by Bryn Spence and Mairi McDermott
Bryn Spence, MEd [corresponding author] - University of Calgary
Dr. Mairi McDermott, PhD - University of Calgary
Mindfulness Based Practice (MBP) has been gaining attention as an effective, universal support for children and adolescents. Although it is becoming a commonly-implemented strategy in many of today’s classrooms, an essential first step for this implementation is the engagement of the teacher as a learner themselves. Careful attention must be given to the implementation process of MBP to reduce the impact on teacher workload. The review and analysis of peer-reviewed and publicly-consumable data sources reveals several common themes necessary to support the implementation of MBP. The analysis of these themes, as part of this study, suggests that the use of voluntary approaches to implementation, ensuring a base level of practice on the part of the teacher, and identifying effective and accessible curriculum are critical components to the successful implementation of MBP. These themes form the central considerations of any implementation of MBP in a school or classroom environment.
Keywords: mindfulness, teacher workload, teacher efficacy, teacher practice
Today’s classroom is a multifaceted interaction of learning and emotions all jockeying for a teacher’s attention and focus. Teachers, as a result, are required to wear many hats; they are instructional guides, learners, therapists, and in some cases parents. Pillay, Goddard, and Willis (2005) note that a plethora of demands placed on teachers beyond those typically associated with the role of a classroom teacher such as instruction and assessment cause additional stresses and challenges not previously dealt with by the teaching profession. It is therefore critical that, when new strategies or supports are implemented, these new strategies minimize the overall impact to the teacher’s workload and help improve the successful implementation of the approach.
One approach that has shown significant promise helping teachers meet the needs of a variety of students is the implementation of the practice of mindfulness (Bostic, Nevarez, Potter, Prince, Benningfield, & Aguirre, 2015). Mindfulness helps students develop the ability to be present in the moment and to regulate their emotions, which in turn allows them to be engaged and active participants in their learning (Semple, Reid, & Miller, 2005). Several considerations are important to address when implementing mindfulness within a classroom or school environment to ensure that teachers’ workloads are not significantly impacted or that detract from the overall effectiveness of support for students.
Problem of Practice
The implementation of MBP within a school environment has been shown to have positive impacts to student performance in academic, social, and physical dimensions (Bakosh, Snow, Tobias, Houlihan, & Barbosa-Leiker, 2016; Bluth, Campo, Pruteanu-Malinici, Reams, Mullarkey, & Broderick, 2016; Flook, Smalley, Kitil, Galla, Kaiser-Greenland, Locke, & Kasari, 2010). Given the potential of this intervention and support, it is natural to look for ways to engage students with MBP as often as possible. The purpose of this study was to identify high-yield strategies that could be leveraged to facilitate the implementation of MBP within today’s classrooms while simultaneously minimizing the impacts to teachers’ workloads. These strategies form the central pillars of the implementation plan and establish a solid foundation to build from in incorporating MBP into a school community.
An interesting phenomena of the use of MBP is the mutualistic benefit that can be observed when teachers implement mindfulness within their classroom environment. Any implementation of a new support or strategy should have, at its core, a goal for improving student learning/functioning. The implementation of MBP is no different: the overall goal is to help students better understand their emotional states and develop tools that help students clear their minds and be present and available for learning (Flook, et al., 2010). It is interesting to note, however, that there are significant benefits to teachers themselves around the implementation and practice of MBP. Teachers who implement MBP report higher levels of job satisfaction, lower levels of stress, and increased productivity in areas of time management, assessment, and classroom management (Bostic, et al., 2015; Mikeljohn, et al., 2012; Roeser, Schonert-Reichl, Jha, Cullen, Wallace, Wilensky, Oberle, Thomson, Taylor, & Harrison, 2013).
Although both teacher workloads and the application of MBP have an extensive evidence base, little research is focused on the practice of MBP in correlation to teacher workload. However, several common themes emerge from analyzing the research base of both areas. A key component to the successful implementation of any school-based program is that teachers identify themselves as part of the work (Collie, Shapka, & Perry, 2012). The link between teacher efficacy and workload is a paramount consideration when developing an implementation plan for MBP and teachers must be involved in the process from the start (Collie, Sharpka, & Perry, 2012). Therefore, it is critical that teachers believe the implementation of MBP is both timely and important for the practice to be successfully realized to the benefit of teachers and students alike.
