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Study: Mindfulness training for teachers can result in a better learning environment for students

No one would argue with the fact that teach­ing is stress­ful. Not only is the work high­ly chal­leng­ing, teach­ers are also fre­quent­ly under­paid, under­val­ued, and sub­ject to harsh scruti­ny. No won­der teacher burnout is on the rise and that many feel like leav­ing their pro­fes­sion.

But teacher stress is not only a prob­lem for teach­ers; it can also be a prob­lem for stu­dents. Stressed teach­ers impact stu­dents’ stress lev­els through a con­ta­gion effect, and since stu­dent stress impacts learn­ing, this can hurt the qual­i­ty of edu­ca­tion in the class­room. Stu­dents learn bet­ter in a cli­mate that is more emo­tion­al­ly pos­i­tive and less stress­ful, and past stud­ies have shown a clear link between pos­i­tive emo­tion­al class­room cli­mates and aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment.

The Study

Now, a new study (details below) from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia pro­vides strong evi­dence that mind­ful­ness train­ing for teach­ers can help them cope bet­ter with stress on the job while also mak­ing the class­room envi­ron­ment more pro­duc­tive for learn­ing.

Two hun­dred and twen­ty-four teach­ers from 36 urban ele­men­tary schools in New York City with pri­mar­i­ly low-income/high-risk stu­dents were ran­dom­ly assigned to receive instruc­tion via a pro­gram called Cul­ti­vat­ing Aware­ness and Resilience in Edu­ca­tion (CARE), a 30-hour mind­ful­ness-based train­ing for teach­ers spread out over a four-month peri­od. The pro­gram involved train­ing in mind­ful aware­ness, stress reduc­tion, and emo­tion skills aimed pri­mar­i­ly at increas­ing teacher well­ness rather than improv­ing teach­ing, per se.

Teach­ers report­ed on their lev­els of well-being, mind­ful­ness, con­fi­dence in their teach­ing abil­i­ty, phys­i­cal health, and psy­cho­log­i­cal health before and after the pro­gram. In addi­tion, their teach­ing qual­i­ty was inde­pen­dent­ly mea­sured before and after­ward by raters who didn’t know which group of teach­ers they were observ­ing.

The Findings

Analy­ses showed that receiv­ing the CARE train­ing improved the teach­ers’ mind­ful­ness and their abil­i­ty to man­age anger and oth­er dif­fi­cult emo­tions, and low­ered their psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress and sense of time urgency—particularly impor­tant ben­e­fits in such stress­ful con­di­tions.

If you’re a teacher, you can’t walk out while you’re teach­ing; and if you’re a stu­dent, you can’t walk out, either—it puts a lev­el of pres­sure on teach­ers that I don’t think many peo­ple rec­og­nize,” says Patri­cia Jen­nings, the lead author of the study.

Per­haps more sur­pris­ing­ly, the study also found improve­ments in the emo­tion­al cli­mate of the class­room and increased class orga­ni­za­tion for those teach­ers who’d been through the train­ing. Those trained via CARE behaved dif­fer­ent­ly in the classroom—smiling more, ask­ing more ques­tions, remain­ing curi­ous about stu­dent mis­be­hav­ior rather than mov­ing toward pun­ish­ment, and tak­ing deep breaths and slow­ing down encoun­ters with stu­dents when annoyed rather than yelling.

After train­ing in CARE, you might see teach­ers take things less per­son­al­ly,” says Jen­nings.

But what’s most excit­ing to her is that these changes were accom­plished by train­ing teach­ers, not the stu­dents them­selves.

The inter­ven­tion total­ly focused on the teacher—we didn’t do any­thing for the kids at all,” says Jen­nings. “While we may want our kids to be mind­ful, tak­ing time out of the day to do mind­ful­ness with kids with­out inte­grat­ing it into the gen­er­al cur­ricu­lum is real­ly hard.”

Jennings’s study is the largest study to date look­ing at how mind­ful­ness train­ing impacts teacher well-being and the emo­tion­al cli­mate of their class­rooms. It adds to a grow­ing body of research sug­gest­ing that mind­ful­ness affects not only teacher stress, but also inter­per­son­al inter­ac­tions that can have an impor­tant impact on learn­ing.

I had a very strong sus­pi­cion that emo­tion­al reac­tiv­i­ty was inter­fer­ing with a teacher’s abil­i­ty to be their best, and that the solu­tion wasn’t just a mat­ter of teach­ing more skills, it was real­ly a mat­ter of teach­ing them to self-reg­u­late so they could be their best,” says Jen­nings.

Her future research plans include increas­ing the capac­i­ty for this kind of train­ing in schools, study­ing the impacts of com­bin­ing CARE with stu­dent-focused mind­ful­ness or social-emo­tion­al learn­ing train­ing, and look­ing at whether or not mind­ful­ness train­ing impacts implic­it bias or oth­er bar­ri­ers to effec­tive teach­ing. She hopes that stud­ies like hers will focus more atten­tion on the issue of teacher well-being.

I think it’s real­ly impor­tant for peo­ple to rec­og­nize that teach­ers need all of the sup­port they can get and that they need our help and not crit­i­cism,” says Jen­nings. “If we don’t turn the cor­ner on how we’re help­ing our teach­ers, we’re not going to have enough teach­ers to do the job.”

The studyImpacts of the CARE for Teach­ers Pro­gram on Teach­ers’ Social and Emo­tion­al Com­pe­tence and Class­room Inter­ac­tions (Jour­nal of Edu­ca­tion­al Psy­chol­o­gy)

  • Abstract: Under­stand­ing teach­ers’ stress is of crit­i­cal impor­tance to address the chal­lenges in today’s edu­ca­tion­al cli­mate. Grow­ing num­bers of teach­ers are report­ing high lev­els of occu­pa­tion­al stress, and high lev­els of teacher turnover are hav­ing a neg­a­tive impact on edu­ca­tion qual­i­ty. Cul­ti­vat­ing Aware­ness and Resilience in Edu­ca­tion (CARE for Teach­ers) is a mind­ful­ness-based pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment pro­gram designed to pro­mote teach­ers’ social and emo­tion­al com­pe­tence and improve the qual­i­ty of class­room inter­ac­tions. The effi­ca­cy of the pro­gram was assessed using a clus­ter ran­dom­ized tri­al design involv­ing 36 urban ele­men­tary schools and 224 teach­ers. The CARE for Teach­ers pro­gram involved 30 hr of in-per­son train­ing in addi­tion to inter­s­es­sion phone coach­ing. At both pre- and postin­ter­ven­tion, teach­ers com­plet­ed self-report mea­sures and assess­ments of their par­tic­i­pat­ing stu­dents. Teach­ers’ class­rooms were observed and cod­ed using the Class­room Assess­ment Scor­ing Sys­tem (CLASS). Analy­ses showed that CARE for Teach­ers had sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant direct pos­i­tive effects on adap­tive emo­tion reg­u­la­tion, mind­ful­ness, psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress, and time urgency. CARE for Teach­ers also had a sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant pos­i­tive effect on the emo­tion­al sup­port domain of the CLASS. The present find­ings indi­cate that CARE for Teach­ers is an effec­tive pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment both for pro­mot­ing teach­ers’ social and emo­tion­al com­pe­tence and increas­ing the qual­i­ty of their class­room inter­ac­tions.


Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is a book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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