Calmer Choice, non-profit organization in Barnstable, Massachusetts Calmer Choice, non-profit organization in Barnstable, Massachusetts

Sometimes, It’s All About Who You Know (part 2 of 4)

So, you are probably all anxious to hear about those brain changes we alluded to in Part 1 of our story but…we’re not quite there yet. The seeds of our research journey really begin back in 1987!

Flashback to 1986...

Fiona: Mary?

Mary: Hi Fiona!

Fiona: Guess what? I’m getting married next year!?!

Mary: Wow, congratulations I’m so excited for you! The same guy we met at that conference at Boston University?

Fiona: Yes- Bob Jensen! We would love for you to be a bridesmaid at our wedding!

Mary: I would be honored.

Fast Forward 25 Years to 2011

Mary: Hi Fiona!

Fiona: Hi Mary, how’s it going at Tufts?

Mary: Really well. I’m hoping you can help me out with something. I’ve been thinking about your mindfulness project- the one you did the De-stress Express race for?

Fiona: Yes, did I tell you we are now an official non-profit! We are in a number of schools and have more teachers.

Mary: That’s great! So, I have an OT graduate student who is interested in studying the impact of mindfulness in school. Could you help her out? Maybe collaborate with us to explore with some students via a survey?

At this point in Calmer Choice history, we were just starting to get our feet wet in the sea of mindfulness education. From an organizational standpoint, we were mostly volunteer-driven, with a staff of 5 paid, part-time instructors and a curriculum that was being created as we were “flying the plane.”

All the staff had other jobs, and at the same time were dedicated to seeing this organization move forward. It became clear that part of moving forward was with data. The donors and Calmer Choice team members were asking for it. Luckily, Fiona is a ”Yes” person… so, when an opportunity comes knocking at your door in the middle of the night the only answer is Yes.

Our research journey began.

Mary’s graduate student, Svea Van Langenhoven, and the Calmer Choice team asked the question:

"How does a school-based mindfulness program affect children’s social-emotional learning?"

Well, that would certainly be a good thing to know when you are teaching mindfulness in schools, and one the donors wanted to be answered!

Svea, Mary, and Calmer Choice got to work. They quickly discovered that no survey tool existed for this specific question, so using the United Way Model and many hours of work, they created one geared toward kids and schools.

After going over all aspects of this initial stage of the project with a fine-toothed comb, we had Calmer Choice instructors CITI (Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative) trained, Institutional Review Board approval from Tufts, three school districts on board, and parental and student consent to participate.

We were ready to begin the surveying with the 3 main objectives of the research:

  1. Assess change in student social-emotional functioning
  2. Assess change in student regulation, attention, test anxiety, quality of sleep, coping skills, emotional awareness and empathy
  3. Assess how many students use mindfulness and for what purpose after receiving the curriculum

A total of 341 students in grades 3-6 were surveyed twice: once before the 16 lesson curriculum, and then again after.

They asked students questions about:

  • Emotional Self Awareness
  • Empathy
  • Relationship skills
  • Self-regulation (impulse control)
  • Empathy
  • Attention/focus
  • Emotional awareness of others (social awareness)
  • Coping
  • Attention
  • Sleep
  • Test anxiety
  • Define mindfulness
  • Playground scenarios

In the post-survey they were asked a few questions about how often they use mindfulness, where and why they use it, and if they have intentions of using it in the future.

A Connection Over Coffee

To make things even more exciting, in the midst of all this creation, over coffee–as the team certainly had to eat and take breaks while at Tufts–Fiona was introduced to Dr. Chris Willard, a Harvard-based psychologist and educational consultant specializing in mindfulness.

Dr. Willard had just published his first book “Growing Up Mindful.” Fiona and Chris began to form what has become a longstanding friendship. Chris soon joined the Calmer Choice Advisory Board and has been a cheerleader ever since.

Mary also introduced Fiona to Deb McCarthy, an occupational therapist and Tufts graduate, who was working on a project with Yale (hint: foreshadow). Fiona was certainly being immersed in academia, but she kept her eye on the prize of finishing up the project with Svea and Mary. The kids were finally being surveyed and the number-crunching could commence.

All of this surveying was done with paper and pencil, so Svea compiled and crunched all of the data herself up at Tufts (WOW!) Would you believe that we found every question on the survey showed a statistically significant result for the cohort of students who had self-identified difficulties?

It seems unlikely, so, they ran the numbers again. Yep, still significant.

Unfortunately, the tool used was not considered “valid and reliable” as far as official academic research is concerned (bummer). Research tools need to be standardized to be considered valid and reliable. So, committed as we were, we carefully created a tool because none existed for this purpose.

Over time this could change, however, for the time being, the information gleaned would only be used for internal purposes. Most importantly it could be shared with donors (YAY!) as this meant more financial support to begin to actually pay the staff. (And Svea’s graduate project, of course.) She was more than happy to support us in this effort!

Here are the Findings in a Nutshell

  • A large percentage of 3rd and 4th-grade students increased their knowledge of mindfulnessand emotional awareness when resolving conflict.
  • More than half of the students surveyed reported the use of mindfulness on their own once a week.
  • Top reported uses of mindfulness were to calm down when upset, to help fall asleep at night (big news to all of us was that over 40% of kids struggled with this!!), and to decrease anxiety when taking a test.
  • A majority of students (85%) reported using mindfulness in non-academic school contexts (riding the bus, playground, during specials, at lunch, in hallways).
  • Over half reported using mindfulness at home (65%) and over 40% in the classroom.
  • A small percentage identified using mindfulness in other areas of their lives such as sports, traveling, and medical appointments.
  • Almost half of the students identified intent to use mindfulness in the future.

Svea presented her research to Tufts, the Calmer Choice Executive Board, and at the UMASS Center or Mindfulness and Massachusetts State Occupational Therapy conferences, while Fiona checked off the “Do Research” box on her to-do list.

Done. That’s a wrap. Phew, that was a lot of work, glad it’s over and we can go back to doing our good work.

“But wait! How long do these results last with kids? A week, a month, a year?” asked the donors…

WHAT?!?! be continued in Part 3 of the series.