Bringing Compassion Into Our Schools
With increasing signs of trauma among students, a school district turns to mindfulness to alter social-emotional and academic trajectories
BY MICHAEL B. MATSUDA/School Administrator, February 2019

Michael Matsuda, superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District in Anaheim, Calif., creates origami cranes with students at Oxford Academy.

In 2017, I led two busloads of students from the Anaheim Union High School District to witness the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. This was the federal government action that authorized the internment of more than 110,000 mostly American citizens of Japanese descent. My mother, then a 14-year-old freshman at Anaheim High School, was among those incarcerated.

Only in America could a son grow up to become the superintendent of the school district from where his mother was forcibly removed and interned because of her place of birth.

That trip to Manzanar, the concentration camp near the California-Nevada border, weighs heavily on me. While on a tour of one of the rebuilt barracks depicting horrible conditions of open toilets and rickety beds with nothing but straw mattresses, a student behind me said, “Wow, this is pretty nice.” I turned around and asked him to explain what he meant. “At least they (the internees) had a place to sleep,” he said. “I sleep with my brother on the garage floor.”

Teen Depression
The fact is that the Anaheim public schools have more than 4,100 students (out of 30,000 secondary students) identified as McKinney-Vento or homeless. These are students who sleep on floors in overcrowded barrios. Some live in cheap motels and others exist out on the streets. Every day, I think about these children, who are food deprived, who are depressed and, along with many other students, who are anxious about their future in an uncertain economy in a country increasingly divided and polarized.

Little wonder why clinical depression is on the rise in America, especially among teens.

Renee Goodwin, a professor in the School of Public Health at Columbia University, in a national study of depression, found the rise was most rapid among those between the ages of 12 and 17, increasing from 8.7 percent of adolescents in 2005 to 12.7 percent in 2015. Disturbingly, depression is most common among those with the least access to any health care, including mental health professionals.

“This includes,” Goodwin reports, “young people and those with lower levels of income and education. Moreover, recent data suggest that treatment for depression has not increased, and a growing number of Americans, especially socioeconomically vulnerable individuals and young persons, are suffering from untreated depression. Depression that goes untreated is the strongest risk factor for suicide behavior.”

Our school district averages about three incidents of suicide ideation per week. The district cannot monitor all students and tragically there are young people in our system who have taken their lives. Four years ago, when I became superintendent, I became aware of a growing amount of suicide ideation and actual suicides — including a teenager who was found in the fetal position under her bed and a young man who had dropped out of high school and hanged himself. I wanted to learn their stories and found some commonalities in childhood experiences that underscored and affirmed the latest national research in a 20-year-old field of study known as “adverse childhood experiences.”

The research field, often referenced as “ACEs,” stems from the 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences Study conducted as a partnership between Kaiser Permanente and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study is one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess connections between chronic stress caused by early adversity and long-term health.

The study examined exposure to childhood adversity, including abuse and neglect, and household dysfunction such as domestic violence, parental mental illness and parental substance abuse. Researchers assigned an ACE score to each participant by adding up the number of adversities the participant reported. They found that as the number of ACEs increased, the risk of negative health outcomes increased as well. In fact, subsequent studies have found the life expectancy of a person with six or more ACEs is 20 years shorter than a person with no ACEs.

Self-Awareness Training

Students at Orangeview Junior High School in Anaheim, Calif., meditate in their classroom as part of a mindfulness initiative. 

It dawned on me that students are coming to us increasingly traumatized, regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic status, and our school systems, due to the lack of awareness, often disregard or exacerbate the trauma, which leads to further disconnection, anger, apathy, anxiety, depression and acting out. It’s a vicious cycle for students, parents and staff as well.

Something had to be done. We needed training so I called a friend, Home Nguyen, whose Ed.D. dissertation research focuses on transforming organizational culture change through compassion and mindfulness. Nguyen is founder of an organization in New York City, Mindkind Institute, which specializes in building compassionate leadership.

