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Compassionate Schools Project

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

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.

Awareness & Caring for Academic Success

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.

7 Year Project Timeline


Year 1: (2014-2015)0%

  • Development of instruction, curriculum implementation and evaluation organization
  • Engage schools and supporters / funders


Year 2: (2015-2016)0%

  • Implementation in 3 pilot schools


Year 3: (2016-2017)0%

  • 2nd year of implementation in 3 pilot schools
  • Full implementation in 12 schools
  • 24 school evaluation (12 school control group)

Year 4: (2017-2018)0%

  • Full implementation in 24 schools
  • 45 school evaluation (21 school control group)

Year 5: (2018-2019)0%

  • Implementation in 12 schools
  • 21 school evaluation (9 school control group)
  • Continuing evaluation of students
  • Research analysis and synthesis

Evaluation and Analysis

Years 6-7: (2019-2020) & (2020-2021)0%

  • Continuing evaluation of students and schools
  • Data analysis and synthesis

Note: The use of the curriculum after year five in JCPS will depend on whether it is adopted long-term for its practical living program after the project-funded four year incubation.

Administration and Organization

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

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.

University of Virginia

Contemplative Sciences Center, Youth-Nex Center, and Curry School of Education

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 Curry School of Education 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.

Louisville and Compassion

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.

Facts at a Glance

  • A single, integrated health and wellness curriculum for the 21st century with the following components:
    • Social and emotional knowledge and skills training for success in school, personal relations, and future employment
    • Mindfulness practices for self-­awareness, stress resiliency, and self-­control
    • Physical movement and posture exercises integrated with breathing practices for stress resiliency and fitness
    • Nutrition education for ensuring healthy eating habits for lifelong health
  • Aligns with state and federal standards for health, physical education, nutrition, social and emotional learning, and the Common Core standards for language arts
  • Enhances the Jefferson County Public Schools’ leadership and excellence in wellness education as part of the “practical living” periods already part of the school system’s schedule

  • Will be taught by credentialed practical living teachers in the context of the normally scheduled class time to enable ease of possible long-­term adoption
  • Over the span of this funded project, 10,000+ elementary school students (Kindergarten through 5th grade) will be served
  • First year pilot to ensure effective integration into school days and educational goals
  • Full implementation for at least two years following the pilot to evaluate benefits for student behavior, achievement, and well­-being
  • Six year rigorous evaluation using highest standards of randomized control trial methodology to compare 25 schools with compassion curriculum and 25 schools control group
  • Serves Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville, KY): 100,855 students urban/suburban mix with 64% free/reduced lunch

A Globally Significant Program

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.

  • First integrated and public school-ready health and wellness curriculum integrating practices of mindful awareness, physical movements with poses and breathing, social emotional learning, and compassion with a deep understanding of the science of health, nutrition, and personal development
  • Positive results would produce, for the first time, a usable school-ready curriculum that prepares students for crucial challenges today and in the future
  • Most prior research on such curriculum has shown promise but has been either “advocacy research” or not of the necessary quality, rigor, and scale to inform large-scale directions in public education
  • An approach and scale that provide an unprecedented understanding of effects for different groups (by age, school environment, those with learning challenges, etc.)
  • Will provide compelling evidence of how the curriculum works, for whom, and in what areas of academic, behavioral, and emotional well-being over the course of multiple years