The Care Proposition

Can a Greater Emphasis on Compassion Change Education?

BY LYNN TRYBA

Ask most people, and they can recount a pivotal moment in their early lives when a teacher, coach, relative, or even someone unexpected, affirmed them at a time when they were in need. Science tells us this experience imprints onto our brain what it feels like to be cared for and valued. At that moment we felt safe in the world, and for the rest of our lives our brains—and we—remember that moment.

For the past year, the Mind & Life Institute (MLI) has been exploring how to facilitate more of these moments. The Institute believes that compassion and altruism “are already present in early childhood as capacities that require cultivation,” says President Arthur Zajonc, and that “the cultivation of compassion is the root and source of a true moral life.”

The Institute’s Call to Care initiative is part of the organization’s three-pronged global program called Ethics, Education, and Human Development (EEHD). The overarching EEHD program—designed to address ethics across the life span—is a response to a specific call, that of the Dalai Lama, who argued in his 2011 book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, for a new approach to teaching what he calls “secular ethics.”

In the book, he describes the need for an ethical system that can speak to people of many different religions—or no religion at all. Many believe that with rising global agnosticism and many people no longer identifying as strongly with religious institutions as authoritative forces in their lives, the question of responsibility for ethical development looms.

The development of an ethical life “doesn’t mean you can’t say strong things,” cautions Zajonc. “It doesn’t mean you can’t speak truth to power. But you can do so from a place of humanity and generosity. I think this is a characteristic of some of the great souls, the Nelson Mandelas and Desmond Tutus. They are filled with life and generosity, even when they’re sitting before arch criminals who committed abuses. They’re listening to the issues and asking some really hard questions.”

After a year of exploring current educational programs, MLI determined that the best way to reassert ethics was by planting them at their root, which for most is in the formative years of education. The Call to Care project is therefore school-based, in particular developing an initial curriculum for grades 2 and 3 along with an accompanying teacher training program (the full curriculum will be for K-12).

“If people placed care for young children at the center of education, this would be a radically different world, not just a radically different classroom,” says Brooke Dodson-Lavelle, MLI’s senior program officer leading the initiative.

As part of the pre-pilot effort, a small group of teachers from area schools has been meeting with Dodson-Lavelle for weekly trainings since last fall. The group will continue to meet with her this spring to test and provide feedback on the proposed curriculum. A weeklong teacher development program will occur this summer. The ultimate goal is to create an approach to education that has, at its heart, a call to care for students and teachers, one that is adaptive enough to be offered globally and multiculturally.

Roots Of A Call To Care

FEATURE_Care(INSETWRAP)2When considering the Dalai Lama’s prompt to action, MLI—aided by a nine-member core group of experts in the fields of education, contemplative practice, and developmental science—devoted six months to investigating existing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs, including RULER (developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence), PATHs (Promoting Alternative THinking Strategies), and Open Circle. SEL programs have been around for about a decade, and certain school districts are now mandated to include components of them in their curriculum—affirming the growing belief that a child’s emotional development affects learning.

While SEL programs have made headway at the policy level, “there was a resistance amongst some of these programs to include any kind of contemplative practice,” says Dodson-Lavelle. “In part because I think there’s been fear, and there’s still fear, about what that is and how [one] can bring that into a school system. There are all kinds of questions. Is it religious, is it flaky, are we going to be run out the door? All of these concerns limited these programs.”

After immersing itself in these and other curricula, MLI decided to create its own program, one that builds off the best of SEL and mindfulness offerings but also aims to lead the way toward the next evolution of education. Despite the value of existing programs in helping children better understand their emotions and behavior, MLI believes a new framework is needed to promote the development of care and truly ethical people and communities.

“There have been a lot of adult programs focused on helping people cultivate compassion. And that’s where we’re headed,” says Dodson-Lavelle. “These programs incorporate mindfulness, but they also include strategies for helping people cultivate compassion: insight into our own suffering, habits of mind, working to develop stronger relationships, building our empathic capacities, building our facility for affection and care for other people. These are drawn from serious contemplative practices that have been around for some time. But no one until very recently has tried to adapt those programs for children.”

The MLI Contribution

“You have the traditional dyad in Mind and Life’s work between, on the one side, science,” says Zajonc, “and the dialogue partner has been contemplative tradition, often Buddhist, but also Christian contemplative traditions or secular traditions where scholars come together with scientists, exploring themes like destructive emotions and the like. What we’ve done is to join a third domain—education—into this pairing, so now it’s science, contemplation, and education. And how those three can work together to learn from each other. The combination is really the recipe.”

