Interview with Ryan Redman
School can be stressful: tests, assignments, structure, after-school activities, deadlines, homework… There’s not much that kids actually have control over—most of the time parents and teachers decide what they do and when. Ryan Redman gets it. He created Flourish Foundation to help kids—and adults—learn that the thing they can control is how they respond. With weekly lessons in mindfulness, Ryan and his team are helping public school students in central Idaho learn to calm themselves down, choose how they want to show up and decide what kind of impact they want to have on the world. Here’s his story…
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have a father who was very interested in contemplative practices and Eastern philosophy. When I was 10 years old, he took me to a yoga class with him. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, I felt very nourished by the experience. Later I started having back pain and trouble in my body (I grew to 6’5″). So I used yoga to support my physical health. That, really, was a catalyst for becoming more aware of both my body and my mind. From there, I had a number of experiences that pushed me in the direction I’m working in now.
I spent a fair amount of time traveling and studying in India. The first time was when I was going to school at the University of California, Santa Barbara. When I came back, I really tried to integrate myself back into university life. But after having had a very deep transformational experience studying in different ashrams in India, I really wondered if I should continue with school. One day, I was in an environmental studies class and we had a visiting professor. He gave an incredible talk on how all the environmental problems that were being driven by human behavior actually boiled down to destructive states of mind: greed, self-centeredness, hostility. It was so compelling for me, because I had just spent a great deal of time looking at how to train the mind and how we could overcome destructive mental states.
That really provoked my interest in contemplative practices, not only as a modality for building one’s own resiliency and well-being, but also as a modality for social action and social change. For a decade, I worked on cultivating this in a very informal fashion, leading meditation groups with adults and teaching yoga classes. But I found there wasn’t enough continuity or consistency to really explore the themes and topics.
Then in 2010, I was serendipitously encouraged to teach a group of 5th graders. That’s where this work really started, bringing these practices into schools and connecting them not only to stress reduction and personal wellness, but also to social change.
I had been working with adults in the community and several parents approached me, really concerned about their children. The emphasis in the schools was on test-taking. As a result, everything seemed to be sped up in their academic life, but their social and emotional life was really atrophying. So they asked if I could teach these mindfulness strategies to the kids.
At that time there was very little happening in the field of mindfulness in education. I got in touch with Susan Kaiser Greenland in Los Angeles, who was doing something similar to what I had in mind. She was a great personal mentor and gave me ideas for where to start. She offered some kid-friendly exercises that distilled the themes of contemplative practices, brought them alive in a classroom setting and reinforced them in such a way that the students could actually start developing skills to create their own personal practice.
I worked with a counselor/social worker at the school, who was my liaison in the classroom. We started with an icebreaker activity or a question like “Has anyone ever heard the concept of ‘standing in another person’s shoes’? What does that mean?” We created dialogue around a particular topic or theme. Sometimes we played a game related to the theme, to give the kids a more kinesthetic or body experience of the concepts. Then we followed up with a contemplative practice, using the language we’d discussed either in the game or in our opening discussion. By doing so, we started to create a culture around the language we came up with together. This was reinforced experientially through a contemplative practice. Then we’d finish by debriefing: “How do you think this could be applied in your everyday life? Where could it be of benefit to you?” That’s the general format we’ve used in grade levels from elementary school until early middle school.
How did the kids respond to this mindfulness practice?
When the students settled into a practice and then reported what the experience was like, it was mind-blowing. You get to watch them go into that state with open-mindedness. On the other hand, there were also just some days when the kids were very restless or unsettled. Trying to create a space to get them to practice was not always easy. So we learned about using movement to help them constructively shift some of that energy around. Or play more active games. There was a lot of trial and error, for sure.
One of the things that was really evident right away, was the fact that they felt self-empowered and realized there were things they could do to shape their own experience or calm themselves down. Sometimes it feels like the world is happening to us. Especially for kids. Their parents take them to school, where everything’s structured. Their teachers tell them what they should learn and do. Everything’s happening to them. It’s really empowering for them to see that, even in the midst of all this, they have a choice in how they want to show up and how they respond to different situations. They started to realize, for instance, “My brother, my dad, when they’re really stressed out, they do this. If I can just remove myself from the situation and take a few breaths, I feel calmer. Before, I would get angry and then everyone would get angry. Now, I can be really calm and then I found that my family members also calm down.” They felt like they had more to offer in different situations, especially situations that previously felt like there were a lot of things out of their control.
How have the kids developed over the last six years?
