Mindfulness in Education Begins to Thrive — An Interview with School Psychologist Mary Spence

Interview by Bill Zirinsky | Photos by Linda Lawson

Bill Zirinsky: Mary, mindfulness has arrived, or at least the word “mindfulness” is everywhere in the culture at large. You said to me that you "hope it survives its popularity." Simply stated, what is mindfulness?

Mary Spence: The definition of mindfulness provided by its founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn, includes three essential components: 1) Paying attention in the present moment, 2) On purpose and 3) Without judgment.

I want mindfulness to survive its popularity because I believe that the practice of being mindful can remind us of who we really are, bring us back to our common humanity, and invite us to remain integrated in mind and body. Even though I doubt we will see mindfulness practices adopted universally in schools or other governmental organizations, I am hopeful that the work will continue to grow and be valued, particularly as one of the essential skill-sets for the development of social-emotional learning (SEL). [Social and emotional learning (SEL) involves understanding and managing emotions, setting and achieving positive goals, feeling and showing empathy for others, establishing and maintaining positive relationships, and making responsible decisions, according to CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.]

I think the widespread interest in mindfulness practices can remind us all that we need to “create space” in our lives through reflection and creative pursuits — something I believe to be sorely lacking in our fast-paced, techno-driven, results-oriented society.

Bill Zirinsky: How is mindfulness different from meditation?

Mary Spence: I suspect that depends on who you talk to, especially with the increasing interest in mindfulness. Whenever a new, particularly salient method of relief from suffering becomes popularized, so too do the number of iterations in how people define it. My view is that mindfulness is a broader term than meditation. It refers to one’s ability to live life from a less ego-driven, fear-based place. Usually this is best accomplished from a deep understanding of the nature of the mind and practices that allow you to regularly make contact with, and sustain connection to, the spaciousness of your inner awareness.

Meditation is typically the vehicle by which this most readily occurs and I’m a staunch advocate of developing a meditation practice for individual well-being. Nowadays, learning to meditate is recognized as a stand-alone practice and recommended by many, including WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, and other medical/mental health pundits. Extensive studies are documenting the benefits of regular meditation practice on the brain’s health and well-being. However, I don’t believe that it is essential to developing a mindful presence in your life. For me, mindfulness is being contemplative and compassionate, to yourself as well as others; letting go of ego; and recognizing our common humanity.

Historically, meditation practices were frequently affiliated with religious or spiritual traditions. Scholarly definitions of meditation include differentiating between focused and open awareness, with mindfulness practices viewed in the latter category. Both meditation and mindfulness involve becoming silent and still for periods of time to allow for an inner focus. Some view mindfulness as a specific type of meditation practice, while others may see its use of inner focus overlapping with meditation, but broader because of the incorporation of neuroscience and didactic lessons about the nature of the mind, which is unique to secular, current-day mindfulness practice.

Bill Zirinsky: You are a school psychologist as well as a co-founder and board member of the Michigan Collaborative for Mindfulness in Education (MC4ME). We wrote about the organization last year in our Kids Column. From what I can gather, MC4ME is involved mostly in local outreach, and is functioning as a clearinghouse for the "local mindfulness in education community." It's been almost two years since it was founded. How's it going?

Mary Spence: It’s going great! We have clearly provided something people are interested in, filling the U-M Rackham Auditorium in April 2014 with our debut event, a showing of the movie Room to Breathe. We publish a quarterly newsletter and have almost 600 people on our mailing list. Though we do have a critical mass here in Ann Arbor, we elected to be a statewide organization with a mission of using mindfulness for transforming Michigan school communities.

Our events have included bringing national-level trainers to teach specific curricula, e.g., Dr. Trish Broderick’s Learning to BREATHE for adolescents in March 2015, presentations at state and national conferences on the importance of mindfulness to SEL and the use of mindfulness in special education, movie showings with facilitated practice and discussion, and leading retreats as well as peer gatherings for colleagues interested in using mindfulness in their teaching practice. We also collaborated with the Ann Arbor Center for Mindfulness in October 2015 to sponsor Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading expert in self-compassion, and Skyped her into Crazy Wisdom’s monthly book discussion series last August to answer audience questions.

