Compassion curriculum comes to life in JCPS
Author: Sara Wagner
Published: 5:00 AM EST February 27, 2018
Updated: 6:57 AM EST February 27, 2018
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) – It’s a program that has the potential to spread across the country, and it’s getting its start here in Kentuckiana. The Compassionate Schools Project is a collaboration between the University of Virginia and Jefferson County Public Schools.

Like the name suggests, it focuses on kindness, mindfulness, and compassion for self and others. The University of Virginia Curry School of Education created it. Thanks to Louisville native and UVA alum, Owsley Brown III, it came to life in his hometown. JCPS is the pilot district for this curriculum, and it's already showing incredible success across the board.

This is the fourth year of the project. The first year focused on starting the project, developing the curriculum, and working with JCPS to figure out the best ways to implement it. The second-year debuted the program in three pilot JCPS schools. The third year brought in a randomized control trial evaluation to compare schools with the program and schools without it. CSP took all of the schools interested in the program, put them in a lottery, and randomly drew to see which ones would get the curriculum and which ones would not. They’re referred to as implementation and comparison schools. The fourth year is a continuation of that work.

“It fits so well with the city’s initiative around compassion and with the priorities of JCPS to support students’ well-being,” project director Alexis Harris said. “Every time I walk into a school and see a class that’s happening and see the work that teachers and students are doing together, it just blows me away. Every time I see a school in action, it exceeds my expectations completely. So many students are exposed to trauma. So many students are struggling with their own personal challenges, and we need to take the perspective of the whole child. We have to support them socially. We have to support them emotionally. We want our students to be happy, and we want them to be able to cope with the stresses that they’re facing in their daily lives. They’re getting this type of skill development from the very first day that they’re in school. That has a potential to have such a strong impact on their resilience throughout their whole school career and throughout life. It’s so great to see something that’s on paper come to life so successfully.”

Students at 24 JCPS elementary schools have compassion class for fifty minutes twice a week. Those implementation schools get cross-compared to 21 others who don't have the program (comparison schools) to measure the differences. The project follows the students for four years to see the impact on skill development, academic development, and their health and wellness.

Each class is focused on promoting positivity, perseverance, and new perspectives, and the skills are meant to stretch far past the four walls of students' schools. The hope is the lessons from CSP will give kids better-coping skills and make way for education of all kinds.

“You know we saw a need in our kids. They were struggling sometimes with how to monitor their own emotions and physical health and social interactions with peers. This was a really good fit for our school because it encompasses all three of those- the social, the emotional, and the physical health of our students. Sometimes we feel like we have don’t have time to deal with all of those kinds of emotional issues with kids, but if we don’t deal with those and build those relationships and have kids feel safe, they really can’t learn. If kids don’t feel safe and supported, then no learning is going to take place,” Luhr Elementary Principal Lynley Schroering said.

“They are learning amazing things. They’re learning compassion for others and themselves. I see little miracles happening in the compassion classroom every day. It looks different for each of the kids, but they are being empowered in ways that they didn’t know was possible for them. I feel like it has to start inside with the kids knowing that they’re worth something and that they do have some power and control over their choices. They may not have control over their environment, but they are learning that self-love and compassion for others make them feel better inside. It also helps them to become better learners and listeners and better citizens. They have little control over a lot of things in their lives, but they are given opportunities to figure out who they are, identify emotions, identify triggers, and they’re learning what to do with those. It matters. I think it’s the most important piece for our kids right now to be their best selves and to grow into the person that they’re supposed to be and to be excellent members of our society. I definitely believe it could be a worldwide epidemic,” Luhr Elementary Compassionate Schools Project teacher Candace McMahon said.

“There have definitely been a few students I can think of in particular that started off their year, and it was like an emotional rollercoaster. They were all over the place. Something like another student turning around and looking at them takes them from zero to a hundred faster than you can say a word to them. We have so many of these babies who have been through so much trauma on so many different levels, and they just don’t know how to express it. You see them starting to grasp those concepts of self-calming and being aware of what’s happening with themselves and being aware of somebody else maybe they notice is starting to kind of boil and bubble a little bit. They’re paying attention to what’s going on around them more so they can notice like hey, so and so looks like they’re having a rough day today, maybe I should go play with them at recess instead of my normal crew. One of our second-grade classes is really great about telling their teacher when they notice her starting to get frustrated with somebody. They will just call her out and tell her she needs to put her hands on her anchors and say we all need to take a break. It catches you so off guard when you have a seven-year-old telling you that, but it also shows you how much power the program is holding with them because even if they don’t fully understand those concepts, they’re getting those building blocks to get deeper and deeper as they get older. Our behavior problems are just going to drop and drop and drop because by the time they get to fifth grade, they’ll have appropriate coping skills and they’ll know how to handle things when they get mad or upset. They’ll be better about verbalizing what they need,” McFerran Preparatory Academy Compassionate Schools Project teacher Maggie Welp said.