In elementary school, the kids are very open and receptive. We’ve followed many of them through middle school and it’s so interesting to watch how they change. Middle school is a time of incredible vulnerability; there are so many social pressures placed on them and they’re trying to navigate all that. They’re also dealing with all the physical changes they go through. For many of these students, it’s a period where they’re not quite as vocal and expressive, but they’re still open to practicing. Then in 10th and 11th grade, they really start to blossom again in terms of opening up. At that point they can really articulate how they use the practices. Many of them have a well-established personal practice. They feel very confident and comfortable using the language to describe the different things they’re experiencing. They have a very nuanced appreciation for different qualities of mind and types of awareness—and these are not all positive, of course. In short, they have a heightened introspective capacity.
How has the program grown?
We are now in 48 classrooms and work with roughly 1200 students and teachers every week. We’ve had a pretty tremendous growth these last 6 years. We’re in a small resort community here in central Idaho, with 25,000 residents dispersed across 3 towns. So we’re reaching a tipping point in terms of the percentage of the population that’s been exposed to these practices and to a worldview that appreciates interconnectedness and interdependence.
Students are realizing that just being here on the planet, they have an impact. Everything they think and do has an impact. And they are starting to see that they can be intentional about the impact they’re having, for the positive or the negative. This program gives them opportunities to reflect on that: “What do I want to bring into the world? Does it serve my own and others’ well-being? Does it have a positive impact or a negative one?” Letting that be a critical self-inquiry, they can partake in their own experience.
Are you seeing an effect on the larger community?
When we first started, people had no idea what we were talking about and what we were doing. There were many skeptics. Now, in terms of the number of advocates for our organization: parents who are involved, philanthropists in the community, local foundation assistance throughout the valley… we just keep attracting more and more support. We’re starting to see a shift in consciousness that embraces these values and recognizes them as essential for building a healthier community.
One of the things I want to find out is whether there’s a relationship between one’s ecological footprint and the amount of time a person spends in cultivating values like compassion, attention, and awareness-based practices. Hopefully in the next couple years, we’ll be working with a group out of Arizona State University to study this at a community level. Can you make any sort of correlation between mindfulness and ecological footprint? Or are there just too many compounding factors to draw a conclusion? Right now, we don’t really have a metric for measuring our impact, other than the enthusiasm of the community in supporting our work: the involvement of people in our programs and the engagement of teachers, administrators, superintendents. There’s a lot more openness. These concepts are now more in our everyday vernacular, whereas before, people had no idea what we were talking about.
What effect has this had on the schools?
Teachers and counselors tell us, “Wow! We can really tell the change in the culture now that every 5th grader has had this kind of training, coming up into the middle school.” I think there’s some variety yet, in different class cultures. There are some classes where the kids have a much harder time regulating. You almost wonder what was in the water 10 or 12 years ago, when they were in gestation.
There are different factors influencing different kids but, by and large, I think all the administrators and the teachers feel that it definitely has improved the culture of the school. That’s demonstrated by the demand from the teachers—they want that culture to really be alive and active in their classrooms, so they invite us to work with them. Actually, we’re at a point now where our greatest challenge is meeting the demand.
How are you meeting the demand for this program?
We do trainings that start in the fall with people in the community who are interested in participating. The trainees then apply to become facilitators in the program. They go through a six-month internship and then work in the classroom with a team of trained facilitators. After a review and a dialog back and forth to see if it’s a good fit, we hire these trained facilitators as independent contractors. They are then paired up and work in teams of two in the classroom.
We go into classrooms once a week and do a 30-40 minute session with each class. Then we follow up with the teacher and provide a distilled version of the lesson—a practice they can incorporate into their routine that supports the work we did in the classroom.
This year we’re also creating a set of audio recordings to go along with the lessons. So if there are teachers who don’t necessarily feel comfortable leading a guided practice, they can still provide these practices for their students. For instance, if there’s a big test coming up or if the students are having a hard time transitioning or if something’s happened to one of their classmates, the teacher can go to this audio library, choose a practice and the class can work on it together. It’s also a way to support the continuity of the program throughout the week and throughout the year.
What is your vision for the future?
I would really love to develop a K-12 mindfulness curriculum for people in other communities who want to engage students in these kinds of practices. It would be a scaffolding they could use to develop their own programming to meet the specific needs of the students in their community, without having to build it from the ground up. It would be a base to stand on, and allow them to become innovators in their own right.
I want to see this spreading into our culture of education, where the values not only embrace the importance of science, mathematics, literacy and writing, but also the importance of how to become a better human being, how to open our hearts, how to skillfully cultivate states of mind that are supportive of our own and others’ well-being. I want to see well-being become a skill that all kids learn how to cultivate. That it’s not just something we’re hoping they’ll find through external conditions, but it actually becomes part of their education. I want to see all kids learn that well-being is something they can bring into the world from the inside out. That would be amazing—if this was just part of our school culture. What if that’s what it meant to get a good education—to have an education with the heart-mind as well?