Beyond that, many of us are teaching mindfulness regularly in classrooms in various school districts, including Ann Arbor, the Flint area, Birmingham, and Southfield, as well as providing educator and parent trainings. Dr. Rita Benn, co-president of MC4ME, just completed teaching an eight-week course in mindfulness for educators in the Oakland County Schools, which sold out.

We get contacted regularly for support from community members interested in our work and we’re open to discussing how we can meet the need, including working to ensure our organizational structure will allow for ways to subsidize high-risk populations getting services. We’re reaching out to potential donors who believe in our mission and through their generosity can help us build sustainable, to-scale mindfulness programs in schools. We’re dedicated to fostering the teaching and dissemination of mindfulness practices in K-12 and higher education using best practices, established curricula, and scientific evidence. Our vision: Compassionate and mindful school communities throughout Michigan, where all students thrive.

BZ: Is the MC4ME soon to be bringing any new workshops or special programs to the area?

Mary Spence: We’re constantly planning upcoming events. We are currently providing a mindfulness curriculum to Girls’ Group, a local organization that seeks to empower middle - and high - school girls to achieve emotional and economic security by graduating from high school and becoming first-generation college graduates. We’re excited to be leading a half-day retreat on mindfulness practices on January 23, 2016, at the University of Michigan. We will be presenting on “Mindfulness in Society” as part of Zingerman’s popular ZingTrain series sometime this spring. Dr. Sam Himelstein, former executive director of the Mind-Body Awareness Project, will be coming to provide training on using mindfulness practices in the area of substance abuse on April 15-17, 2016. The best way to stay in touch is to go to our website (www.mc4me.org) and also sign up for our mailing list.

BZ: Why mindfulness now? Why mindfulness in education?

Mary Spence: Michigan is hovering in the low 30’s out of the 50 states when it comes to a child's overall well-being, as ranked by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Our aim is to impact this ranking, which is based on 16 key indicators, including economic and educational measures. A recently released federal school health model supported by the Centers for Disease Control, entitled “Whole Child, Whole Community, Whole School,” supports the more holistic approach to well-being, recognizing the critical connection to learning and achievement. We believe MC4ME is part of that work and schools are the venue to reach all children most readily.

With decreased school funding and the increasingly stressful working conditions educators face — 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within five years — we know this work can be of benefit to the development of resilience in children, as well as to educators and parents who are committed to children’s well-being. Without resilient teachers and parents, it’s difficult for children to thrive. Compassion fatigue is, sadly, alive and well for many parents and teachers who deeply care about their children’s futures when the horizon, at times, looks pretty bleak. Resilience is hard to develop without hope.

BZ: What are the benefits of a mindful curriculum in the educational sphere?

Mary Spence: The research evidence with children is still relatively new, compared to over three decades of scientific research with adults illustrating the positive effects of mindfulness training, with brain-imaging, as well as more traditional treatment/behavior research, both validating the benefits. The studies that have been conducted with child populations are beginning to replicate adult-level findings. However, premier researchers, such as Mark Greenberg, caution that the findings are not “rigorous, robust, and long-term,” which has merit.

Mindfulness complements the SEL movement by teaching children the specific skills important to real self-awareness and self-management. Linda Lantieri recently wrote an amazingly wise treatise in the Huffington Post about mindfulness and SEL that is worth reading. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vicki-zakrzewski-phd/how-sel-and-mindfulness-c_b_7057018.html.

While I suspect there may be some turf issues at hand between proponents of SEL and advocates for mindfulness, reasoned people likely can acknowledge that not all learning comes from didactic teaching, and many of our “a-ha” moments are generated from within. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, talks about the importance of “bottom-up” knowledge, which is otherwise involuntary, automatic, and out of conscious awareness, providing much more information about how to live by our values and sense of purpose than ‘top-down” (didactic) lessons — and I concur with that. I welcome more rigorous and longitudinal studies of mindfulness with children but, in the trench of education, many of us are not willing to wait another 20 years. A recent article in The Atlantic by Lauren Cassini Davis posited a rationale I concur with: “As Paul Tough argued and popularized in How Children Succeed, stress early in life can prompt a cascade of negative effects, psychologically and neurologically — poor self-control and underdeveloped executive function, in particular. The U.S. education system’s focus on cognitive intelligence — IQ scores and academic skills like arithmetic — undermines the development of equally vital forms of non-cognitive intelligence. This type of intelligence entails dimensions of the mind that are difficult to quantify: It is the foundation of good character, resilience, and long-term life fulfillment. It is this part of the mind that mindfulness seeks to address.”

