Warstler Elementary School In Ohio Shuts Down Mindfulness Program Due To Parent Complaints

Recent research may tout the benefits of mindfulness programs in schools -- including improved test scores and decreased stress -- but some parents aren't convinced.

Members of the Warstler Elementary School community in Plain Township, Ohio, are up in arms about the school's efforts to incorporate breathing exercises and meditation into the curriculum. Administrators discontinued the school's mindfulness program six weeks ago in response to complaints from parents and community members concerned about links to Eastern religions, according to the Akron Beacon Journal.

The Warstler Elementary mindfulness program, which debuted at the school in 2011, involves breathing exercises, meditation and stretching, with the general aim of improving the students' focus and fostering greater emotional stability, the Beacon Journal reports.

However, when the program returned this year, parents expressed concern over the roots of mindfulness in Buddhism. The ancient practice -- which is centered on cultivating a focused awareness on the present moment -- frequently involves meditation, but does not contain elements of prayer or worship.

“There was no malice from anyone in the district to bring something in that was not appropriate,” Superintendent Brent May told the Beacon Journal. “We have to be careful as a public school that we don’t cross over church and state.”

Parents also questioned whether the school should be devoting the students' time to these practices, with the vice president of the school's Parent-Teacher Organization complaining that she might pull her kindergartener out of the school if the programs continued to be a focus.

A similar controversy took place last year at an elementary school in Encinitas, Calif., when parents complained that teaching children Ashtanga yoga was a form of indoctrination into the spiritual beliefs of the Hindu faith. After dozens of parents protested to the board, school officials announced that parents could choose to have their children excused from yoga class, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Despite the Warstler community's concerns, research has found mindfulness programs in schools to be effective in reducing symptoms of depression among adolescents. A 2013 study found that students who participated in a six-week mindfulness program -- which consisted of instruction in mindful breathing and body scan exercises, shared experiences and group reflection, inspiring stories, and education on stress, depression and self-care -- exhibited decreased symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression.

Mindfulness has also been found to improve focus, and can increase test scores. A recent University of California study found that undergraduates who participated in a two-week mindfulness training program demonstrated heightened working memory and improved reading-comprehension scores on the GRE.

“A type of training that can help one avoid susceptibility to worries, or other sources of mind-wandering, very well could improve performance,” Nelson Cowan, a University of Missouri professor who studies memory and attention, told the New York Times.

Previous research on mindfulness meditation has also found the practice to be effective in lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, improving emotional stability and sleep quality, boosting compassion and self-knowledge and supporting weight-loss goals.