Over the course of three years, dozens of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade teachers at a large urban school district in the Pacific Northwest agreed to participate in a randomized controlled trial.
Twenty-nine of the teachers were selected to serve as a control group and were put on a waitlist. Meanwhile, 29 other teachers were invited to participate in an eight-week, ten-session mindfulness training program that is based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s widely used Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. These teachers were taught strategies for handling stressful situations.
“We often think that what mindfulness helps us to do is to put a little space between what happens, what scientists would call stimulus onset, and then our response,” says Robert W. Roeser, lead author of the recently published study and the Bennett Pierce Professor of Care and Compassion in the College of Health and Human Development at Pennsylvania State University. “Mindfulness gives us a little bit more of a presence and a pause. And then we also teach the teachers about how to work with emotions like fear, compassion, kindness, and anger. So directly thinking about the emotional nature of their work, and how to work with these difficult emotions.”
The training also examined the importance of forgiveness. “We see forgiveness as a critical skill in everyone's life. Because we're all in these social relationships and you know, ruptures happen. It's just sort of part of life,” Roeser says.
The training stuck with the teachers who received it. Four months after the program concluded, they reported greater occupational self-compassion and less job stress and anxiety, as well as less emotional exhaustion and depression, than the teachers in the control group. While there were no observed differences in the quality of teachers’ interactions with students in their most stressful classrooms, the teachers who received mindfulness training had better classroom organization than the control teachers.
Though small, the randomized controlled design of the study adds powerful weight to previous evidence that mindfulness training is a worthwhile intervention in schools. It is also particularly important to understand the potential of these types of interventions during the pandemic era as teacher stress and burnout has skyrocketed.
Caring for Caregivers
“One of the ideas behind the study is this idea of caring for caregivers,” says Roeser. “There may be a set of skills that we don't normally teach in professional development, or even teacher education programs, that could help teachers manage and work skillfully with the daily stressors of being a teacher.”
People whose job includes looking after others, including teachers, are often at greater risk of stress and burnout, Roeser says. “Those in the human service professions are much more likely to show stress and what we would call internalized distress disorders – anxiety and depression – than people in other professions, and that's particularly true in education where most of the teachers are women. That kind of manifestation of distress is a bit more common among women.”
His team’s previous research has found that mindfulness can help overcome these challenges and that mindfulness training for teachers can reduce feelings of stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression, and improves a sense of self-compassion. It also helps them understand that,“‘Yeah, I'm struggling, but that's part of the deal and everyone struggles,’” Roeser says. “We also found some nice effects that spilled over to the home. Teachers reported thinking and worrying about work less when they went home, and they actually slept a little longer and better.”
Implications and Additional Research
Further research can help fine-tune mindfulness training for teachers and students. In particular, mindfulness programs need to be culturally responsive, Roeser says. In addition, more engaging mindfulness programs can be designed for children or students. Instead of having kids sit quietly and meditate indoors, he’d like to see child-centered mindfulness programs that get kids outside learning to appreciate nature and enjoying tactile experiences such as digging in the soil.
Furthermore, even though targeting individual teachers can help, Roeser believes mindfulness programs will be more powerful when implemented system-wide as part of the curriculum.
“These programs are often add-ons to what the teachers are already doing, and that in and of itself can sometimes be stressful,” he says. “How could we move being present and being kind into the very DNA, the very life of a school, so that it's in math, and you're talking about empathy and compassion in your English class? We don't want it to be an add-on, we want it to just be how we do it here, how we do teaching and learning. We're thoughtful. We're reflective. We're cooperative. We're supportive.”