Reducing Student Stress Tackling Truancy, Suspensions, and Stress

With levels of violence and poverty rising around them, San Francisco middle school students find social and emotional healing -- and a new readiness to learn -- in a bold program of daily meditation.

Back in 1999, when Principal Jim Dierke was getting started at San Francisco's Visitacion Valley Middle School (VVMS) so many fights were breaking out between students that it became known as "the fight school." Police routinely made arrests on campus, and every day, lines of students stretched down the hall outside the counselor's office.

Drugs and gang violence, rampant in the nearby housing projects, were spilling out into a community already challenged by unemployment and a high homicide rate. Students were coming to school fearful, anxious, and stressed. The consensus was they were suffering from PTSD -- what one teacher described as persistent traumatic stress syndrome.

Unable to combat the painful realities enveloping the neighborhood, Dierke resolved to change what he believed he could control, his school. It hasn't been easy, and the work goes on week after week, but today, VVMS has emerged as an oasis of hope and relative calm thanks largely to Dierke's leadership and a program he and his team helped pioneer at VVMS called Quiet Time (QT) .

Dierke describes Quiet Time as an umbrella -- a shelter and a sanctuary where students can clear their minds and ready themselves to accomplish things socially and academically that they could not have contemplated in the past. Over the past five years -- since shortly before VVMS launched -- the number of suspensions has been cut in half, from 13 per 100 students in 2006-07 to six per 100 students in 2010-11. Truancy rates, defined as having more than three unexcused absences or being tardy more than three times per year, have dropped by 61 percent, from 18 percent of students in 2006-07 to just 7 percent in 2010-11.

In the formal sense, QT at VVMS is a daily program of mandatory quietude. Twice a day, once at the first bell and again just before the last bell, students are directed to sit quietly for 15 minutes. They are permitted to read, sit with their own thoughts, or close their eyes and meditate -- in which case most of them use a specific technique called Transcendental Meditation* that facilitates a state of deep relaxation. Although the meditation is optional, nearly all students have chosen, with their parents' permission, to receive meditation training. Based on classroom reports, about 90 percent of students choose to meditate during QT. (Learn more about meditation successes in schools around the country.)