One of the most promising applications of mindfulness today is in grade-school classrooms, where the rise of bullying and other forms of antisocial behavior has alarmed parents, teachers, and government leaders. While efforts are under way to teach simple forms of meditation to schoolchildren, the most promising initiatives focus on using contemplative techniques to help teachers reduce stress and improve their emotional awareness, concentration, and responsiveness.
“We will provide a great service if we can help teachers apply mindfulness to their emotions in the intense classroom environment,” said Patricia Jennings, director of the Garrison Institute’s Initiative on Contemplation and Education and a research associate in the Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University. “If teachers can notice the emotion within their body, they can stop and make choices. Instead of seeing children with challenging behavior as problems, they can experience them as suffering human beings who need compassion. Over time, that will change how they lead their classrooms.”
“Prevention research” focuses on preventing a host of negative outcomes—drug abuse, eating disorders, violence, and suicide, to name a few—that can result in part from difficult school environments. In some quarters, contemplative practices are regarded as a subset of this growing field, which is one factor that is helping to spur the development of contemplative education as a mainstream discipline.
Garrison’s professional development program for teachers, Cultivating Awareness and Resiliency in Education (CARE), recently received a major grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences (IES). The CARE program helps teachers learn skills that can transform the classroom environment into one that fosters not only academic but also social and emotional development. The curriculum combines exercises for recognizing emotional patterns—one’s own and others’—with contemplative practices such as mindfulness meditation. Jennings developed the program in conjunction with Richard Brown, chair of the Contemplative Education Department at Naropa University; Christa Turksma, prevention consultant at Penn State; and other researchers, educators, psychologists, and experts in contemplative practice.
To date, CARE training has been piloted in school districts in Denver, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. The federal grant of about $930,000 will fund further development and evaluation of the program over a two-year period in rural and suburban elementary schools in central Pennsylvania. (About $290,000 of the grant goes directly to Garrison.) For the first time, data will be collected on how CARE affects students in the classroom. The number of classrooms studied will be much larger and will be drawn from a wider range of school districts than the previous pilots.
“This grant is very good news for the growth of this field,” said Jennings, who will be the principal investigator for the project. “There is no precedent for funding this kind of work. Surprisingly, there has been very little research into what is required to be a good teacher in terms of the psycho-social skills needed to run a good classroom and foster a healthy class climate and good student-teacher relationships.”
In addition to long-term studies within schools, Jennings told me, the Garrison program is focused on “developing the field of contemplative education. We need to define what it means, identify those who are working in this area, help them communicate with each other, and develop our work in a way that is secular and testable, so that it can be applied in the school districts that educate the majority of children in North America.”