To establish a solid foundation of evidence focused on the implementation of MBP and teacher workload, academic literature from several different online databases, including the University of Calgary Libraries, ProQuest, ResearchGate, and Google Scholar, were utilized to identify key pieces of evidence relating to each topic. Evidence was then thematically categorized to explore alignment between the two areas in order to identify complementary themes between them. These common themes formed the basis for the development of the model described in this article, which provided a set of considerations that school-based administrators should use when implementing MBP within their school community. Once these themes were identified, other popular media sources (e.g., non-academic published materials, blogs, program manuals and video clips) were reviewed to further align academic and non-academic data sources.
Findings & Implications
A wide variety of different strategies and approaches are described in the academic and non-academic literature in relation to implementing MBP within a school community. There are three emerging areas with a well-supported evidence base. These three areas form the central tenets of the implementation process and should be used to support the incorporation of MBP into a school or classroom community (Hoy, 2003; Lawlor, 2014; van de Weijer-Bergsma, Langenberg, Brandsma, Oort, Bögel, 2014): (a) the importance of voluntary participation; (b)
identification of accessible curriculum and supports; and (c) establishment of a base level of practice on the part of the educators.
Importance of voluntary participation
Increased efficacy, commitment to success, and participating are the results of choice-based activities that benefit both teachers and students in the long run (Leithwood & McAdie, 2007). Choice impacts both the cognitive and affective engagement of participants, whereby participants are more committed to the success of the overall goal as a result (Flowerday & Schraw, 2003). This holds true when looking at the implementation of MBP within a school or classroom environment. Bakosh, Snow, Tobias, Houlihan, and Barbosa-Leiker (2015) indicated that voluntary participation in mindfulness-based programming was a necessary component of the successful implementation of their program because teachers were more likely to carry out the instruction in their classroom if they were given the option to participate. Voluntary participation ensures a base level of commitment to program success because teachers view it as something they choose rather than approaching it from a compliance perspective. Teachers who have made a decision that they are interested in participating are more likely to follow through on commitments and make time for practice. This finding ties to research around increased or higher teacher efficacy and their willingness to engage in activities that they ascribe personal value to while also addressing concerns surrounding teacher workload (Klassen & Chiu, 2010).
By providing teachers an opportunity to decide to implement MBP, the perceived impacts to workload will be minimized because teachers have chosen to embark on the exploration. Those teachers who choose not to explore MBP may do so later as those around them become more comfortable with the material and talk about it (Mindful Schools, 2016). However, as commitment to the practice grows within the school, the pathway is clearer for those who were reluctant to join at first and, as a result, the implementation will build momentum as more teachers sign on. Voluntary adoption of MBP should not be time-limited or something teachers must embrace together. Instead, teachers should be encouraged to explore when it makes sense for them to do so (Hoy, 2003).
Another positive impact described around voluntary adoption is that teachers are more publicly supportive of the program. This impacts the students’ response to the program, especially during introduction, because teachers who have chosen to engage in MBP with their classroom are more supportive and positive about it when introducing it to their classes (Bakosh, et al., 2015). Students tend to mirror emotions they are exposed to; and, if MBP is introduced with a high level of commitment, they are more likely to have a higher level of commitment themselves (Bakosh, et al., 2015; Broadrick & Frank, 2014).
It is important that teachers are provided the latitude to decide when it makes sense for them to begin their practice themselves: the same holds true for students. Teachers will have a far easier time implementing MBP in their classrooms when they give students the same considerations and allow those students who are not at a point to engage in the practice the opportunity to participate in an alternate activity during the times of practice (Broadrick & Frank, 2014). Providing individuals with this choice, whether they are teachers or students will have a positive impact on the commitment to making it work and the ongoing commitment will be far higher than if it is mandated or imposed on participants from the beginning (Bakosh, et al., 2015; Mindful Schools, 2016; Meiklejohn, Phillips, Freedman, Griffin, Biegel, Roach, & Isberg, 2012).
