Illinois was the first state to require social-emotional learning in all of its schools, setting statewide standards and benchmarks for districts to incorporate at all grade levels. Even now, in a state that went the entire 2015-16 fiscal year without a budget and in a city toeing the line of financial disaster, Chicago Public Schools remains committed to the value of social-emotional learning.
And with the help of Amanda Moreno, an assistant professor at the Erikson Institute, 16 schools are taking that commitment a step farther.
Moreno is the principal investigator for a multi-year mindfulness-based intervention in Chicago Public Schools, where 16 schools are implementing mindfulness techniques and 14 schools are serving as a control group.
“This is part of a recognition that social-emotional skills are not a distraction from academics,” Moreno said. “In fact, they are a necessary foundation. You actually have to spend school time working on this.”
Moreno’s study follows two cohorts of students in kindergarten through second grade for two years so her official findings will not be available until June of 2018, but her team is collecting data at every level. They are doing face-to-face testing with as many as 1,500 kids on academics, executive function, self-regulation, auditory attention, and social-emotional skills. They are measuring classroom climate and tracking disruption and engagement. They are also collecting qualitative interviews about program implementation.
The study comes at a time when the idea of mindfulness is getting more attention in schools and research is catching up with what could have been a fad but seems to be getting real results.
A research roundup from 2013 for the University of California at Berkeley Greater Good Science Center highlighted four studies that found positive outcomes with students of all ages and ethnic backgrounds across the United States and in Britain. Just the year before Greater Good research assistant Emily Campbell’s review, high-quality studies were hard to find linking mindfulness practices with positive results, and while she called on researchers to develop even more rigorous studies, she acknowledged scientific evidence is mounting.
“Educators who are interested in mindfulness have many programs to choose from and an increasing amount of research to support their enthusiasm,” Campbell wrote.
Teachers have found mindfulness techniques help students pay attention, empathize with their classmates, control their own emotions and limit stress. In Chicago, the mindfulness study is measuring whether and how these techniques contribute to improved academic outcomes for students in addition to social-emotional ones.
Moreno says mindfulness adds an additional layer of compassion in classrooms, where students are taught the skills to recover from what might have been considered failure in the past.
“It’s OK to forget what I just said. It’s OK to not feel that present in the classroom — your mind is elsewhere right now,” Moreno said. “Those kinds of things are particularly beneficial to help kids who bring enormous burdens to the school doorstep.”
Teachers, administrators, security guards, and counselors at the 16 Chicago schools are all trained on the mindfulness techniques Moreno incorporated into her study. While her team is tracking outcomes for kindergartners, first graders, and second graders only, the goal is to implement a schoolwide system.
The most traditional technique is three-minute long mindfulness exercises developed by Calm Classroom that teachers lead three times per day. Students also participate in 25 group-based lessons throughout the school year, they learn new vocabulary that integrates mindfulness concepts into academics, and parent meetings help entire families learn about the concepts and how to use them at home.
Researchers also developed an app for the program, with ties to attention restoration theory, which says that in order for someone to pay attention to something difficult, they first have to pay attention to something easier. When kids are having a hard time, they can go to the app and watch nature videos as a way to refocus.
Chicago Public Schools are among those that have fought over extra minutes in their school days and how to use them. In an era where instruction time is highly prized, Moreno says teachers are finding that mindfulness techniques don’t just take away from math or reading lessons. Anecdotally, teachers who used to spend half an hour getting kids back on task after lunch recess say they can do so in as little as three minutes, with a mindfulness exercise. So far, it looks like mindfulness actually creates more time for instruction.
For administrators considering bringing mindfulness into their schools and districts, age-appropriate techniques are easy to find on Youtube, and mini-exercises can be employed over school loudspeakers, at the start of assemblies and even to kick off staff meetings.
For more formal programming, the Luster Learning Institute’s Calm Classroom features a set curriculum, and Mindful Schools maintains a directory of certified instructors who live in all 50 states and more than 100 countries.