The additional benefit for embedding mindfulness practices into educational environments is that it allows the staff to take short respites to recalibrate their own well-being, something we know is important for two key aspects of optimal functioning: focus and emotional regulation. However, in the moment-to-moment experience of teaching, finding these small but valuable spaces is often very difficult. MC4ME believes that in order for our children to learn and learn well, they must feel valued, be mind/body healthy, and be surrounded by similarly situated adults.

BZ: You told me you started doing yoga at age 15. How did that transpire?

Mary Spence: I attended an open school, affiliated with Mankato State College in Minnesota, where my father was director of the Art Department. Because I was attending an open school, I could take classes in most any shape and variety, including college-level classes. The college president’s wife, Nita Nickerson, was my first yoga teacher. She began the first class with her personal story about having contracted tuberculosis earlier in her life and being told she would never walk again, so she started doing yoga. Needless to say, that story had great impact on me and I’ve been a practicing yogi, more and less, since then. There is something about being made aware of big ideas during adolescence — in this case, the importance of remaining centered and creating space in our physical bodies — that can have real staying power.

BZ: And have you continued to meditate through the decades?

Mary Spence: Well, I’m a hard luck story when it comes to practice. While I continued to do yoga as part of a regular exercise program — long before physical education programs valued the great benefits it provides in both strength and flexibility — I didn’t really get intrigued on the experiential level about meditation until I was in my late 40’s. Don’t get me wrong; I always thought meditation was a great idea conceptually, but I was too busy, too outer focused, too engaged with the world and in being productive to take it up.

I think it was when I had young children and was working full-time, simultaneous to completing a PhD, that the edges of my Type A-ness began to fray. My intellectual curiosity about how Western psychology was beginning to interface with Eastern philosophies, particularly Buddhism, really took hold. Though I meditated on and off (mostly off), it was my involvement with the research initiative M-SMART in 2010 with the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor Public Schools that concretized my meditation practice.

BZ: You told me that meditation had been "a nice thing to do," but that now it's more than that. What is it now?

Mary Spence: Now meditation is a daily practice that helps me stay connected with my inner being. It’s a definite boon to my own mental health. Without surprise to those of us in the helping professions, my own balance and well-being greatly affects the accessibility of my professional skills in my work with others. As I have grown in my mindfulness practice, I have been able to encourage and nurture others in their practice as well.

A number of my colleagues have told me that I have helped to mentor them to develop their own practices — including key mindfulness concepts such as generosity, compassion, and impermanence — and to integrate these into their work with students and their families. This is very gratifying to me personally to know I have made a difference to teachers, students, and their families. I think I am most honored to do this work when I have been able to facilitate teachers and parents in their approach to working with a challenging student, rather than get lost in the blame game with each other, so common when life “goes wrong.” Ultimately, our children are the beneficiaries of this difficult, but possible, change in how we manage school-related problems at the systemic level.

BZ: You did a seminal study with Rita Benn on using mindfulness with teachers and parents of kids with special needs, about five years ago. Tell us about that study, please.

Mary Spence: After I began working as a school psychologist for the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) in 2009, I met Rita Benn through Jacque Eccles of the Mind Life Institute. Rita proposed that we offer a secular mindfulness curriculum in the Ann Arbor Public Schools that had already been studied with general education teachers in a couple different locations. We wanted to see how mindfulness training would impact individuals who are often considered to have very high stress levels — in this case, special education professionals and parents of children with disabilities. Rita served as the primary investigator on this study, M-SMART (Michigan-Stress Management and Relaxation Training), with the support of AAPS Superintendent Todd Roberts and Special Education Director Larry Simpson. The findings were comparable to previous SMART findings, with increases in the use of mindfulness practices, including self-compassion and empathy, along with reductions in depression, anxiety, and overall stress. These changes were seen at the end of the intervention, as well as at the two-month follow-up.

