Mindfulness for Teachers: A Program With Proof
Teachers across the country are preparing for a school year brimming with unprecedented challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. A likely byproduct? Teachers’ stress levels could soar, making an already-tough job tougher.
By now, it’s a truism that teaching is stressful. Researchers have increasingly documented that stress, in surveys and in the trails of burned-out teachers leaving the profession. In the last decade, many professional development programs have sprung up that use mindfulness as a key tool to alleviate teacher stress, but there’s little rigorous research on how well they work.
“We have many well-meaning and really amazing practitioners who develop these programs, but they don’t often have the scientific foundation to know how to evaluate a program with really rigorous approaches,” said Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a University of British Columbia professor who’s a widely cited expert in social-emotional learning, both for students and teachers.
One mindfulness-based program, however, has quietly assembled a strong and unique research base. Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education, or CARE, created in 2007 by scholars and mindfulness practitioners, claims two notable distinctions.
It’s the only mindfulness-based intervention for teachers that’s been subjected to research’s gold standard: a large-scale randomized controlled trial. And it’s the only one to be able to document that a mindfulness program can have positive effects not just on teachers’ states of mind, but on their interactions with students in the classroom.
In a 2017 study, a research team led by one of CARE’s developers, University of Virginia professor Patricia Jennings, focused on 224 New York City elementary school teachers. Half participated in five days of CARE training at their schools and phone coaching between sessions. The other half were wait-listed. Researchers interviewed the participating teachers before and after the training and observed their classroom interactions with students.
The teachers who participated in CARE were better than nonparticipants at regulating their emotions, and rated lower on measures of depression, anxiety, exhaustion, and feeling pressures. Researchers who observed their teaching characterized their interactions with students as more supportive and productive. A follow-up study found the positive effects lasted into the next school year.
Michelena McAnulty attended CARE training last summer in the Central Dauphin school district, outside Harrisburg, Pa., where she works as a K-5 speech and language therapist. McAnulty said techniques she learned, like slowing down and being aware of her emotions, have improved her professional life.
“I find that I’m not as reactive, not as much in that burned-out mode,” she said. “When I go into [individualized education plan] meetings, I talk more slowly. I’m calmer.
“Before, when I was with the kids, I could be kind of snappy with them if I was worried about other things. Now I can be more receptive to their needs, and I can adjust my teaching in the moment and respond.”
CARE offers a four-day summer training in upstate New York, as well as three-day trainings held in school districts. With the onset of COVID-19, the team is developing a remote version as well.
Spotting Stress and Triggers
Research shows that teachers’ feelings and attitudes can shape the way they view and interact with their students. One study showed that teachers’ moods influence the way they grade students’ papers, and that they’re unaware of that connection. A team led by Schonert-Reichl established in 2016 that students had higher levels of cortisol in their bodies—a key indicator of stress—in classrooms where teachers reported feeling burned out.
The key idea behind CARE training is to keep teachers’ feelings from having a negative impact in the classroom. To do that, trainers help teachers learn to recognize their emotions and manage them in ways that are positive both for themselves and their students.
They learn to tune in to bodily signs of stress, like neck pain or a headache, and to calm themselves with diaphragmatic breathing and meditation. They do simple exercises like counting their steps as they walk to help slow down and fully inhabit a given moment.
LaToshia Cannon, a special education teacher at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Washington, D.C., said she manages pressure at work much better since she took the training last year. She makes sure she takes a short break from everything when she eats lunch, instead of cramming a sandwich down while she makes copies. She counts her steps in the hallway.
“Those things give me energy back, almost like I took a nap,” she said.
But the trainings go deeper than that, too. Much of the time is devoted to helping teachers spot their triggers—the ways students push their buttons—and “scripts,” the meaning they attach to those interactions. They analyze how those upsets affect their classroom management, so the sessions can take on the feel of a therapist’s office.
‘I’ve Been Too Rigid’
In a video of one training, teachers walked through the “scripts” they often superimpose on students’ behavior: He’s doing that on purpose to piss me off. She’s late because she’s disrespectful.
In these trainings, Jennings sometimes shares a story about a student who used to disrupt her class years ago. She was always “hypervigilant, waiting for him to do something,” she said in an interview. One day, he poured glue on another child’s art project. Jennings swooped in with a punishment, thinking his actions were malicious.
Jennings realized later that he might have been seeking attention, or had other motivations, but she experienced his stunt as personal because she’d been bullied as a child. “It pushed a button for me,” she said.
Conversations like those in Cannon’s CARE training helped her realize that her past can lead her to be too harsh with students in the present. As a child, she was often embarrassed by her mother’s chronic tardiness. In the CARE workshop, Cannon made the connection: She is a little too sharp with children when they arrive late or don’t turn homework in on time.
“I’ve been too rigid on that issue,” Cannon said. “I see that now, and I’ve learned to relax.”
Cannon saw her struggles rear up again when her school switched to distance learning in March. She recognized that she likes structure, and she felt out of control. She was pulling inward, avoiding her students. She used CARE techniques to calm herself and reach out again.
Mark T. Greenberg, a Pennsylvania State University professor emeritus of human development and psychology who helped develop CARE, said he understands that some people see mindfulness as an exercise in fluff. But the goal of CARE “isn’t to have teachers just sit on a pillow and meditate,” he said. It’s to help them manage themselves so that they get the most from their jobs and bring the most to them.
It’s all about “taking a step back and looking at a situation differently,” said Christa Turksma, a psychologist who helped design CARE and now oversees trainings.
Learning to look at situations differently is valuable, and mindfulness techniques are an important self-care tool for teachers, said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. But attention is needed on another level, too.
To reduce teachers’ stress, policymakers must address the larger, structural issues that produce low pay, poor working conditions, and soaring student debt obligations, Weingarten said.
“Mindfulness doesn’t pay the bills,” she said.
As McAnulty heads into a school year she knows will be more challenging than most, she said she expects to draw heavily on her mindfulness and emotional-regulation strategies.
“We’re going to need increased awareness about the trauma our kids have experienced, and how we react to them,” she said. “We have to be receptive to their needs. But you can’t do that unless you take care of yourself first.”