Identification of effective and accessible curriculum or supports
Many different types of Mindfulness-Based Training programs exist to help an individual develop mindfulness-based practice or to facilitate it for others. These programs vary in delivery from workshop-based programs, to books or print-based resources, to web-based instructional courses to complete that address a variety of different learning styles (Gould, Dariotis, Greenburg, & Mendelson, 2016). When selecting effective programs, it is critical that the chosen instructional style provides teachers with a variety of different media grounded in professional and competent instruction (Lawlor, 2014). It is important to have a core program that provides a general frame into which ideas and activities from other programs can be incorporated. After a core program is established, other supplementary materials can be used to further develop the experience and generalize the practice to other settings. These other supplementary materials should mesh with the key concepts and frameworks from the identified core material; however, they don’t necessarily need to be from the same program (Gould et. al, 2016). One concerning finding from Lawlor (2014) was that the selection of low-quality programming can lead to negative outcomes for the students because of poor teacher training. Therefore, it is critical that adequate time and resources be engaged to determine which program will be the most effective for the current context and environment to have the largest possible impact. While financial implications should certainly be considered, implementation, teacher or instructional resources and support should also factor into the decision as well.
Consideration should be given to the method of delivery of the core program. Some programs rely on the teacher to be the primary facilitator of the practice and may put the teacher in an uncomfortable situation. As a result, teachers will display less commitment to finding the times to engage in the practice with their students, having a reduced overall impact. On the other hand, some programs utilize pre-recorded practices in audio or video formats. These formats allow teachers to transfer the responsibility from guiding the practice to technology and thereby reduce anxiety associated with leading the practice themselves (Meiklejohn, et al., 2012). In this way, teacher learning is scaffolded and supported as they build confidence leading the practice at their own speed while still providing students with the benefits of regular exposure to MBP.
Establishment of a base level of practice
Having a base level of personal practice is a critical component of the successful implementation of MBP (Bostic, et al., 2015). Because of the nature of practicing mindfulness, teachers need a high degree of confidence and competence with mindfulness before introducing and practicing it with their students. Lawlor (2014) identifies the importance of implementing programming by focusing on the teacher. This seems counter-intuitive because, as educators, we typically implement supports with a ‘students-first’ lens. When we look at Social Emotional Learning (SEL) however, it is important to remember that “successful student SEL has been found to be inextricably linked to teachers’ SEL skills” (Lawlor, 2014, p. 89). As a result, if teachers are provided with ongoing training and support in implementing MBP within a school environment they will be better placed to successfully implement the programming for their students.
The establishment of a base level of practice also aids in the perceived impact on workload. It stands to reason that, when teachers are asked to teach material they are less familiar with, they must spend additional time preparing and deciding how to share it with their students. Therefore, providing teachers an opportunity to build a base level of personal practice can help them become more comfortable with the concept of mindfulness prior to sharing it with students. This concept further underscores the importance of embracing the efficacy on the part of the teacher to embrace MBP because they will be far more confident implementing MBP with their students.
When teachers have decided to engage in the practice, they are far more likely to find themselves within the work and are able to share it with others. This also takes advantage of the mutualistic nature of MBP where teachers and students both experience positive impacts because of implementing it on a regular and ongoing basis (Roeser, et al., 2013; Zenner, Herrnleben-Kurs, & Walach, 2014). Teachers who employ daily mindfulness practice themselves report better classroom management skills, reduced stress, and improved productivity as well as many other personal and professional benefits (Bostic, et al., 2014). By encouraging teachers to establish a base level of practice, these benefits can be quickly realized and will contribute to a positive atmosphere within the classroom and school community.
Preparation for teaching MBP to students
These three interconnected components all prepare a teacher to share MBP with students. Students stand to benefit significantly from the incorporation of MBP in their day-to-day instruction; however, teachers must attend to some key areas in preparing to share and teach MBP to students in a classroom setting. In the same way that it is most effective to allow teachers to determine when the exploration of MBP makes sense to them, the same holds true with students (as noted earlier). While students are typically not given the same level of autonomy to determine if they are (or are not) going to participate in an activity, when starting to teach MPB it is wise to provide students with an alternate quiet activity if they are unwilling to engage in the practice themselves (Mindful Schools, 2016). Over time, as these students see peers continuing to learn and develop their skills they may become interested and begin their exploration willingly, which will allow them to realize more significant benefits over time.