He and I had several discussions about how we could transform our urban district with its 1,300 teachers and counselors and another 1,000 classified employees (including more than 300 instructional aides) into a compassionate, caring and self-aware culture. Without self-awareness, an ability to monitor emotions, Nguyen said “when the buttons are pushed by the kids or a colleague, mindfulness helps us and students reprogram default responses, which too often lead to a negative outcome.”

This is really what emotional intelligence is built upon, he adds — “the ability to monitor emotions, press the ‘pause button’ and learn to access appropriate and compassionate responses. It’s an important skill to learn and students will use it all their life as they learn to manage their emotions and consider the emotions of others.”

We began the training at the top through an online program that Mindkind customized for our district administrators in Anaheim. Nguyen strongly believed that if leaders don’t understand the training and the research behind it, why should teachers get on board? So we did not impose the training but extended invitations to participate in a four-week commitment.

More than 90 percent of our administrators, including all executive cabinet members, participated, learned, grew, practiced meditation and self-reflected. This enabled us to invite teachers to be trained using a locally developed curriculum for students.

In one year, we trained more than 100 teachers who are actively using the curriculum with students. It consists of 5- to 10-minute meditations on issues such as bullying, mindful use of social media, healthy friendships, healthy diets and anger control. We have applied the program at six schools and have seen remarkable results in terms of suspensions (decline of 50 percent), truancy and other negative behaviors.

A Powerful Reflection
Note that the school district’s mindfulness is not a stand-alone initiative. We have social workers, family and community engagement specialists, translators, trained facilitators of restorative practices, service learning and civic engagement requirements. We have layered our socio-emotional professional development with programs such as Capturing Kids’ Hearts, a relationship-building program started by psychotherapist Flip Flippen. It has been quite effective.

But I cannot emphasize enough the effect of mindfulness and self-reflection with students. Below is a reflection from a 5th-year senior (sent in by his teacher) who has many behavioral and academic problems. He began mindfulness practices last spring.

“Depression is an invisible poison, it can affect anyone before they even realize it’s doing so,” he said. “It can hit like a truck or build over time. How can you tell if someone is depressed, how do you know if you aren’t? Anxiety only amplifies the effect, making it harder to find a solution. I even think to myself, am I depressed? Would it explain why I’ve locked myself after the holder of the key passed away? That everyone else is just a walking mannequin in my eyes? That even my closest friends have no idea what’s going through my head?”

One of this student’s teachers had noticed his grades and behavior took a dive when he was in junior high school. She wrote me: “With further trust building and mindfulness practices over the next few days, I learned that there was a terrible car accident when he was 11 years old. His father, brother and mother were in the car. The mother was so severely injured that she died in the hospital following the accident.”

The teacher adds: “Strikingly, this young man doesn’t want to miss the mindfulness practice times we have in class. He thinks it’s actually been helpful. He likes it. His comments on the written work for the class are insightful and evidence that he is getting something significant from the exercises.”

Superintendent Michael Matsuda (right) greets the Dalai Lama during a visit to India in 2018.
Emotional Hygiene
This student is one of thousands in our district who are practicing mindfulness and becoming more resilient and self-compassionate. We believe that foundation, beginning with one’s self (i.e., nourishing a healthy self-love), leads to compassion and empathy for others which, if cultivated across schools widely, can help build a more caring and interconnected society.

This past summer, I had the lifetime opportunity to meet with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, during a visit to India. I traveled with a friend, Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, with whom we’ve partnered on transforming the city to become a city of kindness.

In a 90-minute meeting, the Dalai Lama was eager to learn about our story because, sadly, there are few examples of big-city mayors working collaboratively with school leaders on “fluffy” issues such as kindness and compassion. While emanating love and joy, he often had a tone of urgency: “You educators are the captains of compassion, which the world needs right now. You need to teach emotional hygiene so more people have trust in each other. In America, your leaders especially need it more than ever.”

As the Dalai Lama warns, we are at a pivotal juncture. Greater urgency is needed to support a culture of compassion and kindness. Democracy cannot be healthy if we do not teach young people to be compassionate for others. Our society, our democracy, our future depend on it.

MICHAEL MATSUDA is superintendent of Anaheim Union High School District in Anaheim, Calif.