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Schooling with compassion

Ella Rhodes speaks to Dr Frances Maratos.

05 November 2019

Teachers are, perhaps more stressed than ever; more than 20 per cent leave the profession within their first two years. The Education Support Partnership, a helpline for teachers, received a record number of calls between April last year and March this year; and student numbers are on the rise in secondary schools. While many initiatives take a focus on the mental health of pupils, Dr Frances Maratos has made steps to help teachers and school staff more generally with their stress, through a trial of compassionate mind training in schools in the UK and Portugal.

In the last two years Maratos (Associate Professor and Reader in Emotion Science, University of Derby), and her colleagues Wendy Wood and Professor Paul Gilbert (UK), as well as Dr Marcela Matos and Isabel Alburquerque (Portugal), have worked with over 500 school staff in the UK and Portugal. They have developed a six-module course giving teachers information and techniques to help them understand and manage their emotions. 'There is a lot of focus on student mental health, but if you had a parent who was looking after a number of children and that parent was quite stressed, or was having issues with wellbeing, you'd look into helping the parent manage their stress levels and their health. It's not that teachers' mental health is more important than that of the children, but if we help teachers and teaching assistants learn how to emotionally regulate more effectively we know this will allow them to think better, and that will be beneficial to all the pupils they're with.'

The compassionate mind training is run across one term with a session every other week. The six modules cover what compassion is, the brain's evolution and its negativity or threat bias, as well as developing the compassionate self, mindfulness and breathing exercises. As well as standard measures of depression, perceived stress and anxiety, Maratos and her colleagues have also taken physiological measurements from the teachers and other school staff and collected qualitative and focus-group data.

So far the results are promising. A pilot of the course in Portugal found significant decreases in levels of depression and stress, and in an initial trial of 70 teachers in the UK the researchers found significant increases in self compassion and significant decreases in self-criticism. The physiological data, currently being analysed, so far seems to show decreases in blood pressure and total peripheral resistance – a measurement of how hard the heart is working.

'Some of the feedback we're getting from our qualitative measures is that staff are starting to use the techniques with their students – especially if they have more difficult students, they are taking them out of the classroom and teaching them breathing techniques. In Portugal the ethics system is slightly different so they're looking at how the teachers being trained affects the children, which we'd like to do in the UK over the next year or so also.'

Recently Maratos has been working to train others to deliver this course in an attempt to reach as many teachers as possible, and soon she and her colleagues are hoping to run a second, larger, study of these techniques with pupils. 'I'm a very firm believer that what works for adults doesn't necessarily work for children, so we're looking at a slightly different curriculum where we explore different emotions in more depth. A school counsellor, Rory Cahill, a further member of our UK team, ran a pilot study of the pupils' curriculum with eight pupils at Roundhill Academy in Leicester last year. It proved so successful that they would like us to go back and do a full study with their school.'

On 8 November Maratos organised a conference for school staff to teach them more about compassion and mindfulness. The event, which drew in around 100 attendees, featured workshops from Professor Katherine Weare, author of Happy Teachers Change The World: A Guide to Cultivating Mindfulness in Education; Clinical Psychologist and founder of the Compassionate Mind Foundation Professor Paul Gilbert; and Consultant Clinical Psychologist Dr Mary Welford, who has also been involved in designing and implementing compassion-based interventions within school settings. 

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