As teachers, we are reminded daily of the impact of stress. Even today, as I sat down to write this article, I received an email from someone I teach whose teenage niece attempted suicide. These traumas and stories of trauma are part of our regular work as educators these days. At the same time, we may find ourselves in schools or institutions plagued by anxiety, depression, absenteeism, conflicts, or burnout. Closer to home, we as teachers may be struggling with our own quality of professional or personal life satisfaction in the face of these challenges. Such stresses and demands call for new solutions, and mindfulness is fast becoming an evidence-based cornerstone of these solutions.
At its core, mindfulness refers to a present-moment awareness free of judgment that leads to a shift from negative rumination to the awareness of sensation and the ongoing changing nature of experience. At the same time, through explicit training in curiosity, openness, and acceptance, mindfulness involves recognizing and reducing the negative, emotionally charged, and, in some cases, aversive responses we may have to experience. This process of shifting from judgment to curiosity is one indicator of the promise of mindfulness in education, suggesting that the goals of learning and mental health and well-being are not as distant as we might have once supposed. The fruits of the practice include improved self-regulation, well-being, and executive control.
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US increased suicide from the third to the second leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds. The same year, the Canadian Reference Group of ACHA released health survey results for 43,780 students from 41 higher education institutions in Canada. Over 42% of these respondents reported that stress significantly impacted their individual academic performance, leading to lower grades, dropping out of school, or disruptions in major projects, followed by anxiety (32.5%); sleep difficulties (28.4%); and depression (20.9%). In this respect, “student success” can no longer be viewed through a narrow achievement or cognitive lens but as their holistic, lifelong learning trajectory and well-being.
The Evidence: Benefits for Teachers
The evidence shows that mindfulness practices and programs, directly and indirectly, link to enhancing well-being in the lives of teachers, schools, and students. In mounting scientific research (see American Mindfulness Research Association), including studies using the most rigorous randomized controlled trials, mindfulness programs have been demonstrated to improve a range of indicators of subjective and objective well-being. Studies of teachers, for example, show increases in morale, mental health, and teacher-student relationships (Becker et al., 2017) and reductions in teachers’ occupational stress up to four months following an 8-week mindfulness training program (Stuart, 2015). Roiser et al. (2013) found reduced burnout and increased self-compassion in elementary teachers following an 8-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and Garner et al. (2018) found comparable benefits for preservice teachers. Many of these studies used Canadian participants and schools as research sites.
The Evidence: Benefits for Children and Youth
The research on the efficacy of mindfulness-based programs for children and youth is extensive and offers mounting evidence of a range of benefits. Flook et al. (2014) found improved social-emotional and report-card performance in pre-schoolers following a mindfulness program. Weijer-Bergsma (2012) found more brain flexibility in children following a mindfulness program; the children displayed more capacity to differentiate emotions, and teachers noted a friendlier, more respectful school environment. In a study of BC students who participated in MindUP, Schonert- Reichl (2015) found students displayed improved cognitive skills, executive functions, and empathy and fewer rule-breaking behaviours and fights; peers reported those who participated were more trustworthy and willing to share. Vohra et al. (2018) likewise found that, following a mindfulness program, youth who were in residential treatment for mental illness had improved mental health and adaptive skills, indicating the power of mindfulness to help troubled children and youth.
Mindfulness-Based Teaching and Learning (MBTL)
The thing is that mindfulness can’t be taught as mere information. It is not a curricular subject to consume and digest. It is a quality we need to embody in our own lives as teachers and in the cultures and lives of our classrooms and schools. Long before we introduce it as a curricular topic to the students we teach, we are asked to know the experience of mindfulness-based well-being in our own lives, however fleeting and tenuous it may at times seem. This is the wonderful thing about this reorientation on mindfulness-based well-being in education: it starts with me and you, as teacher-practitioners. It challenges us to recognize where self-compassion and well-being are compromised in our own lives and experiences and to address these before we try to teach them to others. In this respect, our professional lives become, first and foremost, about the cultivation and preservation of practices and cultures of well-being. The efficacy of these practices depends on our ability as teachers to recognize their value. This matters much more than teaching a range of mindfulness techniques to students.
MBTL is a new and exciting area in education attempting to systematically investigate through research and practice the most effective ways to teach and learn mindfulness. Emerging international standards on teaching competencies for mindfulness teachers are assisting the process, emerging from UK initiatives to support their extensive, nation-wide curricula for well-being and mindfulness in schools.
Mindful Schools / Mindful Communities Initiative
As a professor and teacher educator, I have long contemplated these questions, leading me in 2016 to launch the Mindful Communities Initiative with Mindful Schools as a core focus. I was inspired in this by the Mindful Nation UK initiative, led by the UK Parliament and aimed at investigating, and ultimately affirming, the potential of mindfulness programming in key public sectors (schools, healthcare, and criminal justice). In Canada, given our tricky federal system, the emphasis seemed better placed on building an equivalent initiative from the community-up, rather than from the nation-down. So, in 2016, in partnership with a range of community leaders in British Columbia, including from the Chilliwack and Abbotsford School Divisions, the Ministry of Child and Family Development, Chilliwack Healthier Communities, and Fraser Health, we launched a large outreach program.
Graduate Certificate in Mindfulness-Based Teaching and Learning
Now we are launching the next initiative at the University of the Fraser Valley: one of the first for-credit credentials in mindfulness in North America. This 12-credit, 10-month part-time program begins in September 2019 and is structured and designed to transfer readily into the M.Ed. Interdisciplinary at the University of Calgary. Both the graduate certificate and the work at the University of Calgary can be completed online with some face-to-face requirements in the summer. Although the certificate is a blended program, in all but one course, the face-to-face classes are accessible through virtual video-conferencing technologies. The intention is to bring a range of professionals, including teachers, health professionals, and social workers, into close communities of learning focused on linking research and practice in mindfulness-based approaches to teaching and learning. The program will be taught by me and Dr. Pat Rockman, a physician and Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto and co-founder of the Toronto-based Centre for Mindfulness Studies. Dr. Rockman is one of the lead trainers in North America certifying MBSR and MBCT facilitators.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Seonaigh MacPherson, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor and Head of Adult Education at the University of the Fraser Valley, where she trains teachers for a range of sectors, including Mindfulness-Based Teaching and Learning, Adult Education, TESL and Workplace Education.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2019 issue.