With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Michelle Kinder is executive director of the Dallas-based Momentous Institute, a nonprofit owned and operated by the Salesmanship Club of Dallas. The institute builds and repairs social emotional health through education, therapeutic services, research and training. Kinder has worked in the children’s mental health field for 20 years.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: Tell me about Momentous Institute and the work you do.
Kinder: We’re a 97-year-old nonprofit. Our focus is social emotional health for all kids so they can achieve their full potential.
This plays out through three different avenues. The first is mental health work: our therapeutic services reach 6,000 kids and family members annually. The second is the Momentous School, a private school in Dallas for 3-year-olds to those in grade five who have been affected by poverty, where 248 students are currently enrolled. The third avenue is research and training.
We’re trying to really get a handle on what is helpful for families with all the direct work we do with kids, in particular families who are underrepresented in research. We also train close to 10,000 professionals every year.
Trib+Edu: A lot of your work is grounded in practicing mindfulness. Tell me about mindfulness and its importance in education.
Kinder: Mindfulness is all about managing stress in your internal world, regardless of what comes at you externally. What we know about toxic stress — and so many kids are facing it in today’s world — is that it has created a dysregulated nervous system.
Mindfulness practices literally help kids learn to regulate their nervous systems so they can calm the part of their brain that’s so primitive — the amygdala — and bring their prefrontal cortex online. The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that allows us to focus, do our best thinking, anticipate consequences, inhibit behaviors. All of those higher order thinking skills come in when our prefrontal cortex is online.
When kids are flooded by stress or trauma, they literally can’t access that part of the brain. The reason mindfulness is so important in education right now is because our kids are traumatized in record numbers and if we don’t attend to that toxic stress, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the instruction is, you’re not going to absorb it.
Trib+Edu: What does mindfulness look like in the classroom?
Kinder: There are some curriculums that exist, but it can’t just be curriculums. If you go into this kind of work without intentionality, you can create chaos and frustration.
For example, if you go into this work with just a workbook on here’s how we incorporate mindfulness but don’t attend to the infusion part of it, you cause problems. There’s the explicit instruction: teaching kids about the brain and how to breathe. And there’s the infusion part: are the adults in the building kind? Are they respectful? Is there yelling, is there shaming?
If the culture climate of the school is very toxic and at the same time you’re talking about social emotional health and mindfulness, that’s harder on kids because that’s incongruent.
Trib+Edu: How does the Momentous School inform your research?
Kinder: We run all of the measures you might expect to track where our kids are academically. We also have measures to see where they are socially and emotionally.
We follow our students' long-term trajectory. Once a year, after they leave the school, we pull their school records with their family’s permission and we interview the family. So we have lot of data about how they’re doing over time.
Seven years after kids leave our campus, we are seeing 99 percent graduate high school, compared to an average of 88 percent of students in Texas. Eighty two percent of our students enroll in higher education, compared to 51 percent in the state.
Trib+Edu: What are the most surprising and important findings in your research?
Kinder: Research shows mindfulness decreases anxiety, stress and depression and increases life satisfaction and our immune function. What we saw with our research is that there was an increase in focus and capacity to attend to what’s in front of you.
In terms of academics, we also saw students who had more exposure to practicing mindfulness had higher empathy ratings. The kids who had higher empathy also scored higher in standardized tests.
Trib+Edu: How do you measure empathy?
Kinder: We combine reports from teachers, students and parents. It’s never ideal because it’s subjective in some ways, but we also use standardized observational performance-based measurements.
Trib+Edu: What are the biggest challenges in bringing mindfulness to schools?
Kinder: One of the biggest challenges is how overwhelmed our education systems are. A lot of our teachers are actually running empty and are pretty traumatized themselves.
We need to think systematically. There’s so much pressure and stress for educators and administrators. But social emotional health work isn’t just one more thing to do for them. It actually creates a platform for other initiatives to thrive.
This idea is based in science and so much of it is a return to the roots of deep community and connection and change within education that starts from a place of relationships.