‘Mindfulness’ defuses stress in classrooms and teaching

Pilot data show training programs can be a boon to teachers — and their students


Mindfulness is being viewed as one strategy for helping teachers cope with the stress of managing both their classroom responsibilities and outside lives.


The bell rings at 7:40 a.m. in a public high school in New Jersey, and science teacher Laura McCluskey begins the first of what she calls “five shows a day.” On some mornings, those shows are more difficult than others. That’s due in part to a heavy load of paperwork, something that consumes large amounts of her time and energy.

Then there are the other, outside events that happen in McCluskey’s life. These can be stressful events that happen to everyone, such as family issues or health problems. In many professions, a person could stay in her office until she felt like interacting with people. But as a teacher, “I can’t hide behind a cubicle until I’m ready to be social,” McCluskey says. Instead, she has to be in front of a room full of teenagers all day.

Science teacher Laura McCluskey uses mindfulness techniques to focus her attention on teaching. L. McCluskey
“I have no choice but to be on my game,” she says. “My best game. Every day.”

McCluskey sometimes finds that difficult, however. So her daughter suggested she look into Calm Clarity. It’s a workshop offered in Philadelphia, Pa. Founded and run by Due Quach, the program teaches participants about the brain’s role in our behaviors. Participants then learn exercises in mindfulness.

Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment with a non-judgmental attitude. It helps people leave behind stressful events from the past — or anxiety about the future — while they focus on the task at hand. McCluskey decided to take a two-day workshop. And she wound up with the tools she needed to fully focus on her teaching. Other educators have taken similar steps to become more mindful. Studies show the practice can have major benefits for teachers — and their students.

A social-emotional approach to learning

The classroom can be a very stressful environment, says Patricia Jennings. She’s an education researcher at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “There are so many demands,” she says. “A teacher has to keep track of many children doing different things. At the same time, she has to remember and relay content within the allotted time.” Add in the kids’ emotional states and their relationships with each other, she says, and it’s a recipe for tension.

To make matters worse, she adds, “everyone is captive.” No one is allowed to leave the room when they feel a need to cool off.

Stressful classroom experiences are common. Along with organizational and support issues, stress is one of the reasons that 40 to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession after just five years, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. That leads to rapid turnover within schools, which in turn can hurt student performance.

teacher classroom
Mindfulness is one tactic some teachers are exploring. Many who have tried it say it helps them avoid the burnout that leads many young colleagues to walk away from teaching. monkeybusinessimages/istockphoto
But it doesn’t have to be this way, Jennings says. She and others are studying how simple mindfulness programs can improve the classroom environment by reducing teacher stress, increasing well-being and preventing burnout.

Keeping cool

Teachers have one goal, Jennings says: to help students learn assigned material within a specific time frame. But with so many other things happening inside and outside the classroom, teachers often struggle to meet that goal. For example, students might be goofing off or otherwise disruptive. Or they might be simply inattentive — a common side effect of missing breakfast, Jennings says. Such behaviors keep teachers from accomplishing their goals. And that can lead to frustration.

Irritation, frustration and resentment are all mild forms of anger, Jennings explains. The human body perceives a stressful situation as a “threat,” even if there is no physical danger. In response, the prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain involved in higher thought processing — shuts down. Another area of the brain — the amygdala — takes over to quickly get the person out of harm’s way.

When the human brain perceives a threat, the prefrontal cortex shuts down and the amygdala takes over. NIMH/Wikimedia Commons
And that’s a problem. Because the prefrontal cortex lets a person look at situations objectively, its shutdown can cause a teacher to take a student’s disruptive behavior personally. “It’s easy to imagine that kids are intentionally interfering with your lesson,” Jennings notes. “But in most cases, they’re just kids being kids.”

The key to avoiding such tension between teachers and students is to stay objective, Jennings says. That’s where mindfulness comes in.

Mindfulness has two components: directed attention and a non-judgmental attitude. Directed attention means deliberately focusing the attention on the present moment. Then a person can think about the events that are unfolding without judgment, Jennings explains.