Melding together contemplative practice, social and emotional learning, and developmental psychology and neuroscience is a new idea in education. “There seems to be a separation between SEL and contemplative practice and they’re starting to come together, but we’re just at the nascent stage of that,” explains core group member Vicki Zakrzewski, education director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Part of the idea behind A Call to Care is to help people—both students and teachers—“feel that they have the capacity to act on their compassion,” says Tom Rocha, MLI research associate for the initiative.

Rocha believes a curriculum in care will raise the “average” competency for compassion. “I always think of this analogy. Hungary is a relatively underdeveloped country economically. And yet, over the last 50 years, they’ve produced some of the greatest mathematicians in the world. If you go to a math class in Hungary, the math education is just far beyond anything that exists anywhere else in the world. There’s this national pride in their math. It doesn’t matter if you’re a poor person or a rich person in Hungary, you’re going to get a great math education. And so the average math capacity in Hungary is just higher. If you create a similar culture around care, you’ll see that not everybody becomes incredibly compassionate, but the norm, the average, for everybody goes up a little bit. You have to see it that way. As a kind of skill set. It’s not some kind of ethereal ideal.”

For Mind and Life, it’s also not just about creating a curriculum for kids. Training teachers in the stages of childhood development will be a key feature of the Call to Care program.

“Having come from the field of education, I realized what a massive gap a program like this would fill in education,” says Zakrzewski. “First, I think, just coming at it from a human development standpoint. Teachers and school administrators—they’ve all been through teacher education programs, [but] they don’t get a good grounding in child development, let alone human development. The idea that social or emotional development has anything to do with cognitive development—our ability to learn—is such a new concept in education. So this program will definitely help fill that gap in teachers’ and administrators’ understanding of how we learn, how we grow and develop.”

SEL, which aims at creating caring and supportive classroom environments, has been criticized for seeming to favor the advancement of the individual over a focus on relationships. “I’m not saying it’s a fair critique,” says core group member Robert Roeser, a professor of psychology at Portland State University, who also holds master’s degrees in religion, developmental psychology, and clinical social work. “But the critique has been, is SEL about ethics and our relationships with other people, the natural world, and the animal world, or is it more about developing personal skill sets? And I think it’s intentioning toward both. I think what’s unique about the MLI project is that we’re saying we’re going to put the relational at the center from the beginning.”

Another traditional obstacle limiting the effectiveness of many SEL programs is minimal teacher training and insufficient administrative involvement and training.

“The quality of the implementation of programs like Open Circle depends on the self-awareness, presence, and open heart of the teacher and her capacity to create a safe and trustworthy classroom environment,” says core group member Pamela Seigle, founder of Open Circle, a nationally recognized elementary school SEL program. “In the current environment in schools, with an overemphasis on discrete academic outcomes and testing, that’s a challenge. The pace of the school day is another challenge. The level of stress that teachers and administrators experience is higher than I’ve ever seen it. The Call to Care initiative is developing both curriculum and, perhaps even more importantly, a teacher development program that will more deeply support and develop the inner dimensions of what it means to teach—and support teachers in understanding how caring for themselves is in service of caring for their students.”

Ultimately, A Call to Care is not just about strengthening relationships between teacher and child, it’s also about improving the teacher’s relationship with him or herself. It builds off the idea that love creates the ideal environment for learning and the cultivation of an ethical life.

“The foundation of ethical life, and we might even say all of human life, is relationships, love, and self-security,” says Roeser. “As soon as you make that move, that ethics and human development is relational . . . the fundamental unit that we need to be working on is the relationship, both social relationships and also [the] personal, private relationship with our own selves. I think for about 200 years we’ve suffered under a framing of Darwin . . . and thought about humans as competitive, selfish, survival of the fittest—these kinds of ideas got heavily ingrained in us. I think more and more we’re going back to the idea that human beings are social animals. We’re mammals. We don’t survive or thrive without the long-term affection and care of other human beings.”

Mind and Life’s core group believes that to cultivate ethical development in young children, you must involve people they’re in a relationship with.

“Support for teachers is certainly key to what we’re doing and is our starting point,” Zajonc says. But community-based support, especially from the parents, is vital. “So this will be an ongoing question. How is it that we undertake that element as well?”

