are still developing, causes "an amping up of fight or flight dynamics, meaning that our pre-frontal cortex is inhibited which makes it more difficult to focus."

"It also means children are far more prone to anxiety and having difficulty sleeping, which will then have a corresponding impact on mood and behaviour."

"Heightened pressure and stress also inhibit our memory centre - the hippocampus - making it harder to retain and recall information," he said, adding that this is very detrimental to exam performance.

Mr Williams said parents and educators must get children's stress levels "back in balance" as they deal with school and exams while often staying up all night glued to screens, which further messes with their sleep.

a group of people standing next to a man: Mr Williams has also worked with Apple, Google and Sony to advise on the benefits of meditation in their workforce. (Will Williams/Beeja Meditation) © Provided by Evening Standard Mr Williams has also worked with Apple, Google and Sony to advise on the benefits of meditation in their workforce. (Will Williams/Beeja Meditation)

"A child's day consists of waking up, preparing for school, facing all those exams and roaming social media, which adds its own pressures," he said.

"Their nervous system is coming under more strain and so meditation gives them a chance to switch off and then they can engage in their work."

"Meditating can help children manage their anxiety and get better sleep. It helps them to think differently and it encourages greater creativity within their thinking," he said.

"It also helps them reconnect to their humanity to become more compassionate and kind, which is needed in exam environments."

To do this, he suggests a "quiet time" is incorporated into the school day or introducing children to breathing and visualisation techniques among other options.

Mr Williams cited the Quiet Time programme in the US, which introduces 15 minutes of transcendental meditation into the school day.

Three schools in San Francisco joined the programme between 2008 and 2010, and found pupils demonstrated 40 per cent less stress, anxiety and depression as well as a 10 per cent rise in school grades.

Asked whether some children might push back against being told to sit still and learn this new skill, Mr Williams said: "If you give children a taste of experiencing meditation, they generally love it and engage with it."

His technique to help children thrive during exam periods:

1) No revision after 8pm. Information retention is very poor after this time and it has a significantly negative impact on cognitive capability the following day.

2) No screens in the first and last hour of the day. The nervous system needs time to warm up and wind down each day if we are to think clearly and sleep soundly. If won't give it this time, performance will be massively impacted.

3) Take 2 x 12 minute breaks each day. Shut the eyes and let your nervous system process all the information it has downloaded throughout the day. Children could do a visualisation or a breathwork technique such as inhaling through the nose for four counts and out through the mouth for another four counts.They could start repeating the sound "beeja" within their minds super softly, which will soothe their nervous system. Always end the meditation by taking a minute of doing nothing - just resting.

4) Engage the right brain. Make sure they take time each day to engage the right side of the brain. They can do this by spending five minutes every few hours writing with their weaker hand, playing a musical instrument or making picture.

5) Breathing techniques. If they are feeling anxious, get them to imagine breathing in and out of a hole in the middle of their back. This is super settling when your feeling anxious and is really good to do just before going into the exam hall.

6) Yoga. Get them to do a five minute yoga nidra exercise when they go to sleep. This will improve their sleep quality and calm any remaining anxiety.

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