Without training, most people don’t realize they are getting frustrated until it boils over and they overreact. Long-term, low-level stress like this can lead to exhaustion and eventual burnout. But recognizing emotions such as anger or frustration allows a person to defuse them.

Jennings came to this area of research after she experienced the benefits of mindfulness in her own elementary school teaching. She is now part of a group of researchers studying the impact of breathing, mindfulness meditation and mindful-listening exercises on teaching. They hope to develop training programs for educators that are based on science.

Emotional resilience

Jennings and a team of researchers developed the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE) program. They have tested it, so far, with 53 Pennsylvania teachers. Although all grade levels were represented, most were teaching elementary students.

The program randomly assigned teachers to one of two groups: the CARE program group or a wait-listed group. The latter acted as a control. At the beginning of the study, teachers in both groups completed questionnaires assessing their overall well-being, stress, mindfulness and teaching efficacy.

teacher classroom
This teacher learned mindful awareness techniques as part of the CARE study. Patricia Jennings/University of Virginia
The CARE program group then participated in five days of training over several months. Here, they learned breathing exercises to focus their attention. Then they learned to direct that attention toward other activities, such as standing in front of the classroom, walking and listening to others. Mindful listening exercises helped teachers learn how to listen to others without wanting to interrupt, to offer advice or to judge the speaker. They also learned about emotion: how it affects teaching and learning, and how to regulate their emotions using mindfulness.

During the weeks between training days, teachers applied what they’d learned back in their classrooms. At the end of the program, teachers in both the CARE and control groups again completed the battery of questions.

The results were striking. Teachers who participated in CARE training reported that their overall well-being was significantly better. Their stress levels had gone down, and they felt less time pressure. They also felt they had become more effective teachers and were better at engaging their students.

Mindful self-awareness seemed to be at the root of the changes, Jennings says. Teachers had learned to tune in to their bodies and to recognize when their emotions were getting in the way of good communication. Deep breaths then helped them to calm down, which let them be more attentive to their students’ needs.

Modulating the stress response

Other research agrees that teachers’ stress and effectiveness improve with mindfulness training, says Lisa Flook. She is a mindfulness researcher at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. In a study similar to CARE, Flook and her team used questionnaires to measure burnout, mindfulness and self-compassion in 18 teachers. They sent trained observers into the teachers’ classrooms to record teacher-student interactions. And they collected saliva samples to measure levels of cortisol in the teachers.

Cortisol is a stress hormone. It works to shut down processes in the body, such as digestion and the immune response, which are not essential to immediate survival. It then boosts blood sugar and prepares the body to fight, freeze or flee.

Cortisol is a stress hormone that works to shut down parts of the body not essential to immediate survival. Calvero/Wikimedia Commons
When a person faces physical danger, the hormone can mean the difference between life and death. However, the ordinary psychological stressors of modern life can cause the body to experience long-term shifts in cortisol. Those shifts may contribute to illnesses such as Type-2 diabetes and heart disease.

Ten teachers in Flook’s study group underwent eight weeks of mindfulness training — about 26 hours in all. The remaining eight teachers received no such training. Although both groups were essentially the same at the start of the study, they showed substantial differences by the end. Teachers in the mindfulness group reported that they were less depressed and anxious, more mindful and less hard on themselves. Observers found the teachers were better able to manage their classrooms and that they used their instructional time more efficiently.

Cortisol levels also changed.

Levels of the hormone follow a daily rhythm, peaking shortly after a person wakes in the morning, explains Flook. “It’s thought to be an adaptation to help us gear up to meet the demands of the day,” she says. Levels of the hormone then fall over the course of the day.

Teachers who went through the training experienced a stronger increase in cortisol early in the day. Teachers in the control group did not experience this increase. In fact, their morning cortisol levels dropped over the course of the study. That could reflect a dampening of the body’s response system, Flook notes.

“The training was developed to cultivate an open and receptive attention to direct experience,” Flook says. And it can help teachers maintain a sense of calm during difficult situations.

