Imparting stress-reducing mindfulness skills on next-gen workers

With its focus on training teachers, Madison-based Breathe for Change is helping to equip today’s students with the techniques to be tomorrow’s productive workers.

Much has been made about the benefits that mindfulness practice can bring to the workplace, in terms of increased focus and productivity, as well as stress reduction, just to name a few.

The concept is now moving beyond cubicles and taking root in an entirely different stressful work environment — schools and classrooms.

Breathe for Change, a Madison-based startup that began in 2015, aims to address the critical issue of teacher wellbeing and transform the education system from the inside out.

According to Michael Fenchel, president and COO of Breathe for Change, the idea for the company was spurred by Founder and CEO Dr. Ilana Nankin’s dissertation research. “She was studying first-year teachers during their transition from teacher education into the classroom, and found that across the board these passionate teachers — who had gotten into the profession to change the world — were becoming overworked, stressed, and burned out, and didn’t have the tools and support to take care of themselves so they could do the important work of teaching.”

In particular, there is a direct correlation between teachers’ stress and burnout levels and their ability to teach for social justice, cultivate positive classroom learning environments, and meaningfully engage all members of the school community, the Breathe for Change website notes.

The focus on teachers is deliberate, in no small part because student outcomes are predicated largely on how effective their teachers are in the classroom.

“We know every teacher whose life we can change will in turn positively impact hundreds or thousands of young people for the future,” Fenchel explains. “Stress and lack of wellbeing are rampant in our society, and what better way to address these challenges than to teach children to better take care of themselves so they can grow into the productive and peaceful citizens they want to be?

“Teachers are also generally very mission-driven people, who tend to be empathetic and giving, which makes it extra important to learn self-care techniques so they can sustain their efforts without burning out. Our team is also primarily former teachers, so it’s also a work of passion and heart for us.”

The idea of equipping teachers with mindfulness techniques that they can then train students in makes a lot of sense. Those students will become workers sooner rather than later, and providing them with coping mechanisms to deal with the stressors of the workplace while they’re still young will enable them to transition more seamlessly to the workforce.

Breathe For Change’s curriculum includes yoga training — participants can become certified 200-hour yoga teachers following graduation from a four-month, two weekends per month training session — as well as anatomy, philosophy, and meditation and mindfulness.

“Our sessions integrate a wide variety of evidence-based practices,” explains Fenchel. “Each day, teachers will practice yoga, learn and explore a mindfulness meditation, study anatomy and yoga philosophy, and enhance their ability to integrate what they learn into their school communities via social and emotional learning. Each day, we also provide a unique B4C Professional Development workshop specifically designed to empower teachers to show up as their best selves in their classrooms.”

There is no background in yoga required to participate in Breathe for Change training sessions.



So far teachers who have received Breathe for Change training are incorporating what they’ve learned into their classroom communities in a variety of ways, says Fenchel.

“Teachers learn our one-of-a-kind SEL*F curriculum, which provides specific social and emotional learning techniques they can use to teach students skills like authentic communication, empathy, and compassion. These techniques are revolutionary in today’s education system because they emphasize and support the teacher’s own wellbeing, as well as that of the students, which research shows is critical for effective teaching and learning.”

Teachers are also leading weekly Breathe For Change wellness classes for other teachers and staff on site at their schools, Fenchel adds.

“Students receive incredible benefits, such as enhanced focus and executive function, reduced stress, increased emotional regulation, and enhanced social skills,” notes Fenchel. “Research shows that the practices we teach also greatly increase academic performance and lead to higher standardized test scores.”

That becomes increasingly important because while today’s students aren’t necessarily facing more pressures than generations of students before them, they are facing unique pressures and competition for their attention from the digital world they live in.

“With all the distractions of the technological world, practices like yoga and mindfulness can help keep us present and connected with our own bodies and minds,” Fenchel says. “As teachers and students learn to tap into their own present-moment experience, they then are more able to consciously choose where they put their focus, as opposed to having it pulled in every direction without their control.

“Wellness practices such as mindfulness practices enhance both our capacity to be productive, and also our ability to intentionally choose where we focus that productivity. This sets students up to choose fulfilling careers and excel in them.”

Fenchel offers the following advice to someone looking to incorporate mindfulness practice into his or her day but doesn’t know where to start:

“Simply focus on the breath — and don’t get down on yourself if you find it challenging! There is this misconception in society that you need to have ‘no thoughts’ in your mind to be ‘doing it right’ when you try to meditate, but just breathing and noticing the thoughts, emotions, and sensations provides incredible benefits, even when thoughts are present.”

Catching a breath

In the roughly two-and-a-half years since Breathe for Change got its start, the company has seen rapid growth as its lessons have caught on with educators.

Breathe for Change is now active in six cities across the U.S. — Madison, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas — and Fenchel says plans are underway to expand to several more in 2018.

The company currently has nine full-time employees, a dozen part-time employees, and over 50 trainers helping to put on trainings. “We see ourselves continuing to expand both nationally and globally, to address the critical issue of teacher wellbeing and transform the education system from the inside out,” Fenchel says.

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