Tag Archives: Dr. Richard Davidson

Can Mindfulness Make Us Better Teachers?

By Vicki Zakrzewski | October 2, 2013 Republished by permission of the Greater Good Science Center University of California Berkeley. Please click here to view the original article.

bridging2014badgeA new study suggests that training teachers in mindfulness not only reduces burnout but also improves their performance in the classroom.

Imagine this: In the middle of a lesson, one of your students deliberately makes an offensive remark that causes the other students to laugh and threatens to derail your lesson. Your fists start to clench and there’s a tightening in your chest. Before you know it, you snap angrily in a way that 1) doesn’t calm the students down, and 2) makes you spend the rest of the day, or several days, wondering if you’re a terrible teacher. Sound familiar?

This scenario is only one of many that add to a teacher’s daily stress level, which, over time, can lead to burnout—a major issue for those in the education profession. However, adding to this stress is often an educator’s own lack of social-emotional strategies for dealing with the stress and emotional intensity of the job, which researchers suggest may diminish his or her effectiveness as a teacher.

Summer_Institute_Teachers_with_closed_eyesParticipants at the GGSC’s Summer Institute
for Educators
Roibín Ó hÉochaidh

So is there something teachers can do to develop their social-emotional skills, not only to guard against long-term burnout but also to help them deal with stressful events while they’re happening? Yes, according to a new study conducted by the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM):
the practice of mindfulness.

A decade’s worth of research has documented the great physical, psychological, and social benefits of practicing mindfulness, which involves paying careful attention to your thoughts, feelings, and environment. In recent years, schools have embraced mindfulness to help improve students’ attention, emotion regulation, and learning. For the most part, the focus has been on students rather than teachers.

A group of the Center’s researchers, led by Lisa Flook, took a different tack: They conducted a small pilot study to test the impact of an eight-week mindfulness course adapted specifically for teachers. The study found that those who completed the training enjoyed a myriad of personal benefits, including elevated levels of self-compassion and a decrease in psychological ills such as anxiety, depression, and burnout. In comparison, a group of teachers placed on a wait list for the course actually increased in their stress and burnout levels.

But what made this study unique is that it also looked at the participants’ classroom performance, such as their behavior management skills and their emotional and instructional support of students. What it discovered was this: The practice of mindfulness made them more effective teachers, possibly by buffering them from the impact of stressful experiences as they were happening.

In other words, the study suggests that when teachers practice mindfulness, students’ misbehavior and other stressors become like water off a duck’s back, allowing them to stay focused on what teachers really want to do: teach.

So how does the practice of mindfulness actually help teachers in and out of the classroom?

To start, the CIHM researchers defined mindfulness specifically for this study as, “Paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment.” Anyone who has taught knows that paying attention in the present moment is incredibly difficult because of the thousand demands on a teacher’s attention all at once. And judgment is a very easy state-of-mind to slip into when confronted by a misbehaving child—you don’t only judge that child but judge yourself for judging him or her.

One of the most basic mindfulness practices involves sitting quietly and bringing one’s awareness to thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, or an external object. Neuroscientists and emotion researchers have found that this kind of practice heightens the activity in the regions of our brain that regulate our attention, which then carries over into our everyday lives.

For teachers, this means that in the midst of the craziness that is a classroom, we remain aware of what’s going on inside our minds and bodies, which can help us rein in our knee-jerk angry reactions to a situation and instead choose a kinder and more compassionate response.

Lisa_FlookFor example, in the scenario I described at the beginning of this article, a teacher skilled in mindfulness would notice his or her clenched fists and tightening in the chest, take them as a sign that he or she was about to hit the roof, and perhaps take a deep breath or two to calm down. Then he or she would be much better prepared to calmly redirect the students’ attention to the task-at-hand. Boom, done, just like that. Moment passed, no lingering stress in the body or mind of the teacher, and the lesson continues.

Mindfulness practice is also a way to deliberately cultivate positive qualities such as empathy and compassion. Previous studies have linked mindfulness to increased activity in brain regions associated with these positive emotions. In its training for teachers, CIHM included activities such as loving-kindness meditation, which has been found to help promote kindness and compassion toward others.

I like to think that teachers are naturally empathic and compassionate toward their students. But often these qualities get lost in the stress of classroom life, and what suffers most is the all-important relationship between the teacher and the student. By deliberately practicing mindfulness techniques that cultivate kindness toward others, a teacher faced with a misbehaving student might ask the question, “What happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?”—a more compassionate response that strengthens rather than hinders the teacher-student relationship.