Mandy Montgomery agrees wholeheartedly. This elementary school counselor in Shawnee, Kan., uses mindfulness as part of her work. “I have less anxiety and don’t get as overwhelmed as quickly as I used to,” she says. “I am able to control my temper better and have an overall sense of peace most of the time.”

Montgomery has found mindfulness to be so effective that she now uses it with first-grade classes at the beginning of the school year. She teaches the students how to use breathing and mindful-listening techniques to calm themselves and focus their attention on their teachers.

Calmer classrooms

Combining programs for teachers with those for students leads to even stronger improvements in the classroom environment, says Kimberly Schonert-Reichl. She’s an educational psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Schonert-Reichl worked with a team of scientists to implement two programs — one for teachers and the other for students. The researchers recruited 14 teachers and 331 students in grades four through seven. They assigned each classroom to one of three treatments: student training only (a program called MindUP), teacher and student training or a wait-listed control group that received no training. The student MindUP program included not only mindful breathing and listening but also lessons on empathy, optimism, kindness and community service learning.

teacher student
When teachers and their students both begin to practice mindfulness, students became more empathetic toward each other. Also students seemed to learn better. gpointstudio/istockphoto
Early results show a significant improvement in mindfulness and a more positive attitude for both treatment groups, Schonert-Reichl says. Participants felt their classrooms were more supportive after the training. Students were more empathetic toward each other, and teachers and students felt closer.

What’s more, “there was value added by training both teachers and students,” Schonert-Reichl notes. “We saw a staircase effect.” Training students in breathing and mindful listening techniques led to better relationships and learning. Including teachers in the training further exaggerated those improvements. That was true for the self-reported results as well as classroom observations.

“I was skeptical when a colleague first approached me about this in 2004,” Schonert-Reichl says. But her first study convinced her of the benefits. “Kids told me it was one of the most useful things they’d learned,” she recalls. They reported using breathing and mindfulness techniques to prepare for sporting events or to go to sleep. And more than half of the participants in that first study said they had taught the practices to their family members.

“We are equipping kids with practical tools they can take anywhere,” she now says.

Schonert-Reichl, Jennings and other researchers are currently working on an even bigger project: the Compassionate Schools Program. It combines yoga, nutrition, mindfulness and social-emotional skills to foster more resilient and focused students, Jennings explains. The program is tailored to fit into existing health and physical education curriculums. And that should make it sustainable, she says.

The researchers are currently testing it in the Louisville, Ky., school system. Fifty schools — 20,000 children — are involved in the pilot project. Once the data are in and necessary tweaks have been made, the scientists will make the curriculum freely available to any school that may want it.

McCluskey, the science teacher, has already seen benefits from introducing mindfulness tools to her students. “Most of my students are looking for a way to focus and stay on track,” she says. “With mindfulness, students can train themselves to be in the moment.”

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

amygdala     Area deep within the brain and near the temporal lobe. Among other things, the amygdala plays a role in emotions. The term comes from the Greek word for an almond, which its shape resembles.

control     A part of an experiment where there is no change from normal conditions. The control is essential to scientific experiments. It shows that any new effect is likely due only to the part of the test that a researcher has altered. For example, if scientists were testing different types of fertilizer in a garden, they would want one section of it to remain unfertilized, as the control. Its area would show how plants in this garden grow under normal conditions. And that give scientists something against which they can compare their experimental data.

cortisol     A hormone produced in response to stress. Cortisol acts to suppress digestion and the immune system while preparing the body to fight, freeze or flee.

meditation    The practice of focusing on the present moment and experiences, such as breathing.

mindful listening      Focusing the attention on someone who is speaking while refraining from interrupting or interjecting other thoughts.

mindfulness      A state of active, open awareness of the present. It comes from observing thoughts and feelings from a distance and without judgment.

prefrontal cortex     A region containing some of the brain’s gray matter. Located behind the forehead, it plays a role in making decisions and other complex mental activities, in emotions and in behaviors.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Brain