Mindfulness and Well-Being: An Interview With Dr. Summer Braun

By Dr. Summer S. Braun

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How did you first become interested in mindfulness and teacher well-being?

Dr. Summer S. Braun: I always thought that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. As I spent more time in schools, I started to notice that teachers were doing much more than providing academic instruction, but there wasn’t much research on the other ways in which teachers could impact students’ development. At the same time, I saw that the teachers in my life were struggling to maintain their occupational health and well-being. Together, these experiences motivated me to pursue my PhD to dive deeper into the role that teachers play in the classroom, with a particular focus on teachers’ occupational health and well-being.

Your research looks at the link between teacher well-being and student well-being, and in particular the connection between teacher well-­being and student outcomes. How does a teacher’s sense of well-being support student success?

Dr. Summer S. Braun: In addition to being the academic leaders of the classroom, teachers also set the stage for students’ social, emotional, and behavioral development and well-being. There are a variety of processes through which teachers’ occupational health and well-being may impact students’ well-being. For example, modeling: Teachers experiencing high levels of occupational health and well-being may model the use of healthy emotion regulation skills, a positive attitude, and prosocial behaviors for their students. Another process would be through relationships: Teachers may be better able to estab­lish and maintain supportive relationships with students, which we know are important for students’ well-being. You could also look at classroom practices, where teachers may have a greater capacity to enact more proactive and desirable practices in the classroom, or implementation of intervention programs, knowing that evidence-based intervention programs positively impact students in many ways. But programs must be implemented well in order for these positive effects to emerge. Teachers experiencing greater occupational health and well-being may have more energy to devote to implementing evidenced-based intervention programs.

In my research, we’re investigating these potential pathways so that we can better understand the processes through which teachers’ occupational health and well-being may impact the well-being of the students in their classes.

Has your research uncovered any approaches to mindfulness that seem particularly tailored to teachers?

Dr. Summer S. Braun: Mindfulness-based interventions for teachers have shown promising effects for teachers’ social and emotional competencies (mindfulness skills, emotion regulation), occupational health (occupational burnout), personal well-being (anxiety), and the quality of their interactions with students (Jennings et al., 2017; Roeser et al., 2022).  This research has demonstrated that mindfulness-based programs can be helpful for teachers, and also brought to light several new directions that I’m excited to be exploring: How do we make mindfulness-based interventions more accessible for teachers? Can we integrate mindfulness training into preservice training? Does mindfulness training during teacher training have positive effects for teachers and their students once they are in the classroom?

Your research explores two teacher strategies for stressful classroom situations: cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression. Could you explain these and their impact on the classroom experience?

Dr. Summer S. Braun: Cognitive reappraisal is what’s considered to be a healthy emotion regulation strategy. It involves reconceptualizing a potentially emotion-eliciting situation in a more positive way. Teaching is a highly relational profession and emotion-eliciting situations are commonplace in the classroom. For example, a teacher may notice that a student is off task during class and disrupting their classmates. Instead of interpreting this misbehavior as a personal affront—and feeling angry at the student and reprimanding them—a teacher employing cognitive reappraisal may see that student as needing additional clarification on the instructions of the activity, which may lead them to supportively redirect the student. 

Expressive suppression involves modifying a behavioral response to an emotion. In theory, teachers who engage in expressive suppression show little emotion. However, research has shown that efforts to engage in expression suppression actually exacerbate the negative feelings they are trying to downplay.  We could imagine this playing out in the classroom with the situation above. The teacher could attempt to ignore their anger at the student through expressive suppression, but using this strategy is unlikely to allow the teacher to move forward in a positive direction with the student, and instead it may actually increase their anger, and lead to a deterioration of their relationship with the student.

You talk about the “reciprocal nature” of student and teacher interactions. What has your research shown about the connection between elementary students’ pro­social skills and teacher well-being?

Dr. Summer S. Braun: Conceptualized as the leader of the classroom, research has historically sought to understand how teachers influence students.  However, classroom processes do not necessarily always flow from teacher to student. Students certainly impact teachers as well; this includes the teaching practices they choose to employ as well as their occupational health and well-being.  We’re considering both pathways in our work.

How does that connection play out in middle school environments?

Dr. Summer S. Braun: As students develop, their academic, social, emotional, and behavioral needs and capacities shift. This results in unique challenges for teachers of elementary, middle, high school, and even college-age students. Regardless of the school level, mindfulness skills are thought to give teachers the time to pause, breathe, and respond supportively to students instead of immediately reacting to students in an emotionally charged way.

Teacher burnout has been front and center lately, with some teachers leaving the profession within their first years in the classroom. How can teacher well-being help to mitigate teacher burnout?

Dr. Summer S. Braun: By investing in efforts to promote teachers’ well-being, schools and districts could help to mitigate the negative effects of burnout on teachers, their students, and the larger workforce. For example, schools could provide teachers access to evidence-based wellness programs or mindfulness-based interventions and build in time for them to engage in these programs.  However, this approach does not alter the systemic characteristics that make schools such a stressful place to work. Schools and districts could also reflect upon the demands they place on teachers, and critically evaluate which requests could be removed or consolidated, and which are necessary elements in successfully educating our youth.

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Dr. Summer S. Braun

Dr. Summer S. Braun is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and affiliated with the Center for Youth Development and Intervention at the University of Alabama. Her research centers on schools as a particularly important context for children’s development and focuses on understanding teachers’ social and emotional competencies, occupational health, and well-being, and their associations with students’ social, emotional, and behavioral development. Her work bridges research and practice by studying interventions designed to support the health and well-being of teachers and students, such as mindfulness-based wellness programs.