Special educators have demanding jobs: long hours, few breaks, and countless responsibilities throughout the school day teaching students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The work can be stressful, and that stress and can take its toll if it is not addressed in a timely manner. The need for self-care was the impetus behind the mindfulness training offered through the Spring 2018 Britt Henderson Training Series for Educators.
The annual Britt Henderson Training Series is provided at no cost through an endowment from the Robert and Carol Henderson family in memory of their son Britt. The curriculum changes from year to year, but its overall purpose remains the same: to offer training in innovative evidence-based practices to improve the quality of education for students with diverse learning needs.
In 2018, the focus was to provide stress reduction techniques to special educators and, in turn, to improve the classroom experience for both teacher and students.
Mindfulness, by definition, is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
This year’s facilitator Roxanne Carreon led two cohorts through 6 weeks of mindfulness training, during which participants learned how to apply mindfulness techniques to their teaching practices. The weekly sessions addressed recognizing stress responses, mindfulness techniques for relaxation, applying Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction techniques to the classroom, addressing negative emotions, and cultivating a positive environment.
Carreon began her mindfulness journey a few years ago when she served as a research coordinator for the Parent Stress Intervention Project led by principal investigator Elizabeth Dykens, Ph.D., professor of Psychology, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, and Pediatrics, and co-director for the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VKC UCEDD). All the individuals teaching the stress reduction strategies were themselves parents of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“There were two parts of the study. We compared positive psychology to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in terms of reducing stress for parents who have kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I was teaching the arm that was associated with positive psychology, which we called Positive Parenting,” said Carreon. “But there was just something about one of my colleagues, Karen Pilkerton, who taught the mindfulness portion of the study. There was just a peace about her. There was just a way that she was moving through life that I was very attracted to. I started paying more attention to mindfulness and actually had an opportunity to co-facilitate those groups with her. It was from exposure and my personal contact with Karen, knowing what her life experience was, that really drew me to it.
“I have a son with Down syndrome,” Carreon added. “That’s what made this project so helpful to parents, was that the facilitators themselves have children with disabilities.”
Carreon continued in her journey of mindfulness training when Dykens asked her to facilitate groups of special educators as part of this year’s Henderson Training.
“In my opinion, one of the greatest gifts of practicing mindfulness is that it helps us develop the ability ‘see’ and to think more clearly. When our minds are clouded with negative thoughts and emotions like fear, anger, or grief, our ability to make healthy decisions can be significantly diminished,” she said. “Mindfulness helps us cultivate what is our mind’s natural state: that of spaciousness and calm. It is in that space that we are able to make healthier decisions. This skill can be especially helpful for teachers in a special education classroom where there are lots of personalities and external distractions. A teacher who is able to make more skillful decisions in responding to a child’s needs benefits both the child and themselves. There’s no magic bullet and mindfulness is cultivated over time and with practice, but it can be life-changing when it comes to reducing stress.”
At the beginning of each session in the Henderson Training Series, participants would start out with a few minutes of seated meditation to transition into the space and settle into the class. Next, they would perform a few minutes of a Chinese system of physical exercises and breathing control called qigong. Participants would then dive into the 6-week study guide where they discussed the tenets of mindfulness and how to apply it in their everyday lives. They would close each session with another round of meditation.
“Our first priority in the training was reducing stress, because teaching can be a very stressful job,” said Carreon. “As a parent, I know that having a child with a disability can be stressful, so I can only imagine that the level of stress that teachers experience is significantly multiplied given that they are responsible for several students during the day. So if there’s a way that I can help teachers feel less stressed and help them have more quality experience in the classroom, I want to be able to do that, and I want the kids to benefit from that as well. Everyone wins when you’re in a calm state of mind when you’re interacting with someone else, especially if it’s a situation that can be emotionally challenging, as can sometimes occur in the classroom.
“It’s really rewarding to me when the educators share what they’ve tried in the classroom,” she continued. “And the good news is that it’s not something you use only in the classroom. You don’t ‘turn it on’ when you arrive and ‘turn it off’ when you leave. Because life gives us lots of opportunities to ‘practice,’ the hope is that you carry it with you throughout all of the experiences in your life; moment by moment.”
This year’s Britt Henderson Training Series concluded at the end of April, but coordinators are already planning for next year when Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Reading Clinic staff will train educators how to teach reading to students and reading instructional methods for struggling readers to teachers using distance technology.
“We aim to examine the platforms needed to systematically instruct both students and teachers from remote locations,” said Sissy Peters, VKC Reading Clinic associate program manager. “While the specific details are still being finalized, we hope to pilot the project in the Reading Clinic over the summer and possibly extend to several schools in the fall.
“Each year, I’m motivated by the positive feedback we get from educators who take part in the Henderson Training Series, who take what they’ve learned and put it into practice in their respective schools,” said Elise McMillan, J.D., VKC UCEDD co-director and senior lecturer in Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences. “We’re looking forward to having Sissy and the VKC Reading Clinic staff take on this exciting opportunity to share what they learn from this pilot project with teachers from across the state.”
The motivation behind 2018-19 Henderson Series focus is limited availability of educational intervention services available to some school systems in more rural or less populated areas of Tennessee.
“At the VKC Reading Clinic, we have access to some of the most cutting-edge evidence-based practices for reading. Those interventions can be, and are, accessed by families who travel up to an hour to attend our clinic,” Peters said. “But we are constantly thinking about the children and educators who live outside the Nashville area. Do they have access to the same instruction? In this particular Henderson Series, we are trying to think more globally about how we can share these resources and teaching strategies with children and schools outside the Nashville area.”
For more information on the Britt Henderson Training Series for Educators, visit the Henderson Series webpage or contact Julia Strauss at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elizabeth Turner is associate program manager for VKC Communications.