BZ: How is mindfulness at the base of social-emotional learning (SEL)?

Mary Spence: SEL has been invaluable in helping mandate more focus on critical relational skills and demonstrated significant increases in academic growth (see CASEL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning www.casel.org) When SEL programming is implemented in schools with fidelity, achievement scores are boosted on average of a full standard deviation. Currently, there are three legislative bills in Congress (HR 497 & 850, S. 897) that would require schools to train and support teachers in SEL in all schools. Five key competencies define SEL: 1) Self-awareness, 2) Self-management, 3) Social awareness, 4) Relationship skills, and 5) Responsible decision-making.

SEL curricula are typically didactic and cognitively based techniques. While these programs are of great benefit, I believe they are limited by the lack of teaching children an inner focus. Teaching children about the nature of the mind, i.e. mindfulness, helps with deep skill development in two of the key areas of SEL: self-awareness and self-management. I think that, without mindfulness, the programs often remain proscriptive and don’t capitalize on the inner knowledge, often so essential when struggling with social-emotional issues. By teaching the ability to go within and utilize their inner awareness, children will be better able to use more of the skills that are the bread and butter of SEL programs.

Together, mindfulness approaches with SEL programming are very promising in giving children a great start to having both productive and happy lives. What more could we ask for?

BZ: What have been the areas of focus for you, in your career as a school psychologist?

Mary Spence: I started out my career in a number of social service settings, including protective services, community mental health, state hospitals, and a psychiatric prison. I mention my earlier background as I think it was formative in my professional role now. My strong advocacy for mindfulness is undoubtedly borne out of my extensive experience in knowing first-hand the significant limitations that systems have in supporting the very individuals we are relegated to serve. The issues schools face are mirrored in most every other health and human service organization I know, likely in part due to the limited resources available to the organization and the unlimited needs of the consumers of those services.

I’ve worked with a number of students who have had substantial challenges and, from each one of them, I have learned a great deal. My professional interests include systemic applications of mindfulness to education, universal design of supports for students, advocating for a well-being emphasis in schools, improving transition services for older students, stopping the school-to-prison pipeline, and building programs of social-emotional support for students, teachers, administrators, and families.

BZ: Tell us about your evolution as a school psychologist, in the context of the need for mindfulness in education. Where have you seen a need that wasn't being met, and how/why does mindfulness help to meet that need? How does mindfulness help teachers and staff?

Mary Spence: Teachers and staff rarely have much of an opportunity to stop and reflect on what’s happening in the stream of consciousness called teaching. Working in school environments has an intensity like no other. Teachers often don’t get breaks or lunch hours and must work additional hours without compensation to meet the needs of their students. As a rule, they are highly devoted to helping children and their families in all kinds of ways and their devotion can easily shift into unhealthy levels of worry and anxiety. Sometimes, this stress can really become a burden and affect their ability to maintain perspective, especially when dealing with a challenging student or when a number of students who struggle with focus or emotional regulation are placed in their classroom.

Recently, I co-taught a pilot program called “Cool Tools for School” with an occupational therapist colleague. The 2nd grade class was heavily impacted with children who had disabilities. The teacher, who participated in a mindfulness program along with her class, said, “One thing I really liked about mindfulness was that it gave the children a common language and got them thinking about their internal feelings...how they could help settle themselves... I also liked taking some time as a class to really focus on how we were feeling internally, and hopefully being able to get as many of us as possible to the ‘just right’ place (for learning). Finally, I thought it was great that this was something in which all of us participated. I think when kids see teachers doing something, they may be a bit more invested in it themselves.”

Mindfulness acknowledges teachers have a hard job and often can put them back in touch with why they got involved in the profession in the first place — because they deeply care about children — and helps them to sustain that intention, even with all the demands placed on them day after day.

BZ: How does mindfulness help kids who suffer?

