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October 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 2

Bringing Mindfulness to Teacher PD

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Social-emotional learning
Professional Learning
Most educators encounter any number of stresses during a typical day in the classroom. They may face pressure from administrators to meet unrealistic expectations, experience frustration when students act out or shut down, or feel stretched beyond limit by extensive meetings and other noninstructional demands on their time.
These daily stresses alone, we now know, are comparable to those that emergency room physicians experience (Greenberg, Brown, & Abenavoli, 2016).
And such day-to-day burdens come on top of the more systemic sources of stress for educators—comparatively low pay and lagging professional status; growing instructional demands and mandates; increasingly complex student needs, including trauma and the effects of poverty; a lack of appreciation from parents, community members, and lawmakers; budget cuts that threaten sources of support; and increasingly limited opportunities for professional development.
In all, teaching is one of the most stressful occupations in the United States—and our educators are left with few resources to address their intensifying situation. Studies over the past decade document how this vicious combination has led to high levels of teacher burnout and turnover (Berryhill, Linney, & Fromewick, 2009).
But what if our teachers had practical strategies at their disposal to better manage their stress—for example, the awareness to pause, take three deep breaths, and critically assess the situation? This simple ability to respond, rather than react, is at the heart of mindfulness training, a rapidly growing, evidence-based approach to reducing educators' stress. Mindfulness can't solve the systemic and societal challenges today's schools face—but it can give educators the presence of mind they need to manage their emotions and address classroom problems more constructively.

SEL for Educators

Mindfulness empowers teachers to approach stressful situations with techniques to calm their body and mind—and then apply a heightened sense of self-awareness to assess the problem and modulate their emotions accordingly. When students get upset, for example, mindful educators do not instantly match that emotion and exacerbate the situation; instead, they take a moment to reflect on their thoughts and emotions so they can respond with a reasoned approach.
Consider the story of an elementary school teacher who used to instantly lash out at one of her 2nd grade students for continual lateness and subsequent outbursts of laughter. After participating in a mindfulness program for teachers, this educator confronted an entrenched notion from her childhood that lateness conveyed a sense of personal disrespect—and realized it was this belief that drove her instinctual anger at the student and the accompanying stress she felt about the situation.
The next school day, the teacher took a different approach. She chose to modulate her emotional response and have a one-on-one conversation with the student around the reasons for her tardiness. She soon learned that the 7-year-old girl had to get herself to school every morning due to her mother's irregular working hours. With this critical context, the teacher's prior feelings of anger quickly gave way to concern and compassion. And from this new perspective, she could recognize that the girl's laughter wasn't intentionally rude, but rather a defense mechanism she used to hide her embarrassment at being judged and criticized by the teacher (Jennings, 2015).
This type of shift in awareness can form the basis of a supportive learning environment defined by empathy, emotional understanding, collaboration, and compassion—several of the cornerstones of social-emotional learning (SEL).
We know by now that SEL has significant positive impacts for our students. Researchers at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning have found after decades of study that students who develop social-emotional skills show improved academic performance and classroom behavior (Durlak et al., 2011). Additional studies illustrate that students whose social-emotional capabilities are developed in childhood are more likely to graduate from high school and earn a college degree, demonstrate stronger relational skills, and set and achieve goals (Jones et al., 2015).
However, we tend to overlook the comparable impact SEL can have on educators' well-being and success. Consider the possibilities if teachers could quickly deploy tools to assess and manage their emotional response in moments of stress. Imagine if we promoted opportunities for educators to demonstrate problem solving, compassion, and empathy in the classroom. And think of the impact of embedding self-care and resilience in our teachers' professional development programs.
With such resources, educators could develop the inner strength to be more powerfully present and emotionally responsive in their classrooms. And in turn, they could not only become more effective teachers, but also influential models of healthy social-emotional behavior for our students.

Taking Care

It was with that fundamental premise that I co-created the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience for Educators (CARE) program more than a decade ago. I was determined to expand the scope of professional development for educators to promote awareness, presence, compassion, reflection, and inspiration—the inner resources teachers need to help students flourish socially, emotionally, and academically. CARE, developed at the Garrison Institute and now delivered to educators by the nonprofit CREATE for Education, is the first mindfulness program researched through funding from the U.S. Department of Education—and with a specific focus on teachers.
Informed by research on the neuroscience of emotion, the CARE curriculum—which is delivered to educators in workshops and a summer retreat at the Garrison Institute—features small-group and role-playing activities to help educators practice the art of listening and conducting difficult conversations with a fellow teacher, student, or parent. It includes mindful-awareness practices to empower educators to develop techniques for self-calming, reflection, and self-awareness. And it provides exercises to help teachers recognize and address their triggers, the instigators that may shape an inappropriate emotional reaction and escalate a situation.
The CARE program is based on the premise that given opportunities to develop emotional awareness and focus on self-care, educators can be more responsive and present for their students. And when teachers are less stressed, students are as well—and their academic performance stands to benefit.
Research bears this out. Our large-scale, randomized study of CARE's impact on 224 educators in 36 high-poverty schools in New York City found that, over a calendar year, educators who had participated in the program experienced decreased psychological distress, while their mindful-awareness increased and emotional regulation improved (Jennings et al., 2017a; Jennings et al., 2017b). We also found that, in comparison with their control group peers, CARE-trained educators demonstrated greater sensitivity to students' needs and created learning environments that were more emotionally supportive. Their classrooms were also more highly rated for engagement in learning (Jennings et al., 2017a; Brown et al., 2017).

