Fifteen years ago, the word ‘mindfulness’ was almost completely absent from the education world. Only a small group of educators and researchers envisioned the role mindfulness practice might play in supporting the well-being of teachers and their students. Fast forward to 2015, and we’ve witnessed an incredible surge of interest in integrating mindfulness into education supported by numerous organizations. Mindful Schools, has trained thousands of educators across all 50 U.S. states and more than 60 countries. In turn, the teachers we’ve trained have shared mindfulness practices with more than 300,000 students. Tim Ryan, a US Congressman from Ohio and Mindful Schools Advisory Board member, has called for the integration of mindfulness throughout our educational system. University researchers are actively evaluating the value of mindfulness in education and educational leaders are seeking to implement mindfulness programs in their school districts. What accounts for this rapid expansion of interest in integrating mindfulness into education?
Simply stated, teachers need tools and support to be effective in their work and maintain emotional well-being. Although the rewards can be profound, educators face job stresses that challenge the maintenance of emotional balance. Teachers are tasked with creating a structured learning environment that promotes academic achievement, intellectual curiosity and social-emotional development. Accountability to standardized learning outcomes intensifies the demands of teaching. Successfully meeting these objectives places a significant burden on teachers, especially with increasing class sizes and shrinking budgetary support. Unsurprisingly, more than 50% of teachers rate their work as very stressful. Nearly half of teachers leave the profession within the first five years and high rates of early retirement exist. These facts testify to the rigors of the profession.
Consequently, there is substantial interest in professional development that reduces stress and increases the job satisfaction of teachers. This is where mindfulness practice can help.
Mindfulness as an ‘Evidence-Based Intervention’
Enthusiasm for incorporating mindfulness in education follows a swift and broad integration of mindfulness practices in medical and mental health settings. A growing body of clinical and neuroscientific research supports the value of mindfulness practice. Numerous indicators of psychological health are positively impacted by mindfulness, notably, depression, anxiety and stress. A large clinical trial recently demonstrated that a mindfulness-based intervention offered similar protection against depression when compared to an antidepressant medication. Though still in a nascent phase, there is burgeoning interest in mindfulness for the enhancement of teacher well-being. Two clinical trials for secondary teachers evidenced positive effects of mindfulness training including increased self-compassion, improved cognitive abilities, and reduced occupational stress. Considered in combination with research from the health sciences, these findings suggest that mindfulness practice may help mitigate some of the burdens of the teaching profession.
What then, is mindfulness? Mindfulness is the capacity to attend to present moment experience in a receptive and open manner. It is a training in self-awareness and self-regulation. You learn thathow you attend to present moment – the quality of your attention and the attitude of your mind – has a deep impact on your experience. Importantly, these habits of attention are malleable – you can train yourself in ways that make a genuine difference in your personal and professional life.
We do this work one moment at a time. When you sit down with the simple mindfulness instruction to attend to present moment, you discover the various mental habits that run in the background without your conscious participation. Evolutionary pressures have forged a nervous system that is sensitized to threats. Even when we have ‘downtime’, we do our best to imagine steps we can take to avoid risk and maximize pleasure and security. Consequently, life can feel as if we should always be worrying about something. While these habits may be adaptive in some circumstances, perpetually seeking to optimize our environment is linked with lower levels of well-being.
In mindfulness practice, we develop ways of settling the mind and soothing the body. We relinquish the search for the perfect moment that will finally arrive at some time in the future. Rather than trying to manufacture ideal circumstances, we learn to settle into the present moment and discover the peace that arises when we abandon our attempts to improve what is here, now. These skills are especially relevant in the context of educational environments. As school leaders and teachers, we need ways to meet the demands of our work while maintaining emotional balance. We are more effective leaders when we are well-acquainted with our emotional responses to challenges and stress. As we cultivate mindfulness skills, we can quickly de-escalate ourselves when our buttons get pushed in the classroom or in a meeting.
We do this work for our own well-being but also for the benefit of our colleagues and students. As we enrich our understanding of our inner life, we increase our capacity to appreciate the inner lives of others. Empathic connection depends on the clarity with which we experience our own thoughts, feelings and intentions. As the landscape of our own inner life is clarified, we expand the range of experiences for which we can have empathy. This skill serves us well as we attempt to create learning environments that foster emotional safety.
A Path Forward
The speed and demands of the educational system can create inertia that encourages busyness. It might initially feel unnatural to pause and rest in mindfulness. Curiously, self-care can actually feel like a sacrifice. Thus, it is helpful to have support in this practice. Teaming up with a colleague to take a few minutes during the day to practice mindfulness can be helpful. Interspersing the day with very brief mindfulness exercises can also support you. Mindful Schools provides various free resources to educators that you are welcome to explore. In particular, we encourage you to check out Healthy Habits of Mind – a free film overviewing mindfulness and education featuring pioneering neuroscientist Richard Davidson. We have also added two videos for Education Week readers that include introductions to mindfulness practices. In the coming months, we will write another column that details the ways that mindfulness can be shared with students to support their own growing capacity for cultivating attention, self-regulation, and empathy. Please join us in supporting the self-awareness and well-being of educators and their students.
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More about our guest blogger:
Matthew Brensilver, PhD, is a trainer and course developer for Mindful Schools, one of the leading organizations in the U.S. integrating mindfulness into education. He holds a master’s degree in clinical social work and has done psychotherapy with adolescents, adults and groups. He received a PhD from USC, where his research investigated explanations of psychiatric comorbidity. He also teaches at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center on the intersection of mindfulness and psychotherapy.
Categories: Conscious Parenting