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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Long Game: 4 Essentials for a Successful Mindfulness Program

Patrick Cook Deegan

Founder, Patrick Cook-Deegan Mindfulness Mentoring and Consulting
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A closeup of a young girl, close-mouth smiling, with her chin resting on her right hand.

Now that the mindfulness in education movement is nearing the end of its first decade, there are a few schools that have built exemplary mindfulness programs. In Implementing a Schoolwide Mindfulness Program, I looked at the ten things to consider while developing your program. This post looks at the key ingredients and lessons learned from successful mindfulness programs that are more than five years old. I've studied dozens of these programs at public and private schools across the world, and I've found four components that lead to the successful development of any such program.

1. Have a Vision

Mindfulness is not a magic elixir, and its power does not come overnight. When schools implement mindfulness as a quick fix, it loses a lot of its power. A number of schools have started mindfulness programs in reaction to a traumatic school event or student stress hitting all-time high levels. One school in North Carolina started their program after a student and alumni death. Another school started as a way to combat student stress, but otherwise didn't change anything about the culture or structure of the school. I know administrators who started these programs with their hearts in the right place and with strong intentions, but the programs failed to have a meaningful impact on changing the mental health of students or the culture of the school.

It's better to launch the program with a long-term vision in place. Schools with the most long-term success have had the benefit of a school champion (or champions) holding onto the vision of what the school would look and feel like with mindfulness embedded in its culture. These champions were dedicated mindfulness practitioners whose deep passion and experience with mindfulness changed their own lives. Nearly every long-term successful mindfulness program that I've seen can be traced back to a champion dedicated to bringing his or her vision to the school.

2. Tool or Practice?

More and more, mindfulness is being taught as a tool to help students deal with stress, or even do better on tests. While this isn't harmful, it misses the depth of what's possible. Mindfulness at its core is a practice, something you're doing all the time and aware of in a moment-to-moment experience. It's not simply a tool that you turn on when you're stressed or studying for a test. For mindfulness to be transformative and not simply a helpful tool, it has to be taught as a practice. In other words, it has to be interwoven throughout the culture of a school. You can't just have mindfulness class without bringing it into other areas of students' and faculty members' lives. In Mindfulness at School Outside the Classroom, I talked about a how a school could broaden the practice to help students, coaches, and teachers adopt it nonacademic ways so that it doesn't seem like a stand-alone activity.

3. Culture Change

Yes, an effective mindfulness program will likely reduce student stress. But in my view, the long game of a mindfulness program is to help change the school culture into one where students are more compassionate, self-aware, and introspective. This could be a culture where students and faculty treat each other more kindly, are able to enjoy their lives more, and take time to appreciate the school days instead of just getting through them. This may sound like fluffy stuff, but isn't this the point of educating students and helping their humanity blossom?

As an example, the Middlesex School started its mindfulness program in the spring of 2010. This was an uphill battle for a rather conservative New England boarding school. However, mindfulness classes proved popular with students and later with faculty, so the program kept developing under the leadership of a mindfulness champion. As we near the end of fall 2015, over 90 percent of students and approximately 70 percent of faculty will have taken a nine-week mindfulness course. As a result, the culture of the school is changing. Students rave about the class, and many long-time skeptical faculty members have come around.

4. Do Research

A key to any mindfulness program's long-term success is the research needed to show funders, administrators, parents, and students the effects of mindfulness on a school. For example, Cambridge and Exeter University developed this study (PDF) to evaluate the work of the U.K.-based Mindfulness in Schools Project. Proper research takes time, and it's important to build a study so that it shows results. Demonstrating before and after measures for straightforward evaluation will give you a lot of credibility when anyone down the line challenges the program. It will also allow you to reevaluate what isn't working and push you to create a more effective program. If you have plans for a long-term schoolwide mindfulness program, I would suggest partnering with an academic institution before you start your program, with the intention of doing a long-term study.

Takeaways for the Long Game

  • Step 1: Begin with a vision and champions who will hold onto that vision.
  • Step 2: Teach mindfulness as a practice, not as just a tool.
  • Step 3: Maintain the overall goal of creating culture change instead of simply reducing stress or improving grades.
  • Step 4: Measure your program's results over time -- and set up a means of evaluation before you get started.

In the comments section below, please tell us about your experiences with or intentions for a schoolwide mindfulness program.

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Mindfulness in School and Beyond
Teaching students to focus on the present moment with compassion and without judgment can begin a beneficial life habit.

Patrick Cook Deegan

Founder, Patrick Cook-Deegan Mindfulness Mentoring and Consulting
In This Series
Teaching students to focus on the present moment with compassion and without judgment can begin a beneficial life habit.

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