Finally, the CIHM researchers found that the mindfulness group’s self-compassion increased as well—an important component of teacher well-being. Educators have a tendency to beat themselves up over so many things: a failed lesson, saying the wrong thing to a parent, an inability to reach a challenging student, helplessness in the face of a student’s tragic home life—the list goes on and on. And we take it all home at night, leaving us with little psychic space to re-charge for the next day. Over time, our teaching suffers.

Time and again, teachers ask me in workshops and at our Summer Institute for Educators how they can stop thinking about work after they’ve gone home. My suggestion, based on the research, is to have a personal mindfulness practice coupled with self-compassion. Mindfulness teaches us to “notice” our thoughts or thought patterns without judging them as “good” or “bad,” which helps diminish the emotional charge that keeps these challenging school situations reverberating in our heads. Once we’ve neutralized that charge, we can choose to take a more compassionate stance toward ourselves, realizing that all teachers face these challenges and that everyone, including yourself, is doing the best they can.

One caveat: The changes rendered through a mindfulness practice do not happen overnight, nor do they last without continuous practice. Although this study showed significant changes in just eight weeks, Richard Davidson, one of the study’s co-authors and a leading expert on the science of emotions and mindfulness, is quick to point out that mindfulness is like going to the gym: You have to keep practicing to enjoy the benefits.

While the practice of mindfulness is never a “cure-all”, research suggests that it is a powerful foundation upon which teachers can start to build their social-emotional skills—and, in turn, improve their teaching. So while we may never be able to stop that student from making an offensive remark, we can control our reaction—which, in the end, may make the student think twice about doing it again.

Resources for educators who would like to start a mindfulness practice:

In addition to the resources listed below the UCSD Center for Mindfulness offers free guided audio and other resources, 5-Day professional mindfulness retreats through our Professional Training Institute, along with next year’s annual 2014 Bridging the Hearts & Minds of Youth conference.

If you would like to try mindfulness in the privacy of your own home, UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) offers these free recordings.

If you would like to learn mindfulness in a class, there are several programs geared just for educators, including the Greater Good Science Center’s Summer Institute for Educators, Mindful Schools, the Garrison Institute’s CARE for Teachers, PassageWorks’ SMART-in-Education, and Margaret Cullen’s Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance.

If you’re unable to attend one of the above teacher-focused programs, there are numerous workshops throughout the U.S and the world teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the program, founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, from which the CIHM’s training was adapted.

Exploring the Many Benefits of Mindfulness in Education, Breathing In, Breathing Out

bridging2013badgeby Bill Madigan, Vice Principal, King Chavez High School as originally posted on the Adventures in College & Career Readiness (AVID) blog 12-4-2012.


I speed walked across trolley tracks as I traveled between the two small campuses of King Chavez High School.  I had suddenly been hired as a vice principal, knowing little of what that really meant.  My thoughts danced awkwardly with several new partners: a daunting “to do” list of mentoring new teachers, creating curriculum for an advisory, and a bigger ambition, figuring the best way to introduce AVID to this ripe family of children perfectly suited for AVID magic.

My mind buzzed, really.  As I raced to the “A” street site, homeless people lining my path, my ears began ringing, slowly increasing in volume.  A rather standard sign of stress – not negative stress, actually, for me at that time, but stress all the same.

I purposely began to focus on my breathing: in through the nose, out through the mouth, in through the nose, out through the mouth.  Within about 20 breaths, the ringing had subsided.  This exercise took a little over a minute.  What happened to the excited state of stress?  In terms of neuroscience and psycho-biology, my brain had a new focus, which decreased my heart rate, reduced the adrenaline released into my blood, and lowered the stress hormone from hell: cortisol.  Blood pressure dropped and a deep-brain loop of calm replaced a loop of anxiety.

This is called mindfulness.  Mindfulness is the intentional grounding and focusing of our attention on the current moment.  This can be done in the manner I described, the traditional breathing way, or in other ways like closely observing an object: your hands, a piece of food, or a visual focus point, among others.  We have all heard the command “take a deep breath” especially in education or to “count to 10.”

Years ago, I had an emotionally disturbed young man in an at-risk program who would occasionally start to scream, “The walls is breathin; the walls is breathin!”  He would do this in the middle of class.  I found through trial and error that the best remedy was to ask him to take my big broom and sweep the hall all the way around my building.  This would take him three or four minutes.  Like a miracle, he would come back a different brain.  He had a simple mundane task to re-focus his attention.

