Expected Outcomes: The challenge of assessing yoga and mindfulness

Yoga and mindfulness are inherently internal processes, so when it comes to the end of a semester, and I have to assess whether or not my students are "on target" or not, I balk. I could assess whether or not they were there to practice on time and prepared each day. I could assess whether or not they could hold downward dog for five complete breaths. I could say if they kept their eyes closed for the full ten minutes of mindful meditation. This is all external evidence of their commitment to trying the practice (or at least trying to look like they are committed).  But the real impact of yoga and mindfulness happen inside, often in subtle ways, over time. It looks different depending on each student. 

Furthermore, teaching practices that inherently ask us to be nonjudgemental of ourselves, then turning around and smacking a grade on my students' ability to be nonjudgemental, feels ironic and antithetical.  

Assessing yoga and mindfulness' efficacy is not just something I'm tasked with, but the community at large. But is it working? is a question researchers in the field are diligently trying to answer through self-reported stress perception scales, measurements of cortisol throughout the day, teacher behavior reports, GPA, etc.  Show me the research! is a familiar battle cry in the world of education today. This is important. We don't want to be enacting policies that impact the lives of millions of children without evidence that these measures are going to support them. And yet...it's tricky. 

For the student who has been failed out of each wellness class she's taken, who began the first half of the trimester in jeans for yoga, arriving 30 minutes late for class if at all, what does passing look like? What if, by the end of the semester, she came every day on-time in gym shorts and participated fully each time she was there? An amazing shift in behavior, to be sure, but can I find a standard this aligns to? Not really.

What about the student who I see threaten to beat up another student right after my class, but who writes, "Over the best semester, my flexibility improved greatly and so did my endurance. It was always awesome to start my day off with yoga, waking up my body and stretching everything out." Is that a success or failure?

Human growth is often too complex to be captured in grades.

Each time I stand before students, I teach a classroom full of individuals with their own histories, personalities, and mindsets. What success means for each of them, and what "efficacy" of the program means for each of them, may look entirely different. For one student, perhaps he continues to practice mindfulness even when he doesn't make it to school. For another, perhaps it's seeing patterns of behavior she didn't notice in herself before, even if she isn't in a place to change anything yet. These intangibles are incredibly difficult to capture at a quantitative measure for research purposes, and equally as challenging to grade at the individual level. 

One of the greatest freedoms I have offered myself in teaching these skills and strategies is a release from an expected outcome (I wrote about the importance of Trust for Mindful Schools earlier this school year). If I expect my students to all behave like little peace warriors who mindfully decide to put their technology away without prompting and offer a compassionate ear whenever one is needed, I am bound to be disappointed. Even more problematic, I miss the nuance. I miss the subtle shifts in student well-being. I close the door on the possibility that they may more fully develop in a more equanimous direction long after they are under my instruction.

To use Portia Nelson's metaphor from "Autobiography in Five Short Chapters," perhaps they will fall in the same hole they have always fallen in right now, but at least be able to see it. And maybe some day down the line they will walk around it, or choose another street.

So I'll assign them a grade, because that's our system. We should continue the research into mindfulness to add to the picture of the potential benefits and drawbacks. But it is also up to me to make space for the subtler intangible shifts, that may occur now or in the future, because of the work we did together. I hope as we continue to look to research and evidence to inform our choices of school programs, we make space for the complexity of our humanity, and the myriad of ways our students and programs may be "successful."