The Little Things

Nicole Willheimer, an educator at P.S. 140 in the Bronx, told NPR that CARE training helped her become more attuned to the needs of her students (Kamenetz, 2016). When one of her students fidgets and displays restlessness, for example, Willheimer now recognizes that this may serve as a coping mechanism for underlying attention difficulties—and can offer an outlet that the student can use to channel that nervous energy. When she gets a call from an administrator, she doesn't rush frantically to the meeting, but instead practices "mindful walking," focusing in the moment, collecting her thoughts, and bringing a calm demeanor to the conversation.
Another CARE participant, Gabrielle, attests she is now able to make a deliberate choice to withhold an outburst of anger when it seems as if her students are misbehaving. Upon appraising the situation, she often realizes that her students are just particularly excited about the subject matter. She moves on, and her stress levels fall in turn (Sharp & Jennings, 2016).
Educators like Nicole and Gabrielle are bringing the lessons learned from CARE to their colleagues, recognizing the critical role that emotional management can play in teachers' stability and effectiveness.
This speaks to one particularly promising finding from our research: Educators' cognizance of and ability to modulate emotions can inform their overall sense of well-being (Sharp & Jennings, 2016). In CARE, teachers learn how to recognize and regulate strong emotions using healthy strategies such as mindful re-appraisal, which helps them calm down and maintain perspective.
As one individual in a focus group of CARE program participants noted, "Emotions are such an innate part of who we are that [they need] to be part of what we do and how we teach …. Why not admit it and recognize it and respect it so that we can respond better?"

The Path Forward

Our experience with CARE suggests that it's critical to embed an intentional, integrated focus on mindfulness and social-emotional learning into professional development programs. Educators across grade levels, as well as such support staff as counselors and psychologists, should have ample opportunities to engage in experiential learning around mindfulness, self-care behaviors, and de-stressing techniques with peers. Imagine if at every juncture of a student's support system, adults in the building could calmly appraise a difficult situation, empathize with the student's plight, and constructively work together to develop a solution that addressed underlying conditions. By introducing opportunities to coordinate educators' and support staff members' approaches to high-stress situations, school leaders can create a climate in their building that enables our students to learn and flourish—and our teachers to thrive in their work.
This type of training should also be a standard part of teacher-preparation programs, providing opportunities for emerging educators to bring mindfulness to their new practice. Indeed, mindfulness and social-emotional preparedness is critical for novice teachers as they begin to navigate the often overwhelming challenges of heading a classroom. By investing resources in this training early in the teacher pipeline, we can begin to address the burnout problem that is draining the profession.
While the CARE program and a broader focus on mindfulness in educational practice may not change the fact that teaching is inherently a stressful job, it does change how educators see their work, the importance of self-care, and their ability to respond effectively to challenges. As one CARE participant notes, "This is the first time that we heard you need to take care of yourself—and that is how you, and your students in turn, can succeed."

Berryhill, J., Linney, J. A., & Fromewick, J. (2009). The effects of education accountability on teachers: Are policies too stress provoking for their own good? International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership, 4(5). Retrieved from

Brown, J. L., Jennings, P. A., Cham, H., Rasheed, D., Frank, J. L., Doyle, S., … Greenberg, M. T. (March, 2017). CARE for Teachers: Direct and mediated effects of a mindfulness-based professional development program for teachers on teachers' and students' social and emotional competencies. In (J. Downer, Chair) Social and emotional learning in educational settings invited symposium: Role of teacher well-being & stress in the classroom. Presented at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE) Annual Conference, Washington, D.C.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students' social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.

Greenberg, M. T., Brown J. L., & Abenavoli, R. M. (2016). Teacher stress and health effects on teachers, students, and schools. [Video]. Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, Pennsylvania State University.

Jennings, P. A. (2015) Mindfulness for teachers: Simple skills for peace and productivity in the classroom. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Jennings, P. A., Brown, J. L., Frank, J. L., Doyle, S., Oh, Y., Davis, R., … Greenberg, M. T. (2017a). Impacts of the CARE for Teachers program on teachers' social and emotional competence and classroom interactions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(7), 1010–1028.

Jennings, P. A., Brown, J. L., Frank, J. L., Doyle, S., Oh, Y., Davis, R., … Greenberg, M. T. (2017b). The long-term effects of the CARE for Teachers program on teachers' wellbeing and classroom quality: Results from a randomized controlled trial. In (R. Roeser, Chair) Teacher, classroom and student impacts of teacher mindfulness programs in elementary and middle school settings. Symposium presented at the American Education Research Association Annual Conference, San Antonio, TX.

Jones, D. E., Karoly, L. A., Crowley, D. M., & Greenberg, M. T. (2015). Considering valuation of noncognitive skills in benefit-cost analysis of programs for children. Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis, 6(3), 471–507.

Kamenetz, A. (2016, August). When teachers take a breath, students can bloom. nprEd Blog. Retrieved from

Sharp, J. E., & Jennings. P. A. (2016). Strengthening teacher presence through mindfulness: What educators say about the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE) program. Mindfulness, 7, 209–218.

 Patricia "Tish" Jennings, a former teacher and school leader, is an associate professor of education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and an internationally recognized leader in the areas of social-emotional learning, teacher stress, and mindfulness. She led the teams that developed and studied the CARE program and is the author of Mindfulness for Teachers (2015) and The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom (2018, both from Norton).

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