The Happy School Campaign in South Korea

Over the decades since the end of the Korean War, South Korea has achieved a remarkable economic growth. The country has risen from the rubble of the Korean War (1950–1953) to become the fifteenth largest economy in the world. This rapid growth has come from the Korean people’s enthusiasm for education in a highly competitive society. South Korea’s academic environment is extremely competitive, and many Korean people regard getting into a prestigious university as a prerequisite to success.

This kind of atmosphere in society puts great pressure on young people, often resulting in extreme social problems like youth suicide. In 2010, for the third straight year, suicide remained the single largest cause of death among young people in Korea. Teenagers stress over having good grades in school and receive huge pressure from their parents and teachers about their grades.

School violence has also been a reason for youth suicide. School violence is becoming extremely popular throughout the whole country. According to recent data, violence in Korean schools has almost doubled in the past five years. New words reflecting the current situation have been created. For example, Il-Jin is the name for the group of students using violence against other students in the school. These students are often good-looking or physically strong and good fighters. Wang-Ta is the name for the student who is a victim of bullying and violence by other students like Il-Jin. Many students who are bullied are physically weak and timid and do not have much self-confidence.

In December 2011, a middle school student in the city of Daegu jumped from his apartment building, leaving a suicide note saying that he had been seriously harassed and frequently beaten by his classmates. Another middle school student in Gwangju also committed suicide, in the same month, after being physically and verbally assaulted by school bullies. The tools of bullying vary from forcing victims to run errands and stealing to sexual assault, confinement and beatings.

Experts say school violence has recently become more serious and frequent, partly due to competitive school programs that only focus on academic achievement, rather than on well-rounded personality education.
Many approaches are being tested to solve school violence in Korean society. One of them is the Happy School Campaign, a program that tries to solve the problem through scientific understanding of the brain and using breathing and meditation techniques to address the root of the problem. The campaign emphasizes that the problem be seen from a neuroscience perspective.

School violence is more serious in middle school, which allows us to make a link between being violent and brain development in youth. A teenager’s brain is different. It changes as much as in early childhood. The area in the brain where we process sensory information finishes its development right before or after a child is 10 years old, but the development of the frontal lobe, which conducts higher brain functions such as judging and decision-making, continues until the late teens. Therefore, teenagers can accept sensory information in the same way as adults but cannot make stable decisions in their lives like adults.

In adolescence, the brain is going through structural changes while it is full of many kinds of hormones, which means it is a very important time in the formation of character. Teenagers’ unstable behavior is related to immaturity in their frontal lobes. The school violence problem needs to be approached considering this characteristic of a teenager’s brain development.

Reducing school violence by brain meditation
The Happy School Campaign, which uses Brain Education (BE), has been implemented as an educational program in South Korean schools. It offers a new approach to solve school violence through brain science and education for youth character development. The basic methodology of brain education is breathing and meditation. It is designed to help emotional regulation and improve self-confidence. So far, 415 schools in Korea have joined the Happy School Campaign and applied BE, and they expect BE will eventually eradicate the violence problem in their schools.

Here is a story from Hwa-Young Lee, a teacher at the Korean Dohwa engineering high school, which joined the Happy School Campaign and applied BE for the whole school in 2010. He is in charge of student guidance for the whole school.

The goal of the Happy School Campaign is to make a school without violence and cigarette smoking (also high among students) through using the brain well and communicating with each other well. Through breathing and meditation and a reward-and-penalty system instead of corporal punishment, violence in the school has significantly decreased.

In Dohwa high school, after six months of the campaign, 60 percent of students answered that violence in the school had decreased.

Results of the survey after 6 months:

Hwa-Young explained that the great result after six months was due to the following three facts in the process:

1. Meditation helped the students release their stress
According to Hwa-Young, the whole school did meditation before they started their regular classes in the morning. Meditation helped students release their stress from their home and school. Many studies have proved that meditation has a positive effect on releasing stress and regulating emotions. When people release their stress, they can reduce emotional conflicts with other people. Characteristically impulsive and emotional teenagers can regulate their emotions through meditation by stimulating the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to feelings of well-being and happiness. Meditation has also been proven to improve metacognition, the ability to stand back, observe what is happening and think about what you are doing, rather than being on automatic pilot. This aspect of meditation is particularly effective in reducing school violence.

2. Removing emotional conflict between the teachers and the students
Corporal punishment is still a popular educational methodology in Korean schools. It is a tradition of Korean education inherited from history. After students receive physical punishment from their teachers, they express their own stress by using violence against other students who are physically weak. Also, they react emotionally against the teachers who punished them physically by becoming irreverent toward them. The teachers, in turn, react emotionally to those students who become disrespectful. In this cycle, emotional conflicts between teachers and students deepen and can become habitual. When people feel relaxed, everything around them is fine, but when they are stressed, anything can be a problem, ultimately leading to violence.

At Dohwa, a reward-and-penalty system based on the education of choice and responsibility has been implemented, instead of physical punishment. This is part of the character-development process promoted by BE. Hwa-Young taught students that breaking rules is their choice and that they should be responsible for their choices. Students who broke the rules needed to stay after school and do special BE classes composed of particularly difficult breathing postures. It took a while for them to stay after school without having emotional conflict with each other. Hwa-Young had to have students and parents sign an agreement before implementing the system. Every time he encountered resistance from students, he reminded them of their choice and that their parents had agreed to it. He said the most important thing is to make students responsible for their choices without having emotional conflicts within themselves and with others.

3. Meditation helped the teachers as well
The number of teachers retiring early has lately increased because of the stress from the current school-violence situation. When teachers can reduce their stress levels through meditation, they can reduce conflicts with students. Then they can communicate better with students, gain trust from them and become happy in school. Hwa-Young Lee wants to share with many teachers his experience of becoming happy in school from doing BE meditation regularly. His dream is to make the Korean school environment happier and give students happiness in their schools. He sees hope in the Happy School Campaign.

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