Teaching teachers mindfulness to foster education, improve well-being

University Park, Pa. -- Teachers who encounter stressful classroom situations can become upset and their teaching may suffer. However, by analyzing teachers' emotional reactions in the classroom and how those emotions affect teaching, Patricia Jennings developed innovative teaching methods to help teachers from preschool through college.

Jennings, research associate, Penn State's Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development, looks at 'mindfulness' -- maintaining awareness of one's thoughts and emotions -- as a way to reduce stress and improve performance.

"Many new teachers have problems managing their behavior when they get upset by challenging student behaviors," says Jennings. "Oftentimes, they end up resorting to punitive and harsh responses, which can lead to power struggles with children and derail learning."

Starting in May 2009, Jennings will spend two years finalizing and testing a professional development program, Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE), funded by a $932,361 grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute for Educational Sciences. CARE was developed at the Garrison Institute, where Jennings is director of the Initiative on Contemplation and Education.

CARE stresses the importance of emotional awareness and self-regulation when interacting with students. This empowers teachers to make calm, effective responses to children's behavior rather than unconscious reactions that are often ineffective. During the first year, researchers will measure the results of the CARE program through surveys and focus groups of elementary school teachers participating in the program. They want to establish which aspects of CARE are most effective in improving teacher-student interactions and relationships, and to develop the parts of CARE that help foster an optimal educational environment.

Researchers will spend the second year observing teachers in the classroom, before and after the teachers have completed CARE. The researchers will measure disruptive behavior, student compliance, cooperation, communication, problem-solving, interest level, focus, and responsiveness.

By giving teachers the skills to be aware of their emotions and observing the results, Jennings is hoping to understand better which factors are associated with effective teaching.

"Many people think that good teaching is most associated with such factors as years of teaching experience or the amount of training a teacher has received. Those are important factors, but if a teacher doesn't respond and interact with their students in a way that fosters a positive learning environment, then the education tends to get left behind," says Jennings.

Researchers will also evaluate the self-reported social-emotional status of teachers. They will determine whether the teachers have problems with sleep, anxiety, depression, or caring for themselves.

"Even the most caring of teachers are known for ignoring themselves," says Jennings. "This can be problematic. About 50 percent of teachers leave the profession after only five years. By teaching skills on how to be more self-aware, we hope to lower this number, and increase the number of positive role models in our education system."

In the pilot study that helped secure funding for her project, Jennings saw success with CARE.

"An English teacher in a Philadelphia school hit a wall of resistance from her students one day. The students were not interested in her grammar lesson and they became disruptive. Through her own practice with mindfulness, the teacher was able to calm herself down and not react with anger, and in doing so, she was able to tune in to her students and really listen to their complaints with genuine interest. After an open discussion with her students she decided to shift her lesson in response to these feelings. The students were enthusiastic about the new assignment, and the teacher helped them channel their frustration into a creative outlet."

That teacher was able to avoid frustration, and in doing so reduced her stress levels and encouraged learning in the classroom. Those are the results that Jennings is hoping to see and promote through CARE.

CARE was developed by Jennings, Richard Brown, chair of the Contemplative Education Department at Naropa University, and Christa Turksma, prevention consultant. The evaluation will be performed simultaneously in Harrisburg and State College schools. Additional courses on mindfulness are available through the Garrison Institute (www.garrisoninstitute.org).

Any elementary school teachers interested in being a part of the CARE evaluation can contact Patricia Jennings at paj16@psu.edu or (814) 863-8207.
 

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Last Updated April 05, 2010