“It’s really just changed the way I teach. The changes in my classroom have been huge. As a teacher, this is probably the most important thing I’ve done so far, stepping outside my comfort zone and trying something different. As a national community, we could use a lot more compassion. This could be a step in the right direction of bringing that forward,” McFerran Preparatory Academy Compassionate Schools Project teacher Jessy Geary said.

“I think a lot of people tend to think about compassion just as being nice to somebody, but the compassion class has sort of changed the way I think about compassion in terms of mindfulness. Compassion gives students an opportunity to identify their own feelings and deal with them in a way that is appropriate and allows them to be compassionate towards other people. It’s working, and sometimes I think it takes a while to appreciate the change that is difficult to make. We’re winning them over. I think each year that the program is in place, it has more fans and advocates. It’s all day, every day, not just two hours a week,” Bloom Elementary Goal Clarity Coach Mary Barnes said.

“It teaches kids to learn about themselves and their own feelings, identify them, and then what do you do with them. It’s not a bad thing. Anger is not bad. Fear is not bad. It just is. It’s what you do with it. If you’re not treating yourself well, I tell the kids that all of the time, it’s really hard to do that for other people. Our fire alarm is very loud, and we had one little girl who was so upset. She was sobbing as we walked out the door, and I just said look at me and let’s take some calming breaths together. By the time she took two calming breaths, she literally was calm,” Bloom Elementary Compassionate Schools Project teacher Cindy Plappert said.

It's getting rave reviews from both teachers and parents.

“When my daughter feels like she needs to remove herself from a situation, she’ll just do that on her own. I don’t even have to ask,” Bloom Elementary School PTA President and parent Mollie Noe said. “If every parent wants to throw their arms up and say my goodness, we’re scared of violence in the schools and shootings, well let’s start young and let’s teach them how to deal with their feelings and how to deal with the people around them and we can make a difference.”

“I think it’s a wonderful program. I think everybody needs it. It’s been great for me as a parent. I started off teasing my son about anchors. Now, if he gets a little upset or if I get a little upset, I just say anchors and we both kind of giggle and me maybe not flying off the handle and yelling at 8:30 when we’re running late for school and have to be somewhere,” Bloom Elementary School PTA Member and parent Melissa Gaddie said. “I think it could be a huge culture and understanding shift. I think sometimes we forget that there are people who don’t come from the same experiences and don’t have the same backgrounds. We’re a computer culture. We hide behind screens. We don’t have as many personal one-on-one interactions, and it’s really easy to be rude and ugly and hateful. I think having a reminder that we are all in this together, and it is a great big mess of a world can help people respond with a lot more compassion and kindness because I think we need it.”

Students are also giving CSP great grades.

“They help you calm down whenever you are mad or sad. You get to learn how to be nicer so if you’re a little bit bad at being nice then they can teach you how to do it,” McFerran Preparatory Academy first-grader Wilson Kone said.

“We get to stretch and have fun. We learn to be nice to others and respect others,” McFerran Preparatory Academy third-grader Nyesha Hale said.

“In fifth grade, you see a lot of breathing and what we call Fresh Start Sequence. It gets you moving and teaches you to be mindful of your surroundings and where your body is moving. The breathing helps you calm down. We have something called anchors where you put one hand on your chest near your heart and one on your stomach. Then, you breathe in and out. When I get into trouble at home, I go to my room and do my anchors. I calm down, and I immediately apologize to my mom,” McFerran Preparatory Academy fifth-grader Charlee Burch said. “When compassionate schools came to my life, I felt like I never did anything really awesome or anything. So, I decided I’m going to start being nicer to my parents, nicer to my brother, and then I proceeded into doing all of this stuff for my parents like helping them clean around the house and doing stuff that’s the definition of the word compassion. I feel like I’ve actually accomplished something. I feel like I can have a better day and succeed in anything I do.”

“It helps me by staying calm,” Bloom Elementary first-grader Memphis Noe said. “Before, I would just throw myself around, and now I do the compassion sequence.”

“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s sometimes also a lot of work. When I get mad now, I just take three calming breaths. When I get excited, I just take three calming breaths,” Bloom Elementary third-grader P.J. Harris said. “Not everybody is getting as mad anymore, and people are starting to get very nice. You have to be compassionate with yourself, others, and the world around you.”

There are lots of similar studies out there, but CSP is really the first of its kind to bring a consistent curriculum to the classroom and beyond. There is also a program for teachers focused on self-care that’s offered before the start of every school day at the implementation schools. It's also the first to follow students for years after they start the work and track their progress. Now in its fourth and final year of the pilot phase, the future of CSP remains to be seen, but its fans are hopeful it’s here to stay. After this year, it's up to the district on whether it wants to continue the curriculum, but it will be available to the rest of the country starting in 2019. A donor is making it free for any school or district who wants to adopt it.

Click here to learn more about the Compassionate Schools Project.