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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Massaro

The Data Is In: An Update on Shanthi Project's Mindfulness Research

Updated: Mar 5

An Evidence-Backed Mission

Since Shanthi Project's inception, research has been at the core of our work. It began with our founder Denise Veres, who began working with incarcerated youth at Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center in 2010. With a background in clinical research, Denise baked into our organization the principles and best practices of evidence-based programming.

The children at the Juvenile Justice Center were then, and still are now, among those who need trauma-informed supportive services most in our community. But since 2010, our organization and its presence in the community have expanded far and wide. Alongside this growth has been an increased interest from the scientific community in mindfulness – and, as a result, the research literature supporting trauma-informed mindfulness practices, particularly for school-aged youth, has blossomed, too.

Shanthi Project does our part to add to this growing field of research, regularly conducting formal academic research investigations with Muhlenberg College: a longstanding partnership initiated by Denise over eight years ago. Now, each school year, Shanthi Project works directly with Dr. Mark Sciutto, a professor in Muhlenberg’s Psychology Department, along with a few of his students. Together, we conduct in-depth research on Shanthi Project’s Calm+Kind+Focused in-class mindfulness programming.

"Over our decade-long partnership, says Dr. Sciutto, "Shanthi Project has been deeply invested in understanding the impact of their programs and finding ways to improve the experience for students, teachers, and schools. We have learned what most program participants see day in and day out – that Shanthi Project’s programs have a range of very positive outcomes for students and teachers. Regardless of the specific research questions we address, it is always a pleasure to put the pieces of the puzzle together with my students and my wonderful colleagues at Shanthi."

Through this relationship, we have been better able to tailor and develop our in-class mindfulness programs to the students and teachers we serve. This partnership also provides opportunities for Muhlenberg students to obtain real-world experience through the community-engaged research modality. Our dedication to research, along with Muhlenberg’s collaboration, support our ultimate mission: fostering social emotional resiliency throughout the Greater Lehigh Valley.

How Do We Use Our Research?

Over the past few years, one of our most significant findings has shown that students who participate in our in-class programming experience increased positive outcomes when their classroom teachers are engaged in mindfulness lessons, too. 

Likewise, teachers who implemented mindfulness practices outside of Shanthi Project’s programming reported greater prosocial behavioral outcomes and increased social-emotional learning competencies in their students. As a response to this finding, we developed our Mindfulness for Educators initiative, meant to boost classroom teacher engagement in our programming. 

This real-life example illustrates just how central independent research investigations are to evidence-based curriculum development. By partnering with an outside institution each year, we can understand the true impact of our work and in turn, either expand upon what we know is working, or adapt to fix what is less effective. 

To develop and fine-tune the resulting Mindfulness for Educators initiative, we designed a further research investigation with Dr. Sciutto and his team. In this study, we sought to build upon previous findings and further explore the new program’s impact with a few core research questions:

  • Does the Mindfulness for Educators program affect classroom teachers’ well-being in regards to burnout (measured by emotional exhaustion and self-compassion)?

  • Are Calm+Kind+Focused outcomes better in classrooms where teachers took part in Mindfulness for Educators?

  • Were teachers and students more engaged in those classrooms?

We selected two schools for this research – both schools would be implementing Shanthi Project’s student programming, but only one would also have the Mindfulness for Educators program.

Our Findings: Mindfulness for Educators

The findings of our study suggest that teacher well-being improved through participation in Shanthi Project’s Mindfulness for Educators teacher training program.

We measured changes in teachers’ emotional exhaustion from before the start of Calm+Kind+Focused, to the end of the student programming. Teachers who underwent their own training program experienced an overall decrease in levels of emotional exhaustion between these two time points (see figure below). This same pattern of change was not seen for teachers who were not a part of the training program.

Similarly, we saw an overall increase in self-compassion in teachers who underwent the Mindfulness for Educators program. As illustrated by the figure below, we did not see this pattern of change for teachers who did not participate in the training program.

This study intended to explore whether Mindfulness for Educators had an impact on classroom teacher engagement with the material – and we were thrilled when our research showed us just that! Observing these decreases in emotional exhaustion and increases in self-compassion highlighted the importance of teacher investment.

But even more importantly, engagement also improved for students whose teachers underwent Mindfulness for Educators.

To explore student engagement, social-emotional learning competencies were evaluated pre-program to post-program. Measuring by an empirical scale, we saw a statistically significant increase in students’ social-emotional learning competencies throughout both classrooms. But compared to our control, students whose teachers took part in the training were overall extremely engaged with in-class programming — more so than the students whose teachers did not take part in Mindfulness for Educators. See the figure below!

This important finding suggests that teachers who undergo mindfulness training may be best equipped to support their students. 

What Are We Doing Now? A Look at the 2023-24 School Year

Building on our exciting findings from the Mindfulness for Educators programming, we’re curious to explore things further. Now, we’re asking: what creates the right environment for classroom teachers to experience increased well-being and reduced burnout + emotional exhaustion, as well as increased student engagement in mindfulness programming?

The answer, we believe, may rest in schoolwide culture — what if mindfulness programming were delivered in a school climate that prioritized mindfulness? We predict that a culture of mindfulness could substantially impact the efficacy of Calm+Kind+Focused for the students we instruct.

Given this premise, Shanthi Project is currently working with the Muhlenberg research team to explore the relationship between schoolwide culture and student social-emotional learning outcomes throughout the 2023-2024 school year. This research moves the needle toward identifying an important gap: if our premise proves correct, we can tailor our programming accordingly — or develop an entirely new initiative, with school climate at the forefront.

A Chance to Dive Deeper

To deepen our community-engaged partnership with Muhlenberg, students from the research team recently sat in on a Shanthi instructor’s Calm+Kind+Focused lessons at Clearview Elementary in Bethlehem, PA. 

The students’ on-site observation gave them a firsthand look into our programming and provided valuable insights into the differences among schools and classrooms. After this particular visit, the college students noted how varied student engagement was across three different fifth-grade classrooms. 

"Clearview was the second time I was able to see mindfulness sessions in action," said Rose, one of the Muhlenberg researchers. "Each time, I am amazed by the intelligence and social-emotional awareness shown by these kids based on what they've learned in the program. Not only am I grateful to strengthen my research skills through our collaboration, but being able to observe mindfulness sessions has also given me the invaluable experience of seeing how our work is improving the school environment."

Ultimately, our research with Dr. Sciutto’s research team has spawned benefits beyond our own organization. Not only has this collaboration offered hands-on experience for young researchers, but it’s helped our programming become even more valuable for local children and adults. This research has been nearly a decade in the making; our founder’s dedication to evidence-backed mindfulness laid the groundwork for what is now a robust, research-based curriculum that allows us to serve our community with enthusiasm and confidence in the science behind our mission.

Muhlenberg psychology students on their site visit. Left to right: Susan (Shanthi Project instructor), Molly (Muhlenberg Student), Rose (Muhlenberg Student)

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