Mindfulness practices may reduce stress in the classroom
May 5, 2020
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In this time of heightened anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a Penn State education professor is undertaking community-engaged research and planning to convene conferences after social distancing restrictions have been lifted to investigate how educators can adopt mindfulness practices to keep stress at bay.
Stress is common among teachers even under normal circumstances, and the upheaval caused by the coronavirus crisis has undoubtedly magnified the typical struggles. With schools across the U.S. currently shut down due to social distancing mandates and most classes now being conducted remotely, it is more important than ever for teachers, as well as students, to effectively deal with stress.
“If mindfulness is less a practice and more a way of being, what is the way of being that helps us in a time of crisis?” said Deborah Schussler, associate professor of education in the Department of Education Policy Studies in the College of Education. “How can we have a sense of calm when everything around us seems uncertain and changing, and also scary?”
Schussler, who is also an affiliate at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center (PRC) and Rock Ethics Institute, was a high school English teacher for five years before becoming a teacher educator. Her research interests include exploring how prospective teachers acquire the necessary dispositions to meet the needs of all learners.
When she came to Penn State, she said, she started working with people in PRC who were studying social-emotional learning and mindfulness interventions, and saw overlap with her own work. She is particularly interested in how mindfulness techniques can be used to help students and educators with issues such as emotion regulation and awareness of thoughts, bodies and feelings.
Conferences to explore mindfulness in education
Earlier this spring, Schussler received a Spencer Conference Grant of just under $50,000 to bring together a group of international scholars and school-based practitioners to address the following: What are the core components of effective mindfulness-based interventions and what factors support or inhibit whole-school implementation? The Conference Grant Program provides support to scholars to organize small research conferences, focused symposia, or other forms of convenings around important issues in education.
Under the grant, Schussler plans to bring together about 25 people — researchers, community members and educators, possibly sometime in spring 2021 — for a weekend conference at a retreat center outside Philadelphia. Schussler will facilitate the conference with co-principal investigator Julia Mahfouz, an assistant professor in the Department of Leadership and Counseling at the University of Idaho, who received her doctorate from Penn State College of Education in 2017, and Sebrina Doyle, a doctoral candidate in educational leadership in Penn State’s Department of Education Policy Studies.
The agenda for the conference is to outline a conceptual paper with a research agenda, as well as develop a website that will include resources for both researchers and practitioners interested or already implementing mindfulness programs in schools. “It’s bringing all these people together to try to answer these questions,” Schussler said. “It’s having these diverse participants think about these same kinds of questions to try to bring all of that knowledge together.”
In addition, Schussler and colleagues from the Prevention Research Center, Rob Roeser, Bennett Pierce Professor of Compassion and Caring, and Damon Jones, associate research professor, are tentatively planning to convene a small conference in October on the University Park campus (or remotely), funded by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation.
At the conference, educators will be discussing ways to assess and measure the effectiveness, quality and impact of current mindfulness programs and practices in the classroom. The two conferences will help answer different but complementary questions about how mindfulness is studied and practiced in educational settings.
Schussler, who has helped implement mindfulness-based interventions for both K-12 students and educators, said that such programs are relatively new in schools so there is some doubt about how effective they are in reducing stress among students and teachers.
One of the problems, she said, is that programs that focus narrowly on a certain demographic “tend to fizzle and die out.” The purpose of the conference she is planning under the Spencer grant is to investigate the challenges and issues of implementing mindfulness interventions systemically — either in an entire school or district.
Another question that Schussler would like to address at the conferences, she said, is whether different types of mindfulness interventions are more or less effective depending on the geographical locations of the schools, the socioeconomic backgrounds and developmental levels of the students, and the background of the teachers. For example, the same program could have markedly different effects at a middle school in rural Pennsylvania versus a high school in inner city Baltimore.
“Are there modifications that seem to be really important when you implement an intervention in different sociocultural contexts?” Schussler said.
Exploring the impacts of yoga-based interventions
Schussler recently conducted research on the impacts of a larger-scale, whole-school mindfulness intervention — precisely the type of program that she hopes to explore further in the conference supported by the Spencer Conference Grant. She has a new study on the Community Approach to Learning Mindfully (CALM) program for teachers — which incorporates yoga-based relaxation techniques into their workdays — published in Psychology in the Schools.
The article was co-authored with colleagues Alexis Harris, assistant professor of education in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, and Mark Greenberg, Edna Peterson Bennett Endowed Chair at PRC and professor of human development and psychology in the College of Health and Human Development. Using focus groups based on levels of attendance, this qualitative study examined how educators with different levels of attendance perceived their experiences in the CALM program.
