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The Jefferson County Public Schools have made a commitment to “whole-child education” that goes beyond academics.
The Jefferson County Public Schools have made a commitment to “whole-child education” that goes beyond academics. Credit: Tamika Moore for The Hechinger Report

Visit an elementary school in Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public Schools and you may find students doing partner yoga poses. The activity, part of a massive study of a “whole-child” education program called the Compassionate Schools Project, has several purposes. When students do these partner poses, they practice mindfulness — paying attention to their own bodies — and they learn how to cooperate and problem-solve with a peer. It’s a physical activity that asks students to practice balance and agility while also engaging them mentally and socially.

This multipurpose approach is at the heart of the Compassionate Schools Project. It seeks to integrate the development of a student’s mind and body, combining fitness with health education, social and emotional learning and support for academic achievement.

Tish Jennings, an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, is one of the researchers who developed the curriculum and is studying its impact in Louisville-area schools. Now in the fourth year of a six-year project, the Compassionate Schools Project aims to reach more than 10,000 students across 25 elementary schools with the curriculum, and compare them with students who are not exposed to it.

Jennings sees whole-child education as critical to student success. Schools can’t focus only on academic content, she said, with students who don’t feel safe and calm in the classroom. Many children experience trauma at home or in their communities. Those experiences don’t disappear when the school bell rings.

“If we don’t find ways to help them overcome these reactions from trauma that they bring to school with them, it’s going to be hard to teach them the academic content.”

“If we don’t find ways to help them overcome these reactions from trauma that they bring to school with them, it’s going to be hard to teach them the academic content,” Jennings said. “[The Compassionate Schools Project] is really helping prepare their bodies and minds — the whole child — to be ready to learn what we want them to learn.”

While researchers are still collecting data about how the CSP curriculum affects students, principals and teachers are already seeing anecdotal evidence.

Donnie Boemker is the principal of Stonestreet Elementary School in Louisville, which volunteered to participate in the study. This is the second year his students have had two 50-minute periods per week of the Compassionate Schools Project curriculum, and he said he sees the impact in other classrooms and in the hallways. Students learn in the program how to recognize signs that they are getting stressed out or angry. They learn to note their tightened shoulders, hot cheeks or furrowed brows, and then take action before they lose their cool completely.

“If you can catch it up front, think about your breathing and those calming skills, it’ll help them in the long run,” Boemker said. He said he regularly hears kids talking about these strategies and using the language of the program.

Besides these social and emotional skills, students in the program also learn about healthy eating, connecting those lessons to how eating well leads to healthy bodies and minds. This, of course, all comes back to the more traditional aims of school: mastering academic content. Taking time for the health and wellness side lays the foundation for the academic side, the project’s creators believe. And they anticipate that the Compassionate Schools Project will bring a significant amount of data to show exactly how important that can be.

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