Mary Spence: While I believe mindfulness practices should be a standard part of any comprehensive SEL curriculum in schools, individual students often benefit from individual support using these practices. I am currently working with a student in preparation for a major surgery coming up that weighs heavily on her mind and impedes her ability to focus in school — understandably. I also have done brief interventions for children who are dealing with issues related to anxiety, anger/aggression, or focus, to teach them basic mindfulness skills, with the approval of the parents, teacher, and school administration.

One of these students was a young boy who had been at the same school for two years and continually had problems with controlling his anger. This often led to other children getting hurt and, when staff tried to intervene, the student became even more defiant, often spending hours in the office and missing class. Eventually, he was referred to special education and certified as emotionally impaired. The following year, he began learning about mindfulness with me. The transformation in his behavior was nothing short of amazing, once he began to understand that he had a choice when he found himself experiencing strong, negative emotions.

This past school year, he has required very little discipline. The school staff are thinking that he may be able to be de-certified from special education with such dramatic improvement in managing himself. His mother has seen him teaching other children at home when they are really upset. Recently, when he was asked how he might help a younger student who was having a hard time controlling his anger like he used to, he smiled and asked the student, "Do you want to learn mindfulness?"

BZ: How can a mindfulness curriculum help elementary school kids? And is it being implemented with young kids currently in the Ann Arbor area?

Mary Spence: Absolutely, mindfulness can help elementary-aged children! In fact, I believe that introducing children early in their development improves their ability to focus and regulate their emotions — two areas often cited when students are struggling. Studies on cognitive control and SEL show long-term positive effects from teaching these skills to children and I believe mindfulness will be found to be a great vehicle to augment some of the already existing outer-focus methods.

Because mindfulness uses moment-to-moment awareness, it has parallels to essential elements of play. This makes it perfect to teach young children, who often don’t live in their heads as much as we do once we’ve been socialized to sit still, think, and produce. Ironically, by honoring this important connection between mind and body, the end goal we desire is much more likely to authentically take hold, so that teachers can more readily teach good curriculum without having to wade thru all the classroom management issues. A great video of children telling us in their own words how mindfulness has benefitted them can be found at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVA2N6tX2cg

How much mindfulness practices are being used in the Ann Arbor area is not something I have a good handle on. It makes me think that a needs assessment survey would be a great idea. I know I utilize these practices in all the schools that I service and a significant number of my colleagues, especially teachers, are finding the benefits of mindfulness strategies and using them in their classrooms. There is increasing interest in making mindfulness a part of what happens in schools; advocates for the work can be found in all major stakeholder groups, including ancillary staff charged with mental health support, teachers, parents, administrators, and the students themselves.

BZ: What about mindfulness for middle-school kids, is it being implemented at all? What's the particular need for that age group and how might mindfulness begin to make a difference?

Mary Spence: Middle-school-aged children also reap benefits from learning these skills and being in environments that are open, creative, and exploratory. One student approached their middle school administrators about continuing mindfulness classes, after having been taught mindfulness at an elementary school the year before. I think that mindfulness work is most suitable for helping middle-school youth through this often-tempestuous developmental period.

Ann Arbor Open School (AAO) has really embraced mindfulness principles at all levels, including in its middle-school-level program. Because individual learning and deep connections between teachers and students are central tenets to the open education philosophy, an emphasis on the development of SEL skills has been a priority within the school since its inception. As secular mindfulness programs developed, staff already deeply knowledgeable about SEL practices readily saw the value of incorporating mindfulness into their instructional practice.

During 2009–2010, a number of AAO staff participated in the M-SMART program, including Kit Flynn. Kit was then AAO’s Media Specialist and took her training with M-SMART to heart in her teaching practice. When she was promoted to AAO’s principal in 2011, one of her first actions was the purchase of the MindUP curriculum for all K–8 teachers, using school improvement funds. [MindUP is a program from actress Goldie Hawn’s Hawn Foundation that offers a set of social, emotional and self-regulatory strategies and skills, developed for pre-K through middle school students.]

In 2013, Edie Linton, one of the participating teachers, followed up to secure a grant from the AAO Coordinating Council to purchase supporting literature and nonfiction books referenced in the MindUP teacher materials. Teachers have been excited about having access to these materials and are currently integrating many of the lessons in their classrooms.