CALM is administered by Creating Resilience for Educators, Administrators and Teachers (CREATE), which was “established in 2018 as a non-profit organization to serve educators with evidence-based programs and practices to nurture healthy, caring, equitable school communities that support social and emotional learning and teacher and principal wellness.” CALM was originally designed as support for educators — including all faculty and staff in the school building, and has been adapted for the support of staff and administrators working in long-term care settings (termed CALM II).
According to CREATE’s website, CALM has been implemented in K-12 schools in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Ohio and Kentucky. Since the original pilot research was conducted by Schussler and colleagues in two Pennsylvania middle schools, CALM has been implemented in other school districts, such as Cleveland Metro Schools, Red Clay Schools in Delaware and in 25 schools in Jefferson County, Kentucky as part of the Compassionate Schools Project — the most comprehensive study ever undertaken of a 21st century health and wellness curriculum in an elementary or secondary school setting.
For the CALM study, two middle schools volunteered to be considered for the trial with one serving as the intervention, and one as a wait-list control school. Educators who volunteered to participate had the opportunity to attend the CALM program in the school auditorium at the beginning of the workday, four days per week for 17 weeks. The 20-minute sessions consisted of intentional breathing practices, gentle yoga movement, mindful awareness practices and setting positive intentions for the teaching day.
In an initial study examining changes from before to after participating in CALM, educators who were offered CALM attended an average of 1.7 sessions per week. Compared to the control group, educators participating in CALM reported greater mindful observation, improved wellbeing, more positive emotions and fewer physical symptoms (like headaches and stomach aches). In addition, findings showed that educators handled distress more easily, felt better able to manage their classrooms and experienced less time pressure and burnout.
Schussler’s research used focus group interviews to understand how and why these changes occurred, based on how often participants attended the CALM sessions. The research addressed three specific questions: (a) What program outcomes did educators with different levels of attendance describe after participating in CALM? (b) How did educators with different levels of attendance describe developing resilience to negative outcomes like stress and burnout and improving their well‐being, if at all? and (c) How did educators perceive program acceptability?
Finding CALM in the storm
Through her interviews with the CALM participants, Schussler said, she was surprised that many of them reported feeling a high degree of camaraderie with other educators who had attended the sessions. Some reported that when passing fellow CALM participants in the school halls, they shared nonverbal communication about practices they had learned in the sessions — such as taking a deep breath or doing a certain yoga pose.
“They were reminding each other, just by a look, of things they were doing in CALM that served the purpose of reinforcing these positive outcomes,” she said. “I think they really kind of craved that collegiality.”
Through her interviews, Schussler said, she discovered that some of the largest differences in attitudes about the CALM program occurred between the low attenders and the higher-attending groups. While it was by a relatively small margin, the low attenders had the least prior experience with yoga and seemed to maintain a different set of expectations for what benefits they would receive from the program.
“Their interest was more on relief of stress than on mindfulness or the somatic experience, as it was for the more consistent attenders,” the authors wrote in the article.
Additionally, some low attenders said the early morning classes were inconvenient and said they might attend more often if it was offered after school. However, when a trial program was held after school, there was little to no interest.
According to Schussler, the differences in attitudes between the lowest attenders and the other groups could be used as a starting point for tailoring the CALM program to individual needs.
“We tend to think of programs as being universal. It’s easier to think about ‘what can we do that we can give to everybody?’” she said. “However, the research is bearing out that not everybody is at the same starting point -- who’s actually ready for this kind of program?”
In addition to analyzing the CALM participants’ expectations and perceived benefits of the program, Schussler and her colleagues also sought to find out what, if any, practices they found to be the most helpful. They discovered that while some participants liked or disliked specific practices, such as partner work or “mindful walking,” there was little correlation between those opinions and their overall enjoyment of the program.
“Despite some divergence and some consensus, what seemed most important was that educators understood why they were engaging in particular activities and that it achieved outcomes that aligned with their expectations, namely achieving a sense of physical, emotional and mental well‐being,” the authors wrote in the article.
The CALM study is a useful model for the types of wide-reaching mindfulness programs that Schussler said she would like to explore further in the conference arranged through the Spencer Conference Grant and Robert Woods Johnson Foundation. Helping students and teachers accept uncertainty in their lives, as well as instilling compassion and empathy for one another, are among the benefits of implementing similar programs in other schools.
“If those kinds of things are built into the fabric of the school, as opposed to just a few people, it’s so much more effective,” she said.