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Establishing Mindful School Communities to Bring Healing to Education and Beyond

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support

As neuroscience research becomes more widely disseminated and “trauma-informed” is one of the hottest buzzwords in education, leaders are asking themselves how to integrate their epiphanies about what students and teachers need to succeed into the school communities they’ve long established. As more and more educators move from thinking, “What’s wrong with Johnny?” to “What happened to Johnny and what does he need to thrive?,” principals and district leaders are wondering how to get their whole team on the same page.

Building School Communities that Support Healing

More and more schools are realizing the importance of providing their staff with professional development about how stress and trauma affect brain development and ultimately behavior. Once teachers understand that the root of the disruptive behaviors some students demonstrate is a lack of self-regulation, they are better able to open their hearts and respond to behavior challenges with compassion. In the upcoming book Mindful School Communities: The Five Cs of Nurturing Heart Centered Learning (Mason, Rivers Murphy, & Jackson, 2020), Dr. Christine Mason, Executive Director of the Center for Educational Improvement (CEI), Dr. Michele Rivers Murphy, CEI Associate Director of Heart Centered Learning, and Dr. Yvette Jackson, Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, have explained their research-based model for establishing intentional, mindful school communities built on a foundation of compassion.

Trauma and violence seem to be escalating all around us. Each day we hear of another school shooting or learn of another elementary school where children’s anxiety is increased by the “lock down” drills that are being conducted. Each day we hear of another teen suicide, a youth who was overwhelmed by cyberbullying, or another violent computerized animation game that is now available online. Each day we see world leaders unable to engage in polite civil discourse and unable to be the role models we would want for our children. To overcome the impact of trauma, incivility, and violence that is prevalent in our world today will take time and intense efforts. We do not believe this is a short-term proposition, but rather there is need for passionate commitment to this cause. With this will come healing as new habits are learned and a sense of safety is reestablished.

In schools, to affect healing, instead of being reactive and punishing students struggling with self-regulation, Mason, Rivers Murphy, and Jackson (2020) advocate for changing environments and mindsets, so everyone can embody those essential self-regulation and social skills. Their expertise, experience, and investigation has illuminated an efficient and mindful path for schools to take to increase the sense of well-being for everyone in the school building.

The Five C’s: A Foundation for Compassion School Communities

In Mindful School Communities, the authors explain how consciousness, compassion, confidence, courage, and compassionate action work together to create heart centered communities.

In their latest book, Mason, Rivers Murphy, and Jackson (2020) use research to demonstrate the power of using mindfulness practices like yoga, meditation, and reflection to not only alleviate the toxic stress that so many educators and students contend with on a daily basis, but also enhance executive functioning skills that allow community members to better focus and make decisions. Combined with the enhanced self-regulation skills that result from a consistent mindfulness practice, this can lead to increased academic achievement as well as a heightened sense of compassion.

Principals and teachers can introduce curricula, programs, and routines into the classroom and school building that directly teach and reinforce the skill of compassion. By teaching students how to open their hearts to themselves and each other, we are instilling essential social skills that will allow them to be successful in this 21st century world where communication is an important commodity.

When students and teachers are given opportunities to practice compassion, they begin to feel more confident in themselves and their community; however, when someone experiences trauma, it is often necessary to take time to rebuild self-esteem. Trauma takes away agency and those who experience it must take steps to regain a sense of control over their bodies, minds, and emotions. Educators can facilitate this important step in healing from trauma in the classroom through specific lesson plans, some of which are provided in Mindful School Communities, and through mindfulness. After cultivating confidence throughout the school year, staff and students are better positioned to initiate courageous acts.

  1. When school leaders are in the process of transforming their schools into compassionate communities, they can encourage students to be reflective and identify what injustices they see in their school, neighborhood, state, or world.

  2. Educators can facilitate opportunities for students to be courageous enough to take the compassionate action needed to right a wrong.

  3. Compassionate school communities affirm students’ discomfort and anger around injustices and provide time, resources, and guidance to work to right these wrongs.

S-CCATE: A Tool to Guide Schools Down the Path To Becoming a Compassionate School Community

Throughout Mindful School Communities, the authors provide activities, success stories, and research to help educators understand the value and importance of infusing mindfulness into their schools to improve the well-being of everyone in the community. In this 21st century, nothing is truly considered successful until there is data to demonstrate improvement. In each chapter, the authors provide several tools to measure each of the Five Cs.

While there are plenty of valid and reliable assessments that measure consciousness, compassion, confidence, courage, and community, there is only one that measures all five: The School Compassionate Culture Analytic Tool for Educators (S-CCATE; Mason, Rivers Murphy, Bergey, Sawilowsky, Hodgdon, Staeheli, & Asby, 2018). The S-CCATE is a 12-15 minute online school climate assessment with five factors—that align with the Five Cs—that help school leaders identify areas of strength and potential growth. When schools take the S-CCATE, they learn which aspects of compassionate community building they can focus on and receive suggestions for interventions, curricula, and mindset shifts.

At the Center for Educational Improvement, we believe that it is imperative that we empower students and teachers to take control of their own communities and be the change they want to see in the world. We think that visionary school leaders are in a unique position to inspire their communities to gain the courage and confidence needed to take action by increasing their compassion through mindfulness.

Mindful School Communities: The Five Cs of Nurturing Heart Centered Learning (Mason, Rivers Murphy, & Jackson, 2020) will be published by Solution Tree in February 2020.


Mason, C., Rivers Murphy, M., Bergey, M., Sawilowsky, S., Hodgdon, H., Staeheli, M., & Asby, D. (2018). School – Compassionate Culture Analytic Tool for Educators. Vienna, VA: Center for Educational Improvement. Mason, C., Rivers Murphy, M., & Jackson, Y. (2020). Mindful School Communities: The Five Cs of Nurturing Heart Centered Learning.

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