In 2010, a federal mandate required all schools to develop a Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) program. In 2011, AAO’s PBIS Committee membership included several graduates of M-SMART, which shaped the direction of the committee’s work. The committee proposed three key tenets to be the main focus of this program: 1) Be kind, 2) Work hard, and 3) Be mindful. The PBIS plan was adopted school-wide and, as a result, mindfulness was also incorporated into the School Improvement Plan in 2012.

In addition to these events, trained staff began to teach the mindfulness curriculum as guest teachers in a number of classrooms. During the 2013–2014 school year, the Mindful Schools curriculum was taught in a 3rd/4th grade classroom as well as a resource room. During the 2014–2015 school year, the curriculum was taught in a 5th/6th classroom and three of the four 3rd/4th grade classrooms, with intentions to expand it in the future.

BZ: And what about high school students? You told me that many kids are prescribed psychoactive medication and most kids experiment with drugs and alcohol, with a subset of those using an unhealthy amount of substances or becoming addicted. In addition, suicide is a concern. Please give us some examples or stories of how mindfulness can help teenagers.

Mary Spence: Adolescents today are vulnerable to stress in a myriad of ways. Adolescents often experience feeling “out of control.” When unduly stressed, the developing mind of the adolescent may not yet have found healthy ways to cope with the intense, changing landscape that is part of transitioning to adulthood. They are susceptible to using emotional avoidance strategies like substance abuse, which can, sadly, become a habitual way of coping into their adult lives.

As I previously mentioned, we sponsored Dr. Trish Broderick’s “Learning to BREATHE (L2B)” training here for adolescents last March and are very supportive of that work. Research on L2B has found that students who have taken the curriculum:
1) Strengthen their emotional regulation, 2) Are better able to focus their attention, 3) Manage stress more effectively, and 4) Show improvements in both interpersonal skills and academic performance, as well as report improvements to their overall well-being.

The classroom-level work I am doing with adolescents this year is already very gratifying. They are attentive and curious about the nature of their minds.  While the lessons are 15 minutes in length, students have asked to have them extended and have been very excited about learning new skills to “go within.” A number of research studies on mindfulness have been conducted with adolescents, showing effectiveness around a number of mental health concerns. Readers are encouraged to check out this YouTube video for a look at what adolescents say after participating in mindfulness training. Pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist Dr. Dzung Vo eloquently articulates how accessible mindfulness can be with some training and how it can be of great benefit to adolescents, who are at a pivotal time in their life’s development: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kk7IBwuhXWM.

BZ: Tell us about the documentary film, Room to Breathe, for which you held a showing in 2014.

Mary Spence: Room to Breathe is a documentary film about an Oakland, California school's journey into mindfulness in a middle school program. School officials agreed to allow Mindful Schools, a then small but dedicated group of professionals, to come teach mindfulness in classrooms, really out of desperation. The school administration and teachers noted that the students were so unfocused and emotionally charged that learning academic content was really compromised. “Room to Breathe” shows how the use of mindfulness can be transformative and generates deep discussion among those who are open to the work about how to move forward. We love the film and are available to facilitate showings of it, as well as several other documentaries that spark interest in the work. See www.roomtobreathefilm.com and contact MC4ME if you’d like us to come for a showing.

BZ: What books do you recommend to our readers on mindfulness, and on mindfulness in education?

Mary Spence: There are SO many choices out there, it’s hard to give a succinct listing of books. There are a number of great children’s books worth exploring in Crazy Wisdom’s children’s books section. Some of my favorite recent titles include Dan Siegel’s Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion books, Trish Broderick’s Learning to Breathe: A Mindfulness Curriculum for Adolescents to Cultivate Emotion Regulation, Attention, and Performance, and Daniel Rechtschaffen’s The Way of Mindful Education: Cultivating Well-Being in Teachers and Students.

BZ: Has the MC4ME been sponsoring gatherings, bringing interested educators together?

