A Moment of Silence: A Simple Way to Improve Schools/Society

The simplest solutions are also the best.

Posted Feb 27, 2012

I am a lover of simple solutions. While we tend to think that solutions are difficult, this is usually wrong. It is problems that are difficult. When we have problems, we are working hard to solve them and whatever we are doing isn't working, so it seems like the solution must be something very difficult. But usually when we find a solution that works, it turns out to be something very simple.

First, a couple of caveats. 1. I am writing strictly as a social scientist. This is not a religious article and is not an attempt to insert religion into public schools. 2. The program being discussed is not meant to be a comprehensive solution to bullying (though I suspect it may be at least as effective as the time consuming anti-bullying programs that are proud to reduce bullying by twenty percent). Rather, it is a way to improve the school environment, home life and society in general with a minimal investment of time and effort. 

Several years ago, an attendee at one of my Anger Control Made Easy seminars stood out from the crowd. He sported a long gray beard and wore a white shirt, black suit and the particular style of black hat that I recognized as the unofficial uniform of the (Jewish) Lubavitch sect of Chassidim, also known as Chabad Chassidim. 

He asked to talk to me after the seminar. He introduced himself as Avraham Frank, and wanted more advice on how to apply my teachings in his work. We maintained sporadic phone contact ever since.

Avraham Frank with permission
Source: Avraham Frank with permission

A couple of years ago he told me about a mission he had taken upon himself. On his own time and expense, he'd been promoting a school program called A Moment of Silence. (In fact, it is so simple I am not even sure the word "program" is applicable). He encourages schools to implement a minute or two of silence every morning.

This is not a new idea. There are, in fact, several states in the U.S. that have mandated A Moment of Silence for schools. (When presented as a secular activity, these mandates have been deemed Constiutional by the Supreme Court.) But Mr. Frank's version has a particular twist to it. The students are instructed to discuss with their parents what they should be contemplating during the moment of silence in school. As I will be discussing shortly, this may make all the difference.

Mr. Frank told me the results have been amazing. I was initially skeptical, but when I looked at dozens of letters from students and the video testimonials from teachers, principals and parents, I couldn't help but be impressed–and curious.

Mr. Frank explained that he promotes the program because the late Lubavitcher Rebbe ('rebbe' is an endearing term Chassidic groups use for their leader), Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had expressed the desire to see all schools implementing A Moment of Silence. Mr. Frank took it upon himself to make his Rebbe's wish a reality.

Regardless of one's religious beliefs or lack thereof, when a man like the Lubavitcher Rebbe makes a recommendation for society, it would be smart to give it consideration. In addition to being a Jewish scholar, Rabbi Schneerson was a true genius and a profoundly wise man. In 1995 the U.S. Congress posthumously awarded him a Gold Medal in honor of his contribution to education and designated his birthday as Education and Sharing Day, U.S.A.

So I examined A Moment of Silence, and for the past year or so, have been mentioning it in my Bullies to Buddies newsletters. As a result, many schools throughout the world have adopted it and are loving the results.

Why does A Moment of Silence work? Here are my thoughts.

One, it is a powerful experience. If you have ever participated in a memorial service in which everyone is silent for a minute or two, you probably know what it is like. Time seems to pass more slowly, as everyone is united in a communal ceremony of thoughtful silence.

Two, it promotes self-control. It is not easy to be silent and still for a full minute or two, and the younger the child is, the more difficult it is. So when children practice silence for a minute or two every school day, they develop self-control. The ability to stay silent is probably enhanced by the fact that everyone else is doing it, too. Even kids with generally poor control are more likely to be still when they see everyone else around them doing it.

Three, when the Moment of Silence is conducted at the beginning of the school day, it sets the mood for the rest of the day.

Four, it is a form of meditation. The benefits of meditation have already been well established by scientific research.

And the fifth factor is the one that has to do with the particular component Rabbi Schneerson added: instructing kids to discuss with their parents what they should think about. This may be the single most crucial factor for the success of the program.

