Emerging science: Meditation for teachers

There is an ever-expanding scientific literature on the impact of meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, on health care professionals and their patients. This work is now spilling over into the academic arena. The August 2015 issue of the Mindfulness Research Monthly newsletter describes a recent study this way:

The high emotional demands of public school teaching can contribute to impaired teacher morale, professional burnout, and the fact that 40-50 of teachers quit teaching within their first five years on the job. …

… Prior research supports the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) in improving teacher well-being and reducing burnout, but what processes underlie their effectiveness? In a randomized, controlled trial, Taylor et al. [Mindfulness, online 17 July 2015, DOI 10.1007/s12671-015-0425-4] tested how a MBI affected teachers’ emotional regulation, forgiveness, and compassion, and whether these factors contributed, in turn, to reducing stress.

The researchers randomly assigned a predominantly female cohort of 59 Canadian elementary and secondary school teachers to either a Stress Management and Relaxation Training (SMART) program or a wait-list control. The 9-week SMART program shared components with MBSR (the body scan, sitting, walking, movement and eating meditations) and included specific training in emotional regulation, forgiveness and loving-kindness. Participants completed self-report measures before and after training and at four month follow-up. Participants were also interviewed after training about job stress and attitudes towards difficult students and colleagues.

The teachers found the SMART program “quite helpful.” SMART program teachers showed significant and large declines in occupational stress compared to controls, a difference that remained marginally significant at four month follow-up. In post-training interviews, SMART participants used significantly fewer negative emotional words than controls when discussing work stressors, and used significantly more positive emotional words than controls when describing challenging students. SMART participants also showed significant and moderately sized improvements on measures of emotional regulation efficacy and dispositional forgiveness compared to controls. Dispositional forgiveness was significantly associated with decreased stress.

This study extends previous findings supporting the efficacy of MBIs in reducing teacher stress, and clarifies distinct processes contributing to their potential efficacy. It is limited by its small sample size, lack of active controls and lack of in-classroom behavioral measures.