"I realized that so much of our current education system is teaching from the chin up, but a lot of times we have to start with the body or the heart before we can get to the brain."
Lyndsay Morris, M.Ed. '08, is the founder of Generation Wellness, an organization that helps train educators to teach their students mindfulness and coping skills.
At one point during her time as a school counselor at Mt. Baker Middle School in Auburn, Lyndsay Morris M.Ed. ’08 was trying to work with a number of students in an anger management group—but she wasn’t having much luck connecting with them. “I tried to talk to them and it didn’t go well,” Morris recalls. “They were like, ‘Who are you? Why would I talk to you?’”
Morris went home feeling a little defeated, but then she had a sudden realization. She’d been a dedicated volleyball player until she got injured, which had prompted her to take up yoga. “Yoga really helped me de-stress,” she says. “Yoga’s not just about the physical, but also the mental and emotional. It can help you choose calm rather than stress.” She decided that when she next met with the anger management group, she wouldn’t immediately attempt to talk with the students about their feelings and behavior. Instead, the sessions would include yoga and games, and it turned out that the new approach was successful. “They did yoga for about six weeks, and then we were able to talk about deeper stuff,” Morris explains. “I realized that so much of our current education system is teaching from the chin up, but a lot of times we have to start with the body or the heart before we can get to the brain.”
At Mt. Baker Middle School, Morris created several different programs that used movement and mindfulness to assist students. One such program was focused on increasing attendance among groups of students for whom attendance had been a challenge. Morris and the attendance secretary focused on building connection among the students, rather than using attendance reward sheets (as the school had done in the past) to encourage attendance. The students engaged in community-building activities, played games, and learned mindfulness techniques under Morris’s guidance, with the result that they started coming to school more often. “The students felt plugged in and not only were they building friendships, but they were building the skills to cope with the stress in their lives. We were addressing the root of the attendance issue,” Morris says. The staff and parent-teacher association of Mt. Baker Middle School recognized Morris for her innovative work with their 2011 educator of the year award.
In 2007, when she started her career as a fourth-grade teacher in the Steilacoom School District, Morris noticed that she enjoyed teaching life skills more than academics, which was what led her to seek out the master’s program in guidance counseling at the College of Education and Counseling Psychology at Saint Martin’s. Later, her experience as a teacher and a school counselor, in conjunction with what she learned at the University, helped her come to an important conclusion. “Our current education system emphasizes academics and passing a test much more than teaching students how to learn, how to cope with stress and trauma, while developing the social and emotional skills needed to thrive in life,” she says. “We’re not considering everything that happens to students. Stress is the number one cause of disease and I think it’s permeating the walls of our schools and homes now and it needs to be addressed.”
In 2013, Morris left her job as a school counselor and founded Generation Wellness, which aims to educate educators on how to teach their students mindfulness and coping skills. “I think our education system is creating smart, anxious human beings who can pass tests,” Morris says. “And I think if we look at the end goal, what we want is happy, healthy, whole human beings—and that’s what Generation Wellness is trying to do.” Morris travels to schools throughout the country to conduct staff trainings and occasional student trainings and, with Cre Dye, Ph.D., she recently co-authored “The Mindful Student,” an online curriculum that comes with more than 40 activities, 20 lesson plans, and 10 audio recordings designed to help relax students and teach mindfulness.
“We believe that self-awareness is the number one skill to possess and it’s crucial to put the same emphasis on teaching this skill, as we do math and reading,” Morris explains. “Without self-awareness students and adults are limited in reaching their full potential. When we teach children to observe their thoughts, notice their feelings and triggers, while also becoming mindful of others and the community, they develop the ability to control their actions, focus their attention and practice kindness.”
In addition to what she had learned about mindfulness on her own, Morris also acquired additional knowledge from her time at Saint Martin’s, and especially from Dan Windisch, Ph.D., professor of education now retired. “I loved Saint Martin’s,” Morris says. “It was the experience of a lifetime, because it was like a family. There were classes of six or seven people and I got to know my professors and become close with them. We did a lot of hands-on, project-based assignments that allowed us to explore what we enjoyed. I felt very prepared to be a school counselor because of Saint Martin’s.”
With Generation Wellness, Morris is helping other principals, teachers and counselors develop the skills needed to effectively teach all students, especially those who are stressed and anxious. “One thing about teaching, I wish I would have had a class about what to do in tough situations, like what if a student is being bullied in recess and they need some time to calm down and process. It would be great for teachers-to-be, counselors-to-be, principals-to-be, to learn how to deal with stress better; not just for their students, but for themselves. When our cups are full, we are able to teach from our overflow and help more people. At the end of the day, it starts with inner peace to create a peaceful world—and that’s what we’re here to teach.”