“The first thing we want to do is to wrap around the child a set of real relationships that are loving, supportive, and that afford them an opportunity to be seen and heard. How do we do that?” says Roeser. “We have to offer the same set of supports to those caregivers.”

Self-Care, Receiving Care, Extending Care

“Teachers come into the field because they’re givers,” says Dodson-Lavelle. “They come to these trainings, and they’re not there working on themselves. They’re translating every single thing into, ‘How do I teach this to a kid?’ They completely bypass their own work. And they’re going to continue to burn out if they do that. Which is why even though we’re designing this curricula, really the teacher program is primary. It’s not a teacher program in the sense that ‘Here, this is how you teach this,’ although that’s important. It’s, ‘Here’s how you deepen in this so you embody this.’”

The Call to Care initiative draws from Innate Compassion Training, a program developed by core group member John Makransky. Makransky is a professor of Buddhism and comparative theology at Boston College who has developed different methods of making Tibetan Buddhist practices accessible to people of diverse backgrounds, faiths, and professions.

For almost 15 years, his focus has been on teachers, counselors, clergy, and social service professionals who work with prisoners, the homeless, at-risk youth, and addicts. Many of his contemplative practices are designed to help prevent burnout, which is especially germane to teachers. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future pegs annual national teacher attrition rates at 16.8 percent. In urban schools, it’s more than 20 percent. Forty-six percent of all new teachers will leave the profession within five years.

Part of the reason for the dropout rate may be because teachers are motivated in part by a desire to help kids and make the world a better place, but the emotional needs of the children may be overwhelming—especially if a teacher is not coming from the most nurturing and supportive background herself.

“It’s very easy to become overloaded with emotions,” says Zakrzewski. “Teachers get completely slammed with their students’ emotions and their own interactions, and they don’t know how to deal with that because nobody gets training in this.”

Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center, reports that nearly one in eight children (12 percent) have had three or more negative life experiences associated with stress levels that can impair their development. Those experiences include abuse or neglect, parental divorce or separation, witnessing domestic violence, the incarceration of a parent, the death of a parent, and living with someone who has a mental illness or an addiction problem.

“People in all kinds of social service, including teachers, have repeatedly been caught in dynamics of burnout and negative thoughts and feelings and reactions because we’re frequently overwhelmed,” Makransky says. “Through contemplative practice, we can repeat a way of bringing our awareness into more connection with our inner capacities—capacities for inner peace and an inner sense of safety and well-being.”

While mindfulness practice often means becoming more aware of one’s thoughts, Makransky’s practices are more muscular in terms of activating one’s imagination and building resilience.

FEATURE_Care(INSETWRAP)1For example, one of the practices offered to teachers in the pre-pilot program involves “bringing to mind a meaningful figure, a figure that represents or embodies for the practitioner a deep, unchanging loving care. Or someone who embodied that kind of connection for even a moment. To bring to mind what it’s like to be held in loving care. For someone to wish you well, to take joy in you, to be happy you exist,” Makransky explains. “Such a practice . . . can help shift us into what many developmental scientists would call a ‘secure base,’ a sense of being loved, a sense of having one’s deep worth and value seen.”

Scientists believe that such acts of imagination recruit “the very same brain regions that would be operative if you were imbuing me with love and kindness in a face-to-face way,” Roeser says. “But I think the important point is that we’re not trying to just teach kids private, inner exercises. What we’re trying to do by starting with the adults is to create actual relationships in which the child is seen and heard in her full personhood. And providing actual experiences to teachers where they feel seen and heard as full people and as valued professionals.”

These goals relate to what developmental psychologists call attachment theory. People who grew up in a loving environment where they feel valued have that “secure base,” explains Makransky. “From that secure base . . . they form secure attachment. It’s a psychological term, and it means they feel at home, and therefore they can have a certain ease at establishing relationships with others, feeling affection for others, respecting others.”

Contemplative practice is a way to train the brain to continually return to a secure base, a safe place in our own mind. With repeated practice, caregivers can learn to stay present and effective with others—essentially serving as a secure base for them—while reducing their own risk for burnout.

Other exercises include methods of helping a person see the limited ways we view ourselves and others. “We’re constantly mistaking our latest thought about ourselves or someone else for the actual people. We do that repeatedly,” Makransky says. “Through contemplation, we can be drawn back again and again to the knowledge that there’s a lot more to me and a lot more to them than my latest thought of them, no matter how familiar that thought is.”

How might that principle animate our interactions in an educational setting?

