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Building ‘calm and focus’

UFT-MindUp partnership supports social-emotional learning
New York Teacher
Teacher standing over students working at a desk
Jonathan Fickies

At the smell station in Gina DiSanto's 7th- and 8th-grade class at PS/IS 266 in Queens, students describe mystery scents as part of a lesson on mindfulness and the senses.

Many of Gina DiSanto's 8th-grade students at PS/IS 266 in Bellerose, Queens, used to worry that something was wrong with them. “A lot of them have trouble focusing and problem-solving in the classroom,” she said.

But, this year, alongside about 60 other schools, PS/IS 266 joined the UFT’s pilot partnership with MindUp, an evidence-based social-emotional learning program. In one of their first lessons, DiSanto's students learned that their prefrontal cortexes, which are responsible for focus and problem-solving, can change and strengthen.

“By the time we got to the end of the lesson, they were optimistic and hopeful instead of feeling down on themselves,” said DiSanto.

MindUp was conceived by the Goldie Hawn Foundation in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. To support young people’s mental health after this traumatic event, the foundation brought together experts in neuroscience, positive psychology, social-emotional learning and mindfulness to create a program that supports educators’ and students’ mental health. For years the program’s insights were shared through printed books and in-person staff training sessions, but after a second large-scale, traumatic event — the COVID-19 pandemic — MindUp expanded its focus to include parents and caregivers and to offer courses and resources online.

In the spring of 2022, the UFT teamed up with MindUp — and got the city Department of Education to meet with the organization and sign a service contract — and the pilot program was launched in schools in September. “Students’ social-emotional challenges are now as intense as, and sometimes more intense than, their academic struggles,” said UFT Vice President for Education Mary Vaccaro, who spearheaded the initiative.

MindUp’s “common-sense and accessible” lessons, she said, help children attain “knowledge and tools to manage stress and regulate emotions.”

MindUp lessons are “activity-based and experiential,” said Suzanne Lemberg, MindUp’s education program manager, who works full-time to support UFT members in adopting the program. Each lesson lasts about 30 minutes. Curricula are differentiated by grade level, with lesson plans for grades K–2, 3–5 and 6–8. The first unit focuses on neuroscience, and subsequent units cover mindfulness (including through the senses), optimism, kindness, gratitude and understanding emotions.

Daily “brain breaks” — when children have short mindful breathing and listening activities — are another key part of the program. While lessons might happen weekly, brain breaks “become part of the classroom culture,” said Lemberg, and they are “scientifically proven to build calm and focus.”

MindUp also incorporates resources, including virtual lessons and in-person events, for parents and caregivers to support social-emotional learning at home.

Schools that adopt MindUp through the UFT’s partnership designate a teacher at the school who will spearhead the process. That teacher receives in-person training and has a monthly check-in with a dedicated MindUp coach. All teachers in a MindUp school receive asynchronous training sessions, lesson plans and optional resources they can access online.

PS/IS 266 dedicates time for teachers to participate in MindUp training and for MindUp lessons and brain breaks.

Liza Reyes, the UFT Teacher Center site coach at PS/IS 266, said she asked the union to launch a program like MindUp.

“If you go back to the research, you see that prioritizing social-emotional learning increases students’ likelihood of graduation from high school, but also improves their mental health, relationships with family and positive behavior,” Reyes said. “If we don’t take care of our students’ and teachers’ social and emotional side, learning cannot happen.”

The UFT plans to expand MindUp to more schools in the 2023-24 school year.

If you would like to see MindUp at your school, talk to your chapter leader and your principal and then send an email to

Related Topics: MindUp, Mindfulness