Social Emotional Learning and Mindfulness-based Contemplative Practices in Education: A Meditation from the Field

Mr. Gray, an educator in his second year of teaching in New York City wrote out his resignation letter and left it on his desk. As a final measure, he chose to attend a Renewal and Restoration Retreat for Educators provided by The Inner Resilience Program – a nonprofit organization started right after September 11, 2001 to help teachers in Lower Manhattan begin to heal and recover from the tragic events of that day. He felt he had nothing to lose. “I was so tired of trying to balance the pressures I was feeling, I wanted to quit. After the retreat I went home and ripped up the resignation letter sitting on my desk. I found that place in me that knows why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place.”

What allows an educator to stay strong, creative and connected to purpose amidst adversity while another to burn out and leave the field of education altogether? What inner resources do students, teachers and administrators draw upon in order to respond to moments of profound crisis and uncertainty in schools? Are schools preparing our children for a life of tests or the tests of life? For more than a decade, these are the questions the Inner Resilience Program has been grappling with. Mr. Gray, one of many educators in this country was teetering on the edge of burnout and happened to attend one of our retreats at the right time for him. But every day several gifted teachers leave the field of education due to the immense stresses they face. In fact, the modal year of experience in the American teaching force today is only one year – and the average years of experience have dropped by over 30% in the last decade.

The Inner Resilience Program is a research based social emotional learning program dedicated to the mission of cultivating the inner lives of students, teachers and schools by integrating social and emotional learning (SEL) with mindfulness-based contemplative practice. At its core, IRP programs provide the necessary tools for educators, parents and students to balance their inner and outer lives. By recognizing the role chronic stress plays in the lives of educators and their students, IRP focusses first on the adults in the lives of our children, and then on the children themselves.

At the cutting edge of the field of SEL is the emerging recognition that the components of social emotional learning when integrated with contemplative educational experiences are powerful. SEL competences such as self-awareness when integrated with mindfulness-based contemplative practice can take on a new depth of inner exploration, managing emotions becomes self-discipline and empathy becomes the basis for altruism caring and compassion. This integration not only gives teachers and students an opportunity to slow down enough to pay attention to their inner lives but also gives them pedagogical tools to cultivate skills that foster calm and resilience making them better teachers and students in the classroom. The benefits of regular practice can and often include increased self-awareness and self-understanding, greater ability to relax the body and release physical tension, improved concentration and the ability to cope with stressful situations in a more relaxed way improving communication between adults and children.

So it comes as no surprise that last week, mid-afternoon when a student in Mrs. Evelyn Fisher’s kindergarten class at Williamson Elementary School in Ohio walked quietly over to the peace corner and began to cry, within seconds she was surrounded by five other students. With gentle pats on her back, they coached her: “Breathe in, breathe out.” As a minute passed, a teacher walked over to them. “We got this…” said one of the students. Another minute passed, the student returned to her desk, her distress evaporated. “They didn’t need our help,” observed Martha King, a school counselor at Williamson and liaison for the Youngstown School District’s Skills for Life program, which was introduced last year as a collaborative effort between the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility and The Inner Resilience Program, “Because of this program, they have been given tools that they can use to help them to relax.”

With such practical tools and the necessary space for educators to renew their own connection to their vocation, IRP holds the vision that schools can be active, engaged and supportive learning communities that help inspire our young people so that they have every resource they need in order to become contributors to a just, peaceful and sustainable world.

About the Authors

Linda Lantieri

Linda Lantieri, MA has been in the field of education for over 40 years in a variety of capacities: classroom teacher, assistant principal, director of a middle school in East Harlem, and faculty member at Hunter College in New York City. She is a Fulbright Scholar and internationally known speaker in the areas of Social and Emotional Learning and Mindfulness in Education.

Currently she serves as the Director of The Inner Resilience Program whose mission is to cultivate the inner lives of students, teachers and schools by integrating social and emotional learning with contemplative practice. Linda is one of the co-founders and presently a Senior Program Advisor for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). She is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department of Columbia University, Teachers College.

Madhavi Nambiar, PhD

Senior Project Officer at Columbia University Medical Center
Columbia University Medical Center, Pacifica Graduate Institute