The Compassionate Schools Project is the most comprehensive study ever undertaken of a 21st century health and wellness curriculum in an elementary or secondary school setting. Facilitating the integrated development of mind and body, the project interweaves support in academic achievement, mental fitness, health, and compassionate character. The research aims to have a major impact on children’s education nationwide in terms of academic performance, physical education, character development, and child health policies due to its extraordinary scale of 45 schools and 20,000 children over the project’s seven years.
Educating the whole child for self-awareness and self-understanding, the curriculum integrates mindfulness for stress management and self-control; contemplative movements, postures and breathing for physical awareness and agility; nutritional knowledge for healthy eating; and social and emotional skills for effective interpersonal relationships. Elementary school students will learn to cultivate focus, resilience, empathy, connection, and wellbeing as the basis for academic and personal success.
The structure and size of the project will yield an unprecedented breadth and depth of data on the dynamics and effects of such an educational approach. With public elementary schools in Louisville, Kentucky as its proving ground in the 28th largest school district in the United States, the findings will be applicable nationwide. The Compassionate Schools Project is a partnership between the University of Virginia and the Jefferson County Public Schools with support from Louisville Metro Government and financial support from philanthropic giving.
When schools help students develop self-awareness and caring for others, they are more likely to succeed. This has been consistently indicated in research in neuroscience and education over the last two decades. Students do better in school when they are mindful of their own thoughts and feelings, can empathize with others, understand their bodies, and practice healthy lifestyle habits such as physical activity and good nutrition. These practices also reduce antagonism and bullying and promote compassion and caring behaviors.
The Compassionate Schools Project curriculum, developed by world-class educators, scientists, and practitioners, teaches elementary school students to cultivate focus, resilience, and well-being for academic success. The lessons integrate social and emotional learning, deep self-understanding, stress resiliency skills, mental fitness training, physical regulation and exercise, and nutrition education within a contemplative and compassionate framework based on recent scientific advancements in the understanding of brain function and the body, child and family health, child development, and academic and social functioning.
The Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), Metro Louisville’s school district, is an established leader in health and wellness education for elementary students. JCPS has embraced the Compassionate Schools Project as the best opportunity to provide the optimal instruction supporting wellness, perseverance, and healthy choices for the children of Louisville within the practical living program, which will be taught during two periods per week. Twenty-five elementary schools and 10,000+ students in kindergarten through fifth grade will be served during the course of the six-year project.
Note: The use of the curriculum after the formal testing period of two years depends on individual school and district decisions about sustaining implementation. As of today, the program is continuing in 18 schools with the school system slating continuation and further expansion in its budgeting.
PLANNING: University of Virginia’s Youth-Nex Center, Contemplative Sciences Center and School of Education with support from Jefferson County Public Schools and the Louisville Metro City Government
CURRICULUM: Developed by faculty in the University of Virginia’s School of Education in partnership with the Sonima Foundation and support from the Hemera Foundation.
INSTRUCTION: Jefferson County Public Schools with additional teachers funded through the Compassionate Schools Project
RESEARCH: University of Virginia’s Youth-Nex Center and School of Education in partnership with Jefferson County Public Schools
Dr. Donna Hargens, Superintendent of the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), believes the Compassionate Schools Project’s health and wellness-centered compassion curriculum will enable student resilience not only for the longer term, but also for specific tasks, like test taking and other high-pressure situations.
In 2011, Kentucky became the first state to adopt national Common Core State Standards in math and English/language arts, with a challenging curriculum and highstakes tests. Dr. Hargens sees the curriculum as a rare opportunity to teach perseverance and mindful decision making that are critical for academic success. JCPS sees it as a tool to foster important cognitive and noncognitive skills beginning in Kindergarten that will put students on a path to career and collegereadiness.
Contemplative Sciences Center, Youth-Nex Center, and School of Education and Human Development
The University of Virginia has a world-class school of education and two innovative centers that are teaming to bring the best mix of scientific and educational skills to the design, implementation, and evaluation of the curriculum. The School of Education and Human Development discovers and advances knowledge, creates innovative proven practices, and facilitates educational change. The Contemplative Sciences Center brings focused scholarship and application from neuroscience and other research on compassion and mindfulness to innovate and improve education, healthcare, and civic life. The Youth-Nex Center focuses on developing and applying rigorous scientific methods to achieve the best understanding of what helps children develop successfully. This unique mix of expertise and extensive experience in school related innovation and research is behind the university’s strong commitment to this initiative.
When Greg Fischer took office as mayor of Louisville, Kentucky in 2011, he recognized that in order for his mid-sized, inland city to set itself apart in a time of global economic transition, it was going to need a competitive advantage. While committed to attracting commercial investment, he thus added a new strategy: compassion.
He believed that if Louisville residents could recognize, celebrate, and act upon their interconnectedness, they could unleash hidden potential already in the city, and do so in a transformative and lasting way. When Mayor Fischer shared his vision with residents, starting with the “Give A Day” community service week, over 90,000 volunteers responded. He knew they were on to something.
Louisville has since set about weaving compassion into many facets of the city through government action and by working with nonprofits and volunteers. The public response continues to be enormously positive. Residents understand it and want to be a part of it.
Due to its scale and the rigor of evaluation, the Compassionate Schools Project will be closely watched by educators and advocates of child development throughout the United States and beyond. The curriculum is being designed in accordance with the most recent innovations and standards, as well as with a careful eye towards the requirements and realities of public school systems. The curriculum’s success in Louisville, a mid-sized city in the heartland of the United States with an urban/suburban mix, is thus intended to be replicated in community schools of all types across the country.