The practice of Mindfulness can be a new experience that can bring a variety of different feelings and emotions. Teachers should start slowly and have students begin with short 3-5 min mindfulness sessions. By starting with shorter and more frequent sessions, students build confidence and competence in their ability to maintain focus. Over time, these sessions can be gradually increased (Bostic, et al., 2015; Mindful Schools, 2016). A variety of different activities can be used to help facilitate the key ideas and skills engaged in MBP. Activities such as Mindful Tasting (Hawn Foundation, 2014) or practicing breathing with a Pin Wheel (Kaiser-Greenland, 2016) allow students to develop skills that will help them successfully practice Mindfulness over time but do so in a way that gives them a task to focus on rather than simply sitting and clearing the mind, which can be a very challenging task (Kasier-Greenland, 2010).
The key to clearing the mind and preparing to engage in MBP is to harness the power of the breath. A core component of the Mindful Schools training (2016) focuses on the development of effective breathing techniques that focus on training the mind rather than fighting with it. This key area should be an entry point to help students engage in their learning around MBP. Kaiser-Greenland (2016) devotes a full section in her book Mindful Games: Sharing mindfulness and meditation with children, teens and families to the development of breathing techniques that allow the mind to quiet and focus on the here and now. Without the ability to achieve control over the breath, many of the benefits of MBP are difficult, if not impossible, to realize.
The final area of introducing MBP to students is to develop structure and routine around the times and spaces where it is practiced. Ideally, teachers should seek a recurring time of day (i.e. after recess) where students can practice mindfulness in a consistent and ongoing manner (Mindful Schools, 2016). By developing a predictable schedule, students can start to self-identify the feelings and emotions associated with utilizing strategies associated with MBP (Kaiser-Greenland, 2010; Mindful Schools, 2016). This structure and predictability are critical components of the successful implementation of MBP with students and are important first steps that can fade over time to allow for more natural practice times and use on an as needed basis.
As discussed above, there are significant benefits to teachers who implement MBP as part of their classroom environment; these same benefits hold true for students as well. Students are most successful when teachers are actively engaged and modelling the process of MBP. The flexibility and responsiveness required by both parties, especially when starting out, cannot be stated enough and should be a central focus of the work done to support students. As students develop more confidence with MBP, they can be challenged with more in-depth and longer practice sessions. As teachers, it is important to remember the non-linear nature of MBP and ensure that practice is responsive to students needs at that point in time.
Mindfulness can add different dimensions to teachers, students, and the school community; however, it is important that adequate time be spent ensuring that the foundation is laid for the successful implementation of the program itself. School-based administrators who are interested in implementing MBP within their school must develop a plan that addresses the areas identified above to ensure teachers have adequate support for success. By minimizing the impact of the implementation of MBP on teacher workload, the likelihood of it becoming embedded in the school community is increased. Hoy (2003) describes the importance of starting with small, gradually increasing, practices that allow participants to establish comfort with the practice and allow them to gain success as they experience the program and concept of MPB. This consideration is important because people are more likely to continue practices when they feel successful. An implementation plan for establishing MBP should mirror this approach, starting with a small agile group, focused on achieving small goals and building commitment to the practice as others become interested in it (Meiklejohn, et al., 2012).
Today’s classrooms are diverse and challenging environments; students experience a wide variety of stressors in their day-to-day lives and bring many of these into the classroom regularly. Teachers and other educational staff have been reporting increasingly high levels of stress and depression over the past five years, and the attrition rate of young teachers dropping out of the profession is increasing (Roeser, et al., 2013). MBP is a useful strategy that supports both students and teachers, and there is strong evidence to show a mutualistic benefit when implemented within a classroom and school environments (see, for example, Zenner, et al. 2014). By implementing MBP in a way that minimizes the associated impacts on teachers’ workload while providing effective supports for the development of the practice, it is possible to facilitate the adoption of MBP in a way that will have a positive and long-lived impact on the lives of students and teachers.
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 As described in the Mind Up Curriculum, students place a chocolate chip on their tongue and consider the taste and sensation as the piece of chocolate melts. This provides students with an item of focus that helps to clear the mind and allows them to practice sustained focus.
 Similar to the Mindful Tasting this provides students with an area of focus for their breath. By encouraging students to take deeper and more sustained breaths by blowing on a pin wheel they are able to focus on their breathing more effectively than if they are just asked to focus on it in isolation.