In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prayer in public schools was unconstitutional. Although prayer continues uninterrupted in Catholic and other faith-based schools, the ban has been one of the cornerstones of the “separation of church and state” debate for decades. Through the years of contention, however, prayer by itself was not considered to be a “study tool”—until recently.
Within the last few years, a body of research by scientists and faith-based organizations linking prayer to better study habits and academic success is adding a new argument to the prayer-in-school debate. Can prayer make better students?
Father William Watson, S.J., is Chair and Director of the Sacred Story Institute in Seattle. Sacred Story is developing an updated version of the Jesuits’ Ignatian Spirituality for students in the classroom from pre-K to graduate school. Several elementary schools in Orange County are currently in a trial program designed to use an age-appropriate “examen of conscience” a highly focused and inward form of prayer, for three to eight minutes during the school day. According to Mary Alvarado, principal of St. Cecilia School in Tustin, second, fifth and sixth grade classes are currently testing the program.
“The concept is really intriguing. This is more than a Hail Mary before class starts. For anyone, prayer is a great way to calm and center one’s self, but this new focus on short, deep prayer for young children is an interesting approach.”
While the program is still in its beta phase, students listen to a tape or video early in the school day that leads them in guided meditational prayer for a few minutes. According to Father William, “We are hoping that children, from very early in their life, will learn to listen to spiritual movement in their heart and become adept at discerning the difference between good and evil.” For the young child it may be learning what makes them truly happy or sad. As they grow, and become more clear and purposeful in their choices, their prayer skills should help to direct their entire academic life and adult life.
Leonard Matheson, a neurology professor emeritus at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has just completed a new book, “Your Faithful Brain: Designed for So Much More!” in which he explores the intersection of faith, and particularly prayer, and neuroscience. Matheson urges students to stop and pray for five to ten minutes during each hour of study. Ideally, the prayer should be done while walking, not sitting.
“The best prayers for students facing the stress of study and especially tests are prayers of gratitude,” says Matheson. “Thank God for your family and friends, the opportunity to learn and so forth. Something happens with this kind of prayer that calms one down and enables them to go back to their studies refreshed.
“Prayer primes our neural patterns through an invitation to the Holy Spirit. As I surrender, neuroconsolidation occurs: the organization of my experiences into long-term memories.”
While prayer in public schools is still debated, research may lead to an academic rationale for returning prayer to the public classroom. According to The Peabody Journal of Education 2012 Meta-Analysis, religious schools achieved the highest level of success compared to both charter and public schools. SAT scores tell the same story: while scores from public schools decline, religious and independent schools scores are on the rise.
Is prayer the key? It will be a long time before researchers will be able to definitively answer the question. In the meantime, parenting a more centered, focused and spiritually connected child and student is perhaps proof enough.