The effectiveness of A Moment of Silence in the states that do implement it is debatable. My most recent seminar tour was in Texas, one such state. But seminar participants informed me that it's just another activity the schools are doing simply because it's mandated. They are quiet for a minute to comply with the mandate but it is not taken seriously. Thus, the minute has little meaning.

Many people today are bemoaning that schools no longer teach values, that they have become amoral places that try to prepare kids for acceptance into college but don't instill any meaning into their lives. And another thing many people decry, especially experts in violence, is the progressively weakening bond between children and parents. This bond may be weakening for a number of reasons. One of them is the replacement of human interaction with electronic media.

A second cause is the importance that parents themselves place on school. Most parents put the demands of school ahead of their own. How many parents would dare tell their children, "Forget your homework. I need you to do the laundry" or "You're skipping school today cause we're going to the movies"? Not only does homework take priority in the evenings and weekends, many schools assign homework during summer vacation as well, ensuring that children and parents are never free of their obligations to the school.

A third major cause of the weakened child/parent bond is the wholesale entrance of women into the workforce. Thus, school has been slowly but surely taking over children's lives. In addition to receiving lunch in school, many kids also get breakfast.  To help working parents, many schools have latchkey programs enabling parents to  drop their children off before school begins and pick them up long after school is over. "No Child Left Behind" laws effectively reduce parents' responsibility for children's academic success and place it squarely on the schools' shoulders. The expectation that schools be responsible for children round-the-clock has become so normal that most parents demand that schools be held responsible for kids' bullying not only during school but 24/7, including in cyberspace.

Thus, the more significant that schools become in caring for children, the less significant the parents become.

Furthermore, many parents do not want schools determining their children "values."  To avoid fighting with parents over the appropriate values to teach, it is easier to avoid teaching values at all. "Anti-bullying" has become the most universally accepted values teaching that schools have come up with, but it turns out that even here there are some vehement areas of disagreement among parent groups about what should be included.

As a result, students are largely in a moral/spiritual limbo. Their home lives revolve around homework and electronic devices, schools are teach-to-the-test college preparation factories, and parents are the servants that are expected to work hard to pay the bills, drive the kids around, bring them play dates, make sure they do their homework, etc.

And that is where the Lubavitcher Rebbe's brilliance comes in. With his version of the Moment of Silence, schools can restore to parents their rightful role as the moral/spiritual authorities for their own children. The schools are in essence declaring to students, "Yes, you do spend a good chunk of your day here and work for us at home, too, but your parents are the ones you need to look to for meaning in life."

It only takes minutes for children to discuss topics for contemplation with their parents. This forces kids to look up to their parents as their moral/spiritual authorities. But consider also what it does for the parents' self-esteem when the school officially recognizes them as moral/spiritual authorities! Furthermore, there is a good chance that many parents today, with all the pressures of work and the hectic pace of modern society, don't even devote time to considering what's truly important. In order to help their children think of topics for Moment of Silence contemplation, the parents need to think about them as well! And because parents care about their children more than anyone else, they tend to take their role in A Moment of Silence seriously.

Regardless of what any individual child is thinking during A Moment of Silence, the majority are thinking positive things, and doing so in unity. Children are less likely to behave badly when they have begun the day silently contemplating how to improve their lives and the world. It should not be surprising that A Moment of Silence is profoundly powerful and is almost universally loved by the parents, staff and students of the schools that practice it properly.

I therefore give A Moment of Silence my strongest endorsement. I think it just may be the single most effective way to improve schools and society, at essentially no expense. The small amount of time invested pays for itself many times over. For one or two effortless minutes per day, school atmosphere improves, kids and staff become happier, aggression declines, staff waste less time trying to keep students on task and dealing with discipline problems, and academic achievement goes up. And, last but not least, the parents come to appreciate their children's schools like never before.

Avraham Frank has created a website for A Moment of Silence, with instructions for effective implementation. If you wish, he will give you his personal guidance free of charge. Moreover, he will even get on the phone to try to convince your school administration to give it a try.

To learn more, go to Mr. Frank's website, http://momentofsilence.info/

Best Wishes,

Izzy Kalman