Dodson-Lavelle shares with teachers these practices on a weekly basis, checking in with them to see which resonate and connect with work they’re doing in the classroom. For example, some teachers realize that if a child or a child’s parent annoys them, they are not as present for that child. They use the contemplative practices to try and address that.

“A lot of them feel like this is exactly what they need,” says Dodson-Lavelle. “One teacher said her primary role in that classroom is to create a sense of trust and safety. No learning will ever take place unless we create that. The only way we create that is if we ourselves have done our own work, so to speak. And embody a sense of safety and trust.”

Adds Zakrzewski: “I think one of the most interesting things that will come out of this program is having an understanding not only of what care and compassion for ourselves and each other is, but also, what are some of the blocks? Why is it hard for us to care for others sometimes? Why is it hard for us to act compassionately? We all want a better world, what keeps us from being able to do this?”

“Contemplative practice does not mean escape,” says Zajonc. “Contemplative practice gives you the means of stepping toward the difficult conversations, toward the difficult parts of your psyche. It doesn’t provide a panacea, like, ‘Do this and five minutes later, you’re happy.’ But it’s a practice that allows you to find those places of attentiveness and emotional balance and the capacity to have what nowadays is called grit, where you persist in adversity. At the same time, I think ultimately the greatest sources of creativity arise out of this capacity for sustaining our attention in complex and even contradictory situations with an openness to the new.”

Bringing It Home

Roberta “Robbie” Murphy is a supervising teacher for second grade at the Smith College Campus School in Northampton, Massachusetts, located near MLI headquarters. Undergraduate and graduate students who are becoming teachers are trained there.

Murphy, who has been teaching for more than 20 years, noticed a pronounced uptick in children with attentional challenges beginning in the late 1990s. At that time, the children were often medicated. That experience led her to become a certified yoga practitioner for children so that she could incorporate some of yoga’s attention and breathwork into her classes. The mindfulness training proved helpful, but Murphy had been searching for a way to take those explorations further when MLI invited her to join the project.

She recognized immediately that instead of having another curriculum foisted upon her, MLI was offering something different. The initiative is “about the well not going dry” for teachers, Murphy says. “Right then and there, that is different.”

“Teachers will always respond to ‘this will lessen your stress and lessen your burnout.’ Because every teacher deals with that,” Zakrzewski says. “The thing about a program like this is that it’s not a set of science lessons or a set of history lessons; it’s more, when you really get down to it, about how you are in the classroom. It’s more about your affect. It’s more about your relationship with students. It’s more about creating that classroom environment. There are standalone lessons, absolutely. But if the teachers can embody the stuff, that’s going to have even more of an impact on the students.”

Teacher training and “buyin” is key for effective education reform and any new vision for education. “I think it is especially important that this work begins by supporting contemplative practice with teachers,” Murphy says. “Given the statistics about those who leave teaching, it would be a great study to see if starting off with a practice had any effect on one’s ability to withstand the pressures of teaching, particularly in the early years.”

This fall, in addition to the Call to Care rollout in Western Massachusetts, MLI wants to introduce the program to school systems from other backgrounds. Later, the goal is to bring this work to an international level.

“Part of our process has been to recognize that this idea of coming into a classroom and sitting on a cushion is not universal. It doesn’t have to look the same in all contexts,” says Dodson-Lavelle. “In certain parts of the country, people love the idea of a secular program. In other parts of the country, it sounds to them as if we’re taking out the very source from which they already cultivate love and compassion. What we need to be asking is what brings this to life in the communities where we’re hoping this call to care grows.”

Says Roeser: “John Makransky, what he’s done, which I think is quite beautiful, is he’s created a version of these practices in which we experience receiving and extending love to others in a way that I believe preserves the freedom of the individual to fill in the blanks of who is extending love. For instance, if I pick a benefactor, I might pick Jesus as the one bestowing. And if I’m not religious, I might pick my mentor or my coach. There’s a way that he’s created a structure that allows people to fill in the content in a way that’s culturally enriching and meaningful to them.”

“There has to be that freedom ultimately; people have to feel ownership of this,” Dodson-Lavelle says. “We’re trying to help supply a framework. It’s an offering.”


LYNN TRYBA, is chief content officer and strategist for Lifestyles Ink, publisher of Taste for Life (tasteforlife.com) and Remedies (remediesmagazine.com), natural health magazines. Her work has appeared in numerous outlets, including Psychology Today, CNN, and Whole Life Times.

Back to top