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Implementing Mindfulness in Schools: Reflections From a Principal

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We welcome guest blogger, Doug Allen, an educator, school leader, and member of the Mindful Schools network of educators. He is currently principal of Bessie Nichols School—a public school in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Here he shares his personal experience with implementing mindfulness in his school and in his life. 

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Practitioners and researchers offer that practicing mindfulness leads to an increased ability to focus and concentrate, greater self-awareness, reduced stress, increased empathy, and improved impulse control. My personal experience with mindfulness over the past eight years affirms these claims. I have come to recognize that my mindfulness practice has helped me to more fully engage in conversations and truly listen to others, better understand the emotional state and needs of those I am with, recognize my own emotions before they take control of me, and remain calm and focused through most situations. 

The Unfolding of a Mindfulness Implementation
Despite this recognition, it wasn't until attending the Heart-Mind Conference in the spring of 2013 that I realized there is a place for mindfulness education in schools. As an educator for the last 26 years, it should have been immediately evident to me that helping children increase their ability to concentrate and improve their capacity for self-regulation could result in classrooms of outstanding learners with fewer social and emotional distractions. At the point I grasped the potential, I committed to bringing mindfulness to my students.

In 2013 I was working as principal of Grandview Heights, a school of 330 relatively affluent, high-achieving students. These students were under tremendous pressure to achieve, at any cost. They were stressed and exhibited the symptoms of stress. Furthermore, these students had 24-hour-a-day access to every form of digital technology available, the modern phenomenon that may be eroding our capacity to pay attention. This was a cohort in need of mindfulness.

The first task was bringing the faculty, students, and parents on board. This was a community that valued a traditional, conservative education; commitment to rigorous study; and efficient use of class time. They valued empiricism and had no tolerance for anything on the fringe or ideas not supported by scientific evidence. We needed to move slowly and carefully. 

I assured the faculty that we were in a period of exploration and committed to them that there would be no initiatives implemented without their sanction. I began feeding them research data and stories about mindfulness showing promise in education, brought in speakers, facilitated discussions at faculty meetings, and led a bit of mindfulness practice during professional development days. After four or five months of this I was told, "Enough of the sales pitch, we're in!" Though it meant a delayed implementation, I know the time spent ensuring I had the support of the community was a crucial factor in the success of this initiative.

It quickly became clear that we needed a curriculum, both to provide us with some substance and direction, as well as to bolster our credibility with parents and students. After one or two false starts it became apparent that, as with most things in Western society, the motivation for most organizations is profit. Looking for an affordable way to provide a foundation in mindfulness practice to the entire faculty, as well as interested parents, we discovered Mindful Schools. As a nonprofit organization, their motivation is very simply to get mindfulness into classrooms because they know it's good for kids.

We enrolled the entire faculty in the six-week Mindfulness Fundamentals online program. Though there was a range of commitment to the program and mindfulness practice in general, several teachers fully embraced mindfulness and have made it a part of their lives. Everyone, at the very least, took away enough appreciation for mindfulness practice that they were able to stand behind our initiative and articulate the value of it to other stakeholders.

It is clear that regular practice is a non-negotiable prerequisite to teaching it. Based on three teachers' enthusiastic response to the Fundamentals course, I invited them to join me in receiving training in the Mindful Educator Essentials Course to become the core mindfulness teaching team at the school. The plan was for the four of us to teach the curriculum while the other classroom teachers participated alongside the students. This required some creative scheduling, but we organised such that all classes would receive the curriculum, twice a week, from one of the core mindfulness teachers. A year after planting the first seeds, in the fall of 2014, we began teaching the Mindful Schools curriculum to all our students and "Keep Calm and Pay Attention" was launched.

"Keep Calm and Pay Attention" posters, modelled after the ubiquitous "Keep Calm and Carry On" slogan, were hung in every classroom and hallway. These posters helped engage students, parents, and other visitors in conversations about the initiative. It was a fun and effective tool to help everyone, including faculty, move beyond the misconception that mindfulness is about calm, to an understanding that it's more correctly about paying attention.

Great Feedback
The majority of students expressed that the program was both beneficial and enjoyable. We frequently received supportive feedback from parents who often told us their children were teaching them and their younger siblings about mindfulness at home. They encouraged us to continue the work.

We kept parents informed about what we were doing every step of the way, posting regular updates on our website, and hosting information evenings to discuss the program. We made sure they knew that mindfulness practice, as we were teaching it, is completely secular and grounded in modern neuroscience and psychology. This effort to inform and involve parents was the second crucial factor in the success of this initiative.

Over the weeks I spent teaching the mindfulness curriculum to nine groups of junior high students, I also benefited in profound and unexpected ways, both personally and professionally. I noticed that my relationship with my students became more open, mutually accepting, and mutually respectful. I noticed that having an opportunity to practice mindfulness several times a day enhanced my practice, helped me become more patient, more attentive to the needs of others, more even tempered, less stressed, and happier in my job. Knowing that mindfulness practice is something the students may carry with them their entire lives has given me a sense of purpose beyond any I've ever had as a teacher. The teaching of mindfulness to children has truly given my work more meaning and value.

Evaluation of Effectiveness is Key
Following the delivery of the nine-week curriculum and prior to thinking about moving forward, we wanted to evaluate the effectiveness of our efforts. Before we began teaching the curriculum we had administered an informal, quantitative inventory to students based on measures provided by Mindful Schools. When the students completed the inventories a second time, after the nine weeks, they improved significantly across items measuring emotional regulation. For example, students were 10 percentage points more likely to respond that they very often or almost always "have a healthy way to calm down" when they are annoyed. In addition to the significant amount of anecdotal support from parents, staff, and students, it was clear that we had something worth continuing.

The next challenge was determining how to continue without a curriculum to follow. My first idea was for me to lead a mindfulness practice during morning announcements. I did this only once, realizing that our students had sufficient background to lead this themselves. Since they have so much more credibility with their peers than I ever could, it only made sense for them to lead the practice. The school day now begins with a two-to-five-minute mindfulness practice session, led by a different student each day. This practice is supplemented by weekly mindfulness sessions in classes, led by our core mindfulness teachers.

Epilogue
I've been moved to a new school this year but am thrilled to learn that the new principal of Grandview Heights has embraced the program and has even enrolled in the Mindful Schools program. Our approach of moving slowly, engaging and respecting faculty, communicating clearly with parents, and insisting that only teachers who practice mindfulness teach mindfulness has provided the solid foundation that has allowed this initiative to endure beyond my tenure. I couldn't be happier with the outcome.

My colleagues often ask me if I'm going to start a mindfulness program at my new school. I'm tremendously excited that I now have over 1,000 students I can help benefit from mindfulness, however, my answer to their question is that nothing will be happening soon, as there's much groundwork to do. I want the Mindfulness in Education movement to be looked back upon as something that revolutionized education ... and this will only happen if we move slowly and carefully.

More about Doug:
Doug has been an educator for the past 26 years, the last 13 of these as principal of several Edmonton schools. Two years ago, Doug realized he could bring his passion for mindfulness to his students, successfully implementing a school-wide mindfulness program in his K-9 school. 

Photo courtesy of Mindfulschools.org.

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