Dr. Richard Davidson out of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is a, if not the, father of research into mindfulness.  He is the neuroscientist who traveled to India to study meditation and its effects on the brain.  Dr. Davidson has also directed the focus in neuroscience away from purely cognitive processes to look at emotions and their role in health, memory, attention, and motivation.  When I first attended his “Symposium on Emotion” five years ago, there were roughly 10 to 20 studies per month focused on meditation.  Now there are several hundred a month.

The findings are universal: continued mindful practice has several effects on brain function and health.  Many studies have also avoided the use of the loaded terminology like “meditation” or “mindfulness,” or “TM” (transcendental meditation), preferring to call the practice “directed focus exercises.”  Their results are the same.

Drum roll! The top effects of mindfulness are:

The reductions of blood pressure, cortisol in our blood, among many other hormonal effects, have obvious positive consequences for our health.  There are also positive findings for anger and even pain management in the raft of literature.

Yet, the ability to “focus on one thing” stands out to me as a holy grail in learning.  Secondly, the ability to reduce stress before high stakes tests also sounds like an AVID “go-to” practice.  And since AVID anchors learning in teams, families and groups of learners, improving relational capacity sounds darn good, too.

Dr. Steven Hickman, director of the UCSD Center for Mindfulness told me he thought the greatest positive result of mindfulness practice is increased compassion and desire for connection.  He said that, “When we clear the decks, what bubbles up are the deepest natural urges of our beings: compassion and connection.”  When we stop fighting, judging or controlling in our environment and relations, we actually have a natural, more effortless capacity for kindness and creativity.  When the primitive brain, especially the amygdala, is on high alert, our most creative and most advanced brain is nearly shut off: “I was so upset I just . . .”  You fill in the blank.  We act most primitively when we are most threatened.  No compassion bubbles up.  The neural pathways are chemically shut off.  We just react.  Mindfulness reduces the feeling of threat, reduces the fear of losing control, and over time gives us the space to be creative, compassionate and connected.

I just can’t forget the immediate relief of that high stress ringing in my ears as I traveled from one part of my new exciting life to another.

Take a deep breath: In through the nose, out through the mouth.


For a great video on the topic, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzitPzNHHV8

The UCSD Center for Mindfulness is pleased to note that along with Bill Madigan (author of this blogpost),  several representatives from AVID will be attending the 2013 Bridging the Hearts & Minds of Youth Conference: Mindfulness in Clinical Practice, Education and Research. If this is an area of interest for you, please consider attending too!

Learn About “The Science Of Compassion” First “Unprecedented!” Large-Scale Conference

The Science of CompassionStanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) presents world experts on compassion, altruism & service The Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures & Interventions
July 19-22 in Telluride, Colorado.

The Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) presents The Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures and Interventions, the first large-scale international conference of its kind dedicated to study of compassion. The Telluride CCARE event will provide an unprecedented gathering of leading experts in research on compassion, altruism, social connection and service to discuss their latest findings. The conference will explore the origins of compassion and compassionate action, how it can be measured, and how we can foster it through interventions.

CEU: APA-approved Continuing Education Units (CEU’s) offered to psychologists and master’s level clinicians. 1 credit per hour of conference attendance.

The conference is open to researchers and the general public. Among the presenters are key figures in Psychology such as Dr. Phil Zimbardo and keynote speaker Dr. Richard Davidson, pioneering researcher on meditation and brain function. Other invited speakers include such distinguished scholars as Thupten Jinpa Langri (His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s long-time translator).

“While compassion is a fundamental part of every religious tradition, there is an ever enlarging body of scientific evidence that being compassionate has immense positive impact on the individual both in regard to their mental and physical health. This first-of-its-kind conference will highlight these scientific findings and provide a forum for researchers from around the world to collaborate with colleagues from a variety of disciplines. We at CCARE are very excited to sponsor the conference and contribute to this expanding field.” says Dr. James Doty, director of CCARE.

Event co-sponsors include the Telluride Institute, the University of California-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, and the Swedish Association for Contemplation in Education and Research.
Between sessions, compassion meditation opportunities practices and interactive workshops will be offered. Seats limited.

For more information/registration, please go to CCARE. For questions and media inquiries, please contact Emma Seppala emmas@stanford.edu (650) 723-3248

SAVE THE DATE! Attend a Self-Compassion Workshop with Dr. Kristin Neff in San Diego.

Saturday, September 22, 2012, Special 1-Day Self-Compassion Workshop at UCSD presented by, Kristin Neff, PhD, author Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.