The Story

In 2014, SERP established a partnership with Baltimore City Schools and the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC). Since the district wanted to focus on grit and perseverance in middle school students, Angela Duckworth and her team from the University of Pennsylvania joined the partnership as well. Although the research confirms what many teachers already know—how hard students work matters—we set out to identify opportunities where we could influence how hard students work in the context of a complex classroom environment.

Over the 2014-2015 school year, the research team (led by the Duckworth Lab) worked intensively with three diverse schools to understand the challenges that students, teachers, and administrators face every day. Teachers reported the same kinds of challenges (e.g., students talking disruptively in class, bullying), and most reported spending more time on discipline than they would like, leaving too little time for positive feedback and for instruction. Classroom management was a major issue, and transitions from lunch and between classes were particularly challenging. Teachers reported difficulty completing their lesson plans due to a lack of student focus. Over the course of the year, two fundamental issues surfaced: 1) behavioral challenges lead to high stress levels among teachers and consequently to negative attention and feedback to students, and 2) many of the classrooms were characterized by low levels of student agency and engagement.

SERP brought together a team of interdisciplinary researchers and Baltimore City district leaders and teachers to identify promising practices for addressing these fundamental challenges. Mindfulness was identified by several researchers as a practice with potential to support self-regulation and focus, thus reducing behavioral challenges in the classroom. It was introduced in a variety of forms, from a simple breathing exercise for 2 minutes at the start of a class, to yoga or meditation. Teachers tested simple breathing exercises with their students, and the research team collected feedback to identify common issues or areas for growth.

Focus 5 draws on the research base on breathing and mindfulness, but was created in response to the collected feedback from the teachers and the district.

  • Take less than 5 minutes a day to minimize time away from instruction.
  • Provide clear, simple supports explaining what to do, why, and how.
  • Benefit students and teachers simultaneously, since both experience high levels of stress.
  • Minimize the “out of role” behavior asked of teachers that would require learning or training.
  • Minimize the investment of resources needed from the district.

It should be noted that although our goal was to create a low-cost, low-effort approach that teachers can use whether or not the school or district makes an investment, there are many fully developed mindfulness programs available that have been rigorously tested and may be extremely valuable [see Research Base for more information]. We are by no means discouraging their use!

The SERP partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools, Baltimore Education Research Consortium, and the Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305H140121. The information provided does not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.