Mary Spence: Yes, our peer gathering meetings have allowed us to meet with educators to share practice tips, resources, and a sense of community with other educators who are doing the work. Often, people don’t have much support in their own school environments for incorporating the mindfulness curriculum, so this has been useful in helping sustain peoples’ heartfelt desire to embed mindfulness in their teaching practices. We also invite retreat participants to join us for lunch afterward, which provides a great opportunity to network with others doing the work. We hope to continue this service to educators and to include discussions with school administrators about how to bring the mindfulness work to scale, as interest and knowledge of its benefits increases.

BZ: You told me that MC4ME is "building an infrastructure for educators." How?

Mary Spence: We offer trainings that provide the kind of skill-sets that support teachers’ emotional well-being, knowing that the amazing work teachers do is greatly enhanced when they care for themselves. We obtain the kinds of professional credits educators need to remain certified, such as SCECHs for educators and CEUs for social workers. Because we know many teachers have taken substantial pay cuts in recent years, we try to ensure that they can take care of the obligatory training while also tending to their well-being.

BZ: You've got a great board of directors, and our readers can read about your colleagues on the website. But, please tell us who each person is, in just a sentence or two.

Mary Spence: Okay, here goes:

Rita Benn spearheaded the formation of MC4ME and serves as a co-president. She is the director of the Faculty Scholars Program in Integrative Healthcare at the University of Michigan and is the primary investigator in a recently published study about the influence of secular mindfulness curriculum (M-SMART) on well-being for parents of children with special needs and school personnel. She has been practicing meditation for 30 years. Rita is facilitating mindfulness training for the Girls’ Group and just completed a mindfulness class for educators at Oakland County Schools.

Veronica Sanitate is an owner and vice president of Ocean Organics Corp. as well as a published poet, writer, and Reiki Master healing practitioner. She began her professional career as a secondary teacher, so she knows what life is like in the classroom. Veronica has a long-held passion for education and a deep desire to aid those who are not served by our current systems, as well as being a strong advocate of social justice.

Sandra Finkel has been teaching meditation for 30 years and is co-founder of Jewel Heart Buddhist Center. She is the owner of Intentional Balance, LLC, a mental health performance consulting company serving individuals and groups in business, education, health care, and athletics. She has taught mindfulness and other focusing skills at University of Michigan’s Medical School and Ross School of Business, and to the U-M men’s basketball team from 2011–2013. Her collaboration with Barbara Frederickson researching the effects of lovingkindness meditation on positive emotions and flourishing is featured in Frederickson’s book Positivity. She is also facilitating mindfulness training at the Girls’ Group.

Mary Ann Morris worked in education for 40 years as a teacher, guidance counselor, and school psychologist and has a deep knowledge about what it’s like to work in schools every day. She is dedicated to supporting the teaching of mindfulness in schools. Mary Ann does considerable outreach work, meeting with parents or school staff who are interested in mindfulness programming, and helps us connect the dots by her voracious love of reading current trends in education. She is co-leading a Girls’ Group at Tappan Middle School in Ann Arbor.

Kristin Ervin is one of the MC4ME co-presidents and has taken a real lead in our organization’s development. She is founder and teacher at Got Mindfulness, LLC, facilitating mindfulness training in schools in Oakland County. Kristin has received her certification in mindfulness from Mindful Schools as well as from the Mindful Education Institute, where she studied under Jon Kabat-Zinn and Jack Kornfield. It is her passion to educate kids about their inner world of thoughts and emotions by expanding the movement of mindfulness and education and social and emotional learning. She is currently teaching mindfulness in 6th grade classrooms in the Southfield schools.

Trice Berlinski is certified through Mindful Schools, MindUP, and Mindfulness in Schools to teach mindfulness to children and as a meditation instructor through the University of Holistic Theology. She is the owner of Presence to Pupils, LLC, a mindfulness meditation-based consulting service with clients including the Fenton Parks and Recreation system, yoga studios, and elite athletes. She also worked for the Crim Fitness Foundation in Flint teaching mindfulness to teachers, to children in the classroom, and others.

BZ: Thanks, Mary, for this greatly informative overview.

Mary Spence: Thank you, Bill, my pleasure.

Posted on December 31, 2015 .