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Cultivating Healthy Schools: The Mindfulness Director Initiative

The Mindfulness Director Initiative is the kind of news we need right now. An example of people coming together to create healthier communities and schools that support compassion, justice, and awareness.

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What if schools were a space where students, faculty, staff, and parents came together to heal, cultivate compassion, and celebrate interconnectedness? What if we confronted a growing epidemic of anxiety and uncertainty among today’s youth? What if tools to intentionally address bias were built into the curriculum? What if, in addition to courses in history and physics, young people learned how to have a healthy relationship with emotions and thoughts? What if education was a little less about memorizing information, and more about helping students understand who they are and what they care about? What if schools built the capacity to feel at home in our bodies? What if mindfulness teachings were accessible to all school communities? 

These are the questions that a new program seeks to answer. The Mindfulness Director Initiative (MDI) wants to put an educator in every school, whose primary responsibility is to teach mindfulness to students and those who support them (parents, teachers, coaches, staff). Their mission is focused, but the impact is broad. MDI wants “to make the transformative power of mindfulness a reality for school communities through a nuanced integration of mindfulness into schools—thereby enhancing the well-being of students and strengthening our society.” They believe that mindfulness has the power to transform societies, ease the suffering of individuals and communities, and support anti-racism and social justice in school communities. We must attend to the impact of our educational institutions and disrupt systems that perpetuate injustice, and at a time when budget cuts are forcing schools to make difficult decisions about staffing and resources, MDI has a direct and compelling offer. The organization partners with schools of all types to match them with highly qualified mindfulness directors, not only providing funding, but also support for research, implementation, and evaluation. This is not a one-year initiative. It is an organic, long-term model, which aims to steadily transform school communities over decades.

Ben Painter, the associate executive director at MDI explains that “study after study has shown the benefits of mindfulness–increased resiliency, lower depression, and anxiety, increased compassion, focus, awareness…the list goes on and on.” He says, “If you ask 100 people what impact mindfulness has had on their lives, you’ll get 100 different, and oftentimes beautiful answers.” Personally, he explains, “I got into mindfulness because I wanted a tool to help sharpen my memory and focus to do better in school. Pretty quickly it became about so much more than that. Having a mindfulness teacher to look up to was really important. I had someone that embodied the principles of mindfulness and compassion as a role model. This gave me so much to aspire to.” Painter highlights that MDI has a growing community of generous funders who want to see the vision succeed. Their supporters are a mixture of people who have been personally impacted by the MDI model in their school community and funders who care about deeply integrated mindfulness teachings being spread in schools all over the country. He says that “there is a lot of energy among our funders right now in supporting students and teachers in the context of Covid-19, asking, how can we give our communities tools for working with all that is coming up in this difficult time?”

Doug Worthen is the Mindfulness Director at Middlesex School, an independent boarding and day school in Massachusetts, and also a co-founder and board member of MDI. He explains that “our world is speeding up and changing quicker than ever, which can lead to heightened anxiety and stress. Mindfulness helps us regulate during times of anxiety and change, it helps us slow down and get clarity about what we are doing and why.” He adds, “mindfulness helps us see that actually everything is subtly (or not-so-subtly) changing all the time. So by practicing mindfulness we are also learning to get more comfortable with change.” Worthen says that in schools, “we rarely teach most students healthy ways to understand and relate to thoughts and emotions (the result being high rates of stress, suicide, tension, etc). Mindfulness teaches us how to understand and relate to emotions and thoughts in healthier ways.”

Adam Ortman is the mindfulness director at the St. Andrews School in Austin, Texas, one of seven of MDI’s pilot school partners. He says, “the most exciting part of my job is collaborating with people throughout the school to enhance what they’re doing–presenting tools to navigate charged conversations in the classroom, for having a saner relationship with technology, for working with performance anxiety, or test anxiety, or recentering during sports.” He adds, “in each of these areas, mindfulness offers a paradigm shift: what would thispart of education look like if everyone was more self-aware, emotionally regulated, and cognitively flexible? And then what would a community look like if that were the case? All of this has direct applications to how we relate to our families, our workplaces, our democracy, and our environment.”

This fall, two new pilot programs will be welcoming mindfulness directors in very different environments — Mather House, one of twelve undergraduate residential houses at Harvard University, and Martin Luther King (MLK), Jr. Middle School, a public school in Richmond, Virginia. Ashley Williams writes about her upcoming role as the mindfulness director at the MLK Jr. Middle School, saying, “our mindfulness practice isn’t all about being calm or relaxed. It’s about accepting the journey as we move into focus and balance. One thing that I believe is important in our demographic in Richmond is that many of our students and teachers have seen so much. We know that they need calm spaces. We also know that they need space to feel what is actually happening around them and within them, and know that what they are feeling is valid. In the specific cases where unpleasant feelings are experienced, it’s important that we tell our students, teachers, and parents, that it is OK that these sensations are there.”

Before the global pandemic caused epic disruption and stress for students and families, we were already facing a national crisis of anxiety and suffering among teenagers. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for high school and college-age students and mental health challenges deeply impact campus life everywhere. As we prepare to launch into another academic year, it is imperative that we find ways to support healthy school communities and the MDI model is an effective approach. Whether handling conflicts between teammates, dealing with test anxiety, addressing teenage depression, facilitating charged political conversations in an election year, reckoning with the impact of systematic racism, or coping with the stresses of the pandemic, mindfulness will be a powerful tool. 

Taeya Boi-Doku, a recent graduate of Middlesex School and an intern at MDI, says, “there is so much in our world that needs our attention, our energy, and our engagement. To be able to engage with our world fully, deeply, and do the work of restorative justice we need to have room in our minds. Mindfulness creates a sense of spaciousness in our thoughts, without that room we can feel constantly overwhelmed, burdened, and fatigued.” She adds, “to be the thoughtful, resilient and forward-thinking citizens our world needs, it is integral that we have a sustainable way to be curious, steady, and have compassion for others as well as ourselves. Mindfulness is a path that allows people to embody all those components with longevity.” Worthen agrees, saying, “this is not a fad. Our relationship with the present moment is not going away. Mindfulness will be relevant until the day we die.” He adds, “this takes time. Mindfulness is a life-long practice. A one-day workshop or semester-long course has little impact. MDI understands this and integrates mindfulness into the entire community with experienced teachers over many years and decades.” 

The Mindfulness Director Initiative is the kind of news we need right now. An example of people coming together to create healthier communities and schools that support compassion, justice, and awareness. What if this was a significant part of the answer to so many questions in education?

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More Thrive Global on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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