Mindful Leadership: Tips for Transforming Your School or District Culture with Mind Yeti
Updated: Jan 31, 2019
Mindfulness has the potential to empower students and teachers to deal with strong emotions in a clear-minded and calm manner. When done with fidelity, mindfulness can be one of the most worthwhile teaching strategies you’ll ever use. That’s why Austin Independent School District (AISD) has committed to rolling out a mindfulness program across the entire district. As the Mindfulness Specialist, it’s my job to make that vision a reality.
For the past year, I’ve been working with the Austin ISD Department of Social-Emotional Learning to promote mindfulness as a tool that supports SEL. I’ve worked with parents, staff, departments, and Pre/K–grade 12 students. Through our work this year, mindfulness programs are now up and running in one way or another 110 Austin ISD schools.
Tools like Mind Yeti have been a great addition to our work, but as a school leader, you already know that tools alone can’t create lasting change. In addition to a Mind Yeti site license, you’re going to need actionable strategies for getting started and sustaining a mindfulness implementation at the school- or districtwide level. In collaboration with Hilary Simon and Jason Littlefield (two of my fellow Austin ISD SEL Specialists), I’ve developed a set of tips for you, based on our successes and challenges in Austin over the past couple years.
Cast a Wide Net
The first step is crucial—you must build broad awareness about mindfulness in your community. It’s important for people to have a common understanding of what mindfulness looks like and feels like, especially if your community has little familiarity with it. In my experience, it helps to focus on the following.
Making mindfulness accessible: Often times, people feel like they can’t do mindfulness because they have too many thoughts that arise when trying to breathe. Other times, people feel like mindfulness is for someone who is more “zen” or more “centered” than they are. These misconceptions about mindfulness are easily addressed when you choose an easy-to-use Mind Yeti session like “Hello Breath” to introduce mindfulness. Anyone can sit still and breathe for 3–5 minutes, and feel a sense of success at the end.
Sharing the research: We also focused on the brain science and research behind mindfulness to help ease fears that mindfulness is some type of religious act happening in schools. Mindfulness has its roots thousands of years ago in religious practice, but in schools, the focus is on the brain.
Making it personal: Much like teaching reading, it’s important for staff to believe in the purpose in order for students to buy in. Provide a few simple, yet meaningful mindfulness practices for adults to experience during staff meetings and professional development. We always stress how mindfulness is great for teacher self-care, which is something that isn’t often addressed in schools.
Bringing mindfulness to the community: Consider the existing communities of practice you have in your school or district, and think of ways to bring mindfulness into them. Consider talking about or sharing Mind Yeti sessions during: administrator meetings, faculty meetings, PLCs, professional development, and department meetings (e.g. athletics, early childhood, etc.).
Find Your Tribe
Finding your tribe is an important next step after the net has been cast far and wide. This is where you find other educators who are on board with and excited about mindfulness. As you’re casting your net, keep your eyes and ears open for educators, parents, and staff who might serve as great advocates or ambassadors for mindfulness in the community. Create a list of these folks and invite them into the process of helping you roll out mindfulness campus- or districtwide. Consider creating a group at the campus or district that can practice together, visit together, and spread the work and message through their campus.
Through this process, your tribe becomes the mindfulness advocates/leaders, and this allows mindfulness to start spreading at all levels as opposed to someone just telling people what to do and how to do it from on high. Here are some ways we did this at Austin ISD:
Start of meetings: We began each meeting with a brief mindfulness session.
Mindfulness sessions: We offered drop-in mindfulness sessions for staff, family, and students at different schools.
Teacher-led PD: We tapped our teachers who were excited about mindfulness to run PD for others.
Lunch meetings and district trainings: We ran optional events for folks to opt-in to and learn more.
Make Use of Existing Systems and Structures
This tip stems from the idea of “integration, not addition.” Teachers are constantly being bombarded with new ideas, projects, and initiatives and rarely given enough time to make it all happen. In this phase of implementation, we identified authentic entry points for systematic implementation and started integrating from those points. Campus leaders and administrators are key players in creating this integration model, and the tribe represents key players in sustaining the model.
