Matthew Auerbach is the principal of Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware. He represents the leading edge of forward thinking educators who are equipping their students with social/emotional learning in addition to academics. He is part of GIFT’s Delaware Changing Lives initiative that is demonstrating what can happen when mindfulness technology is fully integrated into the institutional and social fabric of a society.
Being a school principal means never knowing what the new day is going to bring. Things get thrown at you that you can never anticipate. It’s exciting and inspiring at the same time. To be a good principal, you have to love being with kids. I am invested in them as a means to affect our future. I want our children to grow up in a safe, strong and supportive community. That is where I find my passion in being a principal. I love the challenge. As you can imagine, the job also comes with a lot of stress and pressure. I’m often caught in the crossfire of many different interests—the kids, the parents, the teachers, the administrative staff, the district office and the community as a whole. You have to listen to the needs they all have and try to find solutions. On top of this is the normal everyday stress that comes with also being a father and a husband. I felt that something had to be done. I kept hearing this noise in my brain and was almost at a breaking point. “I want to be healthy. I don’t want to be stressed. And I don’t want the people around me to be stressed.” Maybe it wasn’t so surprising that I came to mindfulness as a possible solution. My wife and I went to a few yoga classes together. My mother had taught it. I was looking for something different, but I realized I always had this in me, standing by for me to grasp. Fortunately, we had a group of people working at the school who came together on this concept of mindfulness that had started buzzing around the world. So, it just serendipitously came to be.
I would like to say that the story ends here and everyone lived happily ever after. But that was not the immediate outcome here. Instead, if you ever aspire with all the best intentions to introduce this kind of change on an institutional level, whether at a school or any place of work, I hope you will heed my words and learn from my mistakes.
Prior to bringing mindfulness to Mt. Pleasant Elementary School, I participated in another school-wide initiative at a different school around student leadership and had completely bought into it. I thought, “I’m going to bring this to my school, and everyone is going to love it.” Instead, I ended up with egg on my face, as it was just me and a few others talking about this student leadership program.
A psychotherapist and meditation teacher named Dr. James Walsh met with me and helped me realize
where I had gone wrong. In fact, this top-down initiative had been doomed from the start. He explained. “The idea behind mindfulness is that it is an offering, not a mandate.” We talked about the need to go slow and steady with this.
Back to the drawing board, we were very deliberate to start very small with people who my team and I identified would embrace mindfulness in their own practice. We would allow that seed to grow. That core group of about a dozen teachers received 10 hours or so of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) training. Six members from this group traveled this past summer to the Omega Institute for a five-day retreat on mindfulness in education. So, as we are strengthening our core, the ripple effects are happening through their conversations with other staff members, raising their awareness and curiosity of what mindfulness is. They are noticing how this can benefit themselves personally and most importantly, how it can actually benefit our kids. Again, slow, like the turtle…
Recently, at the start of the new school year, one of our teachers shared with me how one year earlier she had been stressed out, anxious, upset and physically ill dealing with her to-do list. One year later, she still had the same list but felt totally different. It was all because she had learned strategies to regulate her emotional triggers and the physical sensations in her body that caused her to raise her stress levels.Beyond the core, we have also done activities with the whole staff. Dr. Walsh and his associate Shannon Ayres have led our entire faculty through guided meditations and debriefed with them after. Shannon has started introducing some strategies we can do with the kids, just simple things like taking a breath, holding your stomach and feeling the rise and fall of your belly as a means of regulating your emotions. The slow and steady approach has also been put into action with the students. Thanks to a $100,000 grant, we started an afterschool program last year teaching mindfulness to a group of forty 4th and 5th graders. We collected data tracking behavior, academics and their self-reported stress levels. The results were encouraging enough for the grant to be renewed and the program expanded to include more children across more grade levels.
One of the other insights we’ve gained working with children is the importance of starting mindfulness activities on the physical plane. Stretching, focusing their intention by tracing over their fingers, or concentrating on the sensations of eating a raisin are just a few examples of these physical anchors. Once they begin to change the way they think on a physical level, they get more into the higher cognitive levels of mindfulness, especially becoming aware of their own emotions and the emotions of those around them. We know through developmental psychology that they will eventually understand that the world is greater than them, nurturing the seed of compassion, understanding and empathy that is embedded within them, while at the same time building the resiliency that so many of them need in order to overcome the stress-inducing obstacles that life brings.
This growth mindset is something we talk about a lot at our school. We want the children to move away from the notion that their future has already been predetermined for them. Whether they come from abusive circumstances or have high achieving families, the world is still wide open. Our school is truly diverse. We house the district’s emotional support program, a program for gifted students, and all of our students qualify for free breakfast and lunch, due to our low income population. Surprisingly, while we have to be cognizant of the needs of these different populations, what we find is that they all have very similar needs. We talk about the future and the jobs of the future that haven’t even been invented yet. It all comes down to developing that mindset of open-mindedness, curiosity and compassion. If we do so, our students will ultimately create those amazing jobs. And in the process, they will also create awesome communities, businesses and relationships.And it’s all beginning to come together. Slow and steady wins the race for our students, our school, and our community at large.
You can find out more about Matt’s amazing work at https://www.brandywineschools.org/mpe