Meet Linda Lantieri, founder of Inner Resilience Program

Interviewed by Eleanor Duke

It is nearly impossible to talk about mindfulness education without mentioning Linda Lantieri, one of the most influential educators in the United States today. She is a founding board member of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), which promotes social and emotional learning as part of the core curriculum at schools across the U.S., the cofounder of the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program, which is established in 400 schools across the country and abroad, and the founding director of the Inner Resilience Program, which focuses on integrating social and emotional learning (SEL) with mindfulness practice in schools. She is an adjunct professor at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Columbia University Teachers College in the psychology department, has authored and/or co-authored over 20 articles and book chapters including Building Emotional Intelligence, and has been granted innumerable awards and fellowships.

After 15 years in operation, the Inner Resilience Program will be honorably closing in June of 2017. “There are a lot more people in this world now doing this work, and it frees me to help to do the work that needs to be done,” Lantieri says, “It’s a conscious choice.” Originally a three-year program founded with the aim of supporting schools in lower Manhattan after 9/11, IRP has served thousands of people over the last decade and a half. As they transition, they will be working to sustainably preserve the legacy of IRP.

After over 40 years in education, Lantieri continues to be a leading voice in transforming our education system and advocating for young people who are most in need of support. She reflects on the possible future of education, the importance of balance, and how we handle trauma.

I know you started your career as a teacher. What was it that caused you to recognize the importance of social and emotional learning? How did you make that transition?

I have to credit it to my undergraduate and graduate experience at Hunter College, where I studied with people who were very involved in the Affective Education movement of the 60s. And then my second year of teaching was filmed by Hunter College, to use in their teacher education. What was filmed was mostly that Affective Education — we weren’t calling it social and emotional learning in those days — circle work and class meetings, etcetera., I had to stay very conscious of how I was developing that over that second year of teaching. Literally, cameras were in the room as I met my class on the first day.

That sounds like a lot of pressure!

It was very intense! But after a while, they were just there. It was a very powerful experience. My mentor during that time, Elizabeth Hunter, was really an expert in the area of what we now call social and emotional learning. When I started teaching, I hadn’t been initiated in any meditation practice yet. About six years after I started teaching, I was initiated into Transcendental Meditation, and eventually took many advanced courses in it. So by the time I became a director or administrator at a school, it was completely incorporated. Not only the SEL piece, but also we meditated as a staff every morning. There was a meditation room in my building. When I think of that time, I feel like we’re trying to get there again. We were so far beyond the norm, even of today.

And then also, there was such a clear need. Kids were coming in with such big things interrupting their lives. This was at the height of the era of drugs and gang violence — it was evident that there was a whole lot more that children needed to survive than just the basics.

You just spoke about some of the personal traumas and barriers that students face. I know the Inner Resilience Program was founded in the wake of September 11th, which was obviously a very large-scale trauma. Are there different ways to respond to or deal with these different types of traumatic events or situations?

It didn’t take me long to realize, when I started to be involved in the 11 schools — all of whom ran, literally for their lives, on September 11th — that the teachers and parents and administrators and kids were also holding on for their dear lives on September 10th. It shone a light on the fact that they needed this support even before this event happened.

One thing I learned was that it had to be with the adults first. We did a lot, when I was originally teaching, to make these sorts of programs school-wide. But my purpose through that was, “let’s get to the kids.” Whereas, when I was asked to respond to this situation, it was clear that all these adults were being asked to help the young people — but these people were in vicarious traumatization! They couldn’t give what they didn’t have.

That was a big thing, convincing the September 11th Fund, which was ready to give me a lot of money, that I wasn’t going to start with the young people. That was what they were hoping for, but I said: “the teachers and the parents and the administrators — they are the front line! And they are losing it!” I looked at some of the work in compassion fatigue, and I convinced them, luckily. So for the first three years of Inner Resilience, we didn’t even have a curriculum to bring into the schools. When the teachers said they felt whole enough, that they were ready to bring it to the children, we started the process, together, of writing it, trying it out, and critiquing it.

I have been thinking so much about teachers, recently. It seems obvious that it’s so important for teachers to be healthy and be operating at full emotional capacity.

I know — think about how many young people they’re affecting every day! And we know they bring their emotions to school, even when they try to pretend. Energetically, kids can feel those things.

You've compared schools to factories — a fair comparison. Where do you think this model developed from? What is it serving, and what is not serving?