One place to consider integrating mindfulness is in your discipline procedures. But remember:mindfulness isn’t a means to achieve compliance, nor should it ever be used in a disciplinary manner. Mindfulness can also serve as a positive alternative to the old-school mentality of punitive consequences. Regular practice allows staff members to be more aware of the whole child and their own biases that might be playing a role in how students are treated. Here are some other ideas for natural integration of mindfulness:
Announcements/assemblies: Include mindful moments in your daily communications to your school community, even if you don’t have time for a full session.
Explicit instruction: Teachers can teach mindfulness skills as part of an SEL lesson (in Austin, we integrate Mind Yeti into our Second Step lessons).
Test-taking: Play a Mind Yeti session before proctoring a standardized test or other high-stress assessment.
Transitions: Mindfulness can help with getting settled in the morning, coming back from lunch, or resetting after a stressful event or conflict during the school day.
Mindfulness rooms: Create a corner in your staff lounge or make use of an unused closet in your school to serve as your “mindfulness room.” Make it cozy, and add headphones and a device so folks can listen to Mind Yeti sessions when they need to cool down or take a break.
For many of us, youth empowerment is the reason we teach, and mindfulness can be a key strategy to help with this. It starts by teaching mindfulness practices to kids and following up with them about how they respond to the practices. Your tribe will likely be the first staff members to start teaching mindfulness in their classrooms. Keep in mind, not all practices will work for all students, so it’s important to individualize strategies to reach all.
Once a consistent practice is in place in the class, allowing opportunities for students to start teaching others (in their own classrooms or in others) takes youth empowerment to the next level. This can be done with students as young as four years old. Peer-to-peer teaching and learning is incredibly powerful and encourages more buy-in from students who might be hesitant to try it with an adult leading them. Here are some practices we tried:
Student leaders: Each classroom or school nominates a few “Mindful Student Leaders” to serve as advocates across your campus or district.
Athletics: Professional athletes benefit from mindfulness activities, why can’t your students? Your sports teams and superstar athletes can be some of the first to adopt mindfulness.
Advisory lessons: Teach mindfulness strategies during Advisory class.
Routines: “Mindfulness Leader” can be a classroom job, just like any other.
Academic integration: Students can learn about the research behind mindfulness in science class, or they can look at the history of mindful philosophies in Humanities.
Remember: It Takes a Village
Remember, the old cliche is true: being successful with mindfulness “takes a village.” Integrating parents and community members into your work legitimizes mindfulness as a necessary part of the school culture and climate. Community involvement helps build sustainability. Your village keeps the intentionality going and really builds on the benefits. When you’ve engaged with your village, kids will be practicing at home and at school, which further deepens everyone’s practice. Here’s how we accomplished this in Austin:
Parent workshops, family nights, and family mindfulness session: We invited parents in to learn about mindfulness, and to try strategies they could use at home. Mind Yeti makes a great take-home tool because it’s easy to implement.
Local business partnerships: We partnered with all kinds of local businesses. Consider: restaurants, yoga and fitness studios, mental health providers and counselors, and retailers focused on wellness.
Weekend work days: We opened our schools on the weekends for mindfulness activities for the whole community.
These steps are merely suggestions and can be moved around to best fit your school/district, but this has been helpful for us in AISD. It’s important to note that mindfulness in AISD is still growing and we’re constantly learning. Our hope is that these steps will help you overcome some of the early hurdles that we experienced and learn from our experiences thus far. Please feel free to reach out via email or social media for advice on implementation and/or curriculum.
James Butler is the SEL Mindfulness Specialist in Austin ISD. He taught mostly Early Childhood (Pre/K and K) in Austin ISD for 13 years and volunteered as a HS teacher in Namibia for one year. In 2014, James was honored as the AISD Teacher of the Year.