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UVa professor's research on mindfulness in the classroom could benefit local schools

A University of Virginia professor’s research is lending credibility to mindfulness practices in classrooms.

Her recent study tested the effectiveness of mindfulness practices — something as simple as taking slow, deep breaths during stressful moments — to create healthier learning environments specifically for teachers who experience stress.

Research showed that when implementing mindful practices, teachers’ well-being improved and students became more engaged.

And now a potential influx of grant money means that the study and research could be scaled for implementation in Charlottesville schools to help students and teachers locally as soon as next year.

Patricia Jennings, UVa School of Education and Human Development professor, has been concerned about classroom environments for about two decades, she told The Daily Progress.

“For the last 20 years or so, I’ve been concerned about the impact stress has on classrooms and learning environments primarily, because as I spent time previously supervising student teachers, I noticed that when we as teachers get stressed, it interferes with our function in lots of different ways, but primarily what I was concerned about was maintaining an atmosphere in a classroom that is conducive to learning, which needs to feel safe and emotionally supportive, but if teachers are feeling stressed out that can interfere with that ability to do that,” Jennings said.

Jennings studied ways to support teachers’ capacity in creating conducive classrooms through her research. She did that by implementing and testing the efficiency of the CARE professional development program, she said.

CARE, Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education, offers tools and resources to teachers and administrators to help reduce stress and prevent burnout.

“It combines mindful awareness practices, compassion practices, emotion skills instruction, and it applies these skills to helping teachers recognize their own stress reactivity in the classroom so that they can manage their stress better and so they can be more present for their students and responsive and that their environments can be more emotionally supportive,” Jennings said.

Her study was conducted in New York with more than 200 teachers.

“We did a big study of this program in New York City with 224 teachers in 36 elementary schools, and we examined the teachers’ own well-being; we collected data on that,” Jennings said. “We also observed their classrooms and coded them to see if the environment improved in terms of its capacity to support learning, and then we also collected data on the students, teachers’ reports on students.”

Some stressors managed through the CARE program were interactions.

“The stress that we were addressing in the CARE program was the kind of stress that occurs in the classroom, like the interactions between teachers and students and interactions among students,” Jennings said.

The study led Jennings to think more about the added layers of stress at a “system level,” she said.

“Like, for example, the demands on teachers to follow certain kinds of expectations, the limited resources they’re often given, so they’re trying to operate with not enough of what they need, they’re not paid as well as they probably should be, and so that some of those stressors these mindfulness techniques are not going to help,” Jennings said.

Teachers are taught to normalize stress and know the signs, but they are also given tips to manage, according to Jennings.

“We explain that all to them so that it normalizes the stress experience, but then we give them the tools to recognize when that’s happening and then tools to calm themselves down intentionally and one of those tools is to just take a couple of slow long deep breaths, mindfully, like paying attention to how it feels to take a couple of deep breaths that can lower the stress response,” Jennings said.

The findings of the study were consistent with her goal to find a way to help teachers.

“What we found, which was very exciting, was that the teachers’ well-being improved, their stress response was reduced, their psychological distress was reduced, and their classrooms were more emotionally supportive,” Jennings said. “So that was really exciting. And then we also found that the students were more engaged and motivated and their reading competence improved.”

Jennings is submitting a grant proposal to “scale CARE by making it more feasible to implement” and test the strategy and the efficacy of the modified version, she said.

“I’m submitting a grant this week to the Department of Education to find ways to scale this program better because we find it is pretty intensive and it’s been challenging to scale it, but we’re hoping to get a big grant to do this and if we do we’re going to be offering it in Albemarle County and Charlottesville, but that won’t happen until the fall of 2024,” Jennings said.

Johnson Elementary School in Charlottesville conducted a pilot with Jennings as part of the Compassionate Schools Project, according to Beth Cheuk, spokeswoman for Charlottesville City Schools. The project, similar to CARE, offers mindfulness and well-being practices for educators.

“The mindfulness pilot was a hit with both teachers and students,” Allison Pillow, a Johnson Elementary counselor, told The Daily Progress. “For students especially, the breathing exercises were invaluable, allowing them to recenter themselves, taking a pause in their day. I would be happy to see this project help more schools, families and students.”


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