Well, it’s the industrial complex — we haven’t changed from when schools were about that. And schools are set up to produce and favor certain kinds of learners, ones who stay in the box, are controlled, all those things.

The work in mindfulness is probably the biggest stretch that schools are making, when they’re making it. But we’re trying to do this work within structures that don’t support the work itself. That’s even more true of mindfulness than of SEL. I often think, for example, if the implementation of mindfulness education in K-12 education were successful, then kids and teachers would become so awake that they would no longer be able to exist in the structure and system that is education right now in our country. If we’re really helping people become awake, they are going to become awake to the fact that there is incredible inequality, and no honoring of creativity or democracy, of all the kinds of things we want our schools to instill in our young people.

If that was to happen on a grand scale — if the paradigm was to simply shift, overnight, in terms of our education system — what would that look like?

I think, first of all, the superiority of the intellectual would be dismantled. We would really come to respect — and therefore would be teaching and learning — that there are a variety of ways of knowing. That includes an inner knowing, and a personalized knowing, a subjective knowing. Which, by the way, is what happens in mindfulness, even more so than in SEL. The subject, in mindfulness, is yourself. I think we would start to do things very differently. There would be a lot more student involvement and engagement, a lot less teacher-talk, and a variety of strategies in classrooms around active learning and critical thinking.

I think there has to be a real desire on the part of a field to be the vehicle for transformation. That’s what’s starting to happen in the field of SEL. SEL is being used as the tool of transformation, as a tool for what policy looks like, what practice looks like, and what teachers need to be successful in the classroom. Right now it’s the one area in education that’s holding that potential, and also has some of the structure behind it.

How do you see SEL and mindfulness education overlapping with other specialized education programs? I am thinking specifically of sex education, which is so flawed in our system, but should ideally reach toward many of the same goals: self-advocacy, communication, reflection, decision-making.

I think what the SEL world gives education is a set of skills that overlap all those individual areas. They’re saying that these skills, when taught in clear, consistent, ongoing ways, using research-based methods, have the potential to equip young people to choose more prosocial behavior. That’s why I think SEL is so big — it’s not just another curriculum. It’s not even a curriculum! There are many approaches to SEL. These are skills that fit into all of those other things that kids are facing, that give them skills to use in every aspect of their lives. These are what people call “soft skills” — I don’t go for that. These skills aren’t soft at all. They’re necessary, they’re skills for life. They’re life-saving skills. That’s why I feel so hopeful about the SEL movement.

And with mindfulness added to that, we are able to speed up the learning and embodiment of those skills. Mindfulness, without those SEL skills, wouldn’t be as useful. It can bring that balance and reflection, but without the SEL skills, children don’t know how to communicate what they’re feeling in a way that’s kind or productive. And that won’t just naturally happen in a mindfulness curriculum — that’s the SEL piece.

You’ve been working in education for over 40 years now. Do you think kids are more stressed now than they used to be?

Anecdotally, it absolutely feels that way. I think it’s due to a variety of reasons: school and the way school happens to children, and then also living in such an uncertain world, and living in a world of technology. It’s a hugely more complicated world that they are facing. We’re seeing some signs of kids having stress-related ailments sooner and sooner.

When I first started to work, the kids in East Harlem were experiencing extreme stress, which also included trauma. Now, I would say, there wouldn’t be a school that would be free of young people who feel stress. It was in certain pockets of poverty, that you would see these things. But now, most teachers who have stayed in teaching would say that children are becoming more distressed, more anxious, more depressed. The three biggest ways young people in our culture die is from three preventable causes: accidents, suicide, and homicide.

You have a strong meditation practice. How else do you take care of yourself?

It’s true, I have a daily meditation practice that has become a non-negotiable, every morning. I also give myself a fair amount of time in my schedule for reflection and downtime. If I am doing something big in the world, I think about the work I need to do on a personal level, even if it’s just personal reflection. It might be going on a retreat, or going on some professional development that will enhance and enrich me. So I try to balance my time. And I work with people who are working on their own balance, also. People who are in our work need to be examples of the work.

What books have most inspired you?

I lead a mini-retreat yesterday, and one of the participants had just visited Yogananda’s center in La Jolla. I remembered how profound Autobiography of a Yogi was, for me; that’s one of my books. And of course, many of Parker Palmer’s books, but the two that really stand out to me are Let Your Life Speak and A Hidden Wholeness. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living was also really life-changing for me, without a question.

casey altman