by Mary Spence
Almost three years ago I wrote about the work of transforming schools with mindfulness practices in Michigan for the Crazy Wisdom Journal. So many amazing moments have happened since then! School communities—students, staff, administrators, and parents alike, are beginning to understand how essential mindfulness skills are to the embodiment of social emotional learning (SEL) skills and to facilitating learning. With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December of 2015, federal law recognizes the importance of new variables such as:
These are all factors that easily fall under the rubric of experientially based mindfulness and also more traditional social emotional learning (SEL) programs. More importantly, there is substantial evidence as to the effectiveness of mindfulness in assisting students with focus and emotional regulation. Many of these secular mindfulness programs can be easily incorporated into classroom settings. Even though the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides a ripe opportunity for embedding mindfulness/SEL programs within the bedrock of school curriculums, no state’s federal plan yet endorses curricular programs of SEL, which have over 20 years of empirical evidence for their effectiveness.
While institutional change is slow, grass roots efforts are not. MC4ME—The Michigan Collaborative for Mindfulness in Education (www.mc4me.org) has been leading the charge.
Our mission is to cultivate attention, empathy and well-being in students, educators and families by providing training and information on mindfulness practice. Our vision is compassionate and mindful school communities throughout Michigan where all students thrive.
We have grown in both the numbers of collaborators and geographical representation throughout the state since we launched our non-profit’s initial event in April, 2014. Currently, more than 1,000 people receive our newsletters and announcements, along with close to 600 people following our Facebook feed. We are forging a collaborative network with Michigan State University Extension Program, Grand Rapids Center for Mindfulness, The CRIM (Crim Fitness Foundation in Flint), Ann Arbor Center for Mindfulness, Beaumont Hospital, and the Ann Arbor Mindful City initiative. We are beginning to discuss membership options, formal trainer affiliations, and the possibility of a formal statewide organization. We plan to hire our first external part-time Executive Director to help coordinate our efforts.
In the past four years, we’ve held five national-level trainings, all of which have filled to capacity. These trainings featured experts in the field who have written books on mindfulness in education and developed mindfulness programs for all levels of education, as well as for specific challenges, such as substance abuse. We co-sponsored an online follow-up class with one of our major presenters, Susan Kaiser-Greenland, author of The Mindful Child and Mindful Games. In August of 2017, we held a day and a half training for educators with an active mindfulness practice who wanted to learn how to share specific mindfulness activities with elementary and middle school students. Group-based coaching sessions were made available after the training.
Additionally, we’ve held six half-day retreats, with opportunities for networking and further learning by presenters in the afternoon. These afternoon meet-ups allow practitioners to talk about how they are integrating mindfulness into their work in schools and with parents. They also highlight a colleague’s specific approach to bringing mindfulness into their school-based setting. Watch our events page (https://www.mc4me.org/events.html) to register for our next meet-up and retreat. We’d love to have you join us!
We have held four community meetings, including a presentation for parents. Our most recent community meeting brought together a wide array of educators and health professionals from across the State committed to supporting mindfulness practices in children, parents, and staff.
We had mini-presentations from a K-8 principal, a Spanish middle school teacher, a guidance counselor, and a mindfulness teacher. They all described successes in weaving mindfulness throughout a school and/or school district. We were inspired by participants actively engaging in sharing stories and information about the ways that they are implementing mindfulness in Michigan schools and higher education institutions. These efforts range from district wide implementation to the individual student level approaches.
We’ve also been busy raising awareness, providing information, support, and trainings to schools including: Ann Arbor Public Schools, Jackson, and Oakland ISD, Dearborn Schools, Troy School District, Grosse Pointe School District, and Equity Education in Detroit. To date, we have provided presentations, workshops, and comprehensive trainings to over 40 non-profit organizations and school settings.
Participation in any of these trainings range from ten to ninety-five participants and our evaluations show how valuable teachers find this information. This is no surprise, given that the teaching profession is considered one of the most stressful occupations in current times. Statistics on teacher retention regularly report losing approximately 50% of teachers in the first five years of teaching. One of the most recent professional development trainings we provided for a school district filled up so quickly that another full day was scheduled to accommodate the interest. One hundred and seventy staff took time out of their summer vacation to voluntarily attend this training, and more tried to sign up at the last minute.
MC4ME offers a variety of mindfulness trainings, from one-hour presentations and half day workshops to comprehensive school training that includes twenty-two hours of mindfulness teacher training and eight hours of classroom training with students using established mindfulness curricula.
A formal program evaluation of a comprehensive mindfulness training program we conducted with a Gross Pointe middle school met with remarkable success for both teachers and students. Pre and post administration of standardized measures with teachers and students indicated significant improvements in stress, emotional regulation, as well as endorsement of mindfulness qualities. Anxiety in students also decreased significantly, not a small thing in these days when about one-third of adolescents meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder. Students described using their breath to help them calm down in a number of situations at school and at home.
These are some of the comments they made:
“This past week I was feeling stressed because I didn't get the grade I was hoping for in science and at first I freaked out, but then I took deep breaths and calmed myself down. Now I understand what we are learning.”
“This past week I used mindfulness at school before a math test. I practiced breathing mindfully at my desk and it made me feel very calm and prepared for the test, which was nice, because I usually feel very stressed.”
“I used mindfulness before a test and before I went to bed. It helped me stay more focused on the test and helped me sleep better.”
“In band we had to perform and be judged and graded on how well we did. Right before we were going on stage I started getting nervous and I used the mindful breathing to calm me down.”
Teachers also shared how mindfulness training affected them personally and professionally:
“I am much calmer, in less of a hurry, aware. I find that I am able to see myself from the outside in, as well as from the inside out. I am continuously adjusting all day because I am mindful of every action.”
“It [mindfulness training] has made me calmer and given me perspective. It has made me appreciate and notice things in myself, and others, and in my life that I hadn’t before; it has given me tools to live a fuller, more peaceful life. I am pausing more, I am judging less. I am less anxious, less fearful, more peaceful. When I tame those big bad noisy thoughts, I feel empowered.”
“In the classroom, working with the most difficult students, mindfulness taught/helped me improve my patience, improve not being judgmental and increase my compassion for my students. Outside school, positive examples of mindfulness: my husband and daughters have noticed and commented on how it has helped me.”
The teachers unanimously agreed that learning mindfulness prior to seeing it practiced in the classroom setting greatly benefitted their understanding and ability to lead mindfulness exercises with their students.
Locally, this past fall, we offered a series of trainings at Neutral Zone for staff and youth leaders. We also developed a mindfulness tool kit for their use, tapping true and tried best practice activities from mindfulness instructors across the state and nation. We hope to share this toolkit with future schools to which we deliver training.
We are happy to report that a groundswell of skilled teachers and trainers in mindfulness is bubbling up in our Michigan communities. We would more than welcome your involvement! Consider attending our events or let us know of your interest at firstname.lastname@example.org. With the transformative work of mindfulness, we are making schools better places to learn, work, and send our children. It’s an exciting time to be part of the mindfulness movement—please join us!
Mary Spence, PhD is a Clinical and Educational Psychologist, with over 30 years in both mental health and education. She is dedicated to making schools better places to learn, work, and send our children to by using creativity, movement, play, and mindfulness practices as cornerstones to existing social emotional learning (SEL) programs. She is currently working in Ann Arbor Public Schools as a school psychologist and maintains a private practice based in Howell, Michigan. She can be reached at email@example.com.