Instead of dribbling basketballs or running drills, 40 third graders at Robbin E.L. Washington Elementary School in the Ysleta Independent School District (YISD) quietly practiced yoga’s mountain pose in the school’s gymnasium.
Light instrumental music played in the background as students stood still, their feet firmly planted on the floor and their heads tilted toward the ceiling.
The gym reached a quiet lull with students focused on their breathing.
“Sometimes when you’re having a really bad day and you just took a test, it’s good to just calm down, stand firm like a mountain, put your hands to your heart and just take some breaths,” said Jasmine Flores, a student in the Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) program at The University of Texas at El Paso.
Flores joined 23 of her classmates at the elementary school in east El Paso on Feb. 13, 2019. They taught mindfulness techniques that calm the body and mind to kindergarten through fourth-grade students.
More than 200 children ages 5-10 years old practiced yoga, meditation and sensory strategies to help them manage stress, ease test anxiety and focus on their schoolwork. Mindfulness training has been to shown to reduce stress and improve mental health issues in children.
“Students stress out about the STAR (Standardized Test for the Assessment of Reading) test, or a game they’re going to play in or before a performance,” said Cecilia Fierro, OTD, the MOT co-director and clinical assistant professor. Her son is a fourth grader at the school. “The more nervous and jittery they get can affect their grades, well-being and self-image. We’re here to give them some strategies to help them calm down and feel more focused and relaxed.”
Minding Children’s Mental Health
A group of students ages 8 and 9 crowded around Lilia Favela as she demonstrated how to make a sensory bottle, a calming tool to help children soothe anxiety. The children poured clear glue and purple glitter into travel-size shampoo bottles. After shaking out their frustrations, they calmly watched the glitter settle at the bottom of the bottle.
“I have one of these at home and when I get frustrated or something upsets me, I take a little break and shake it up,” Favela, an MOT major, told the students. “I like to watch the glitter fall. And you know what that does? It distracts me and takes away all that frustrated feeling that I have.”
MOT students Clarissa Medrano and Dominique Arroyos developed the mindfulness program last summer to promote children’s mental health and wellness. They designed it to encourage middle school and high school students to turn off their electronic devices and tune into their feelings. Under the guidance of occupational therapy faculty members, the two classmates adapted the program for elementary school children.
“Being a mom of a 3-year-old, I see the stress placed on (children) at such a young age to excel at school, and they’re forgetting the play component,” Arroyos said. “(Stress) takes a toll on their mental health. That’s why we’re doing this with younger kids because it’s extremely important that these kids have fun.”
Their goal is to help children cultivate healthy coping skills to manage stress and anxiety and prevent mental health issues such as depression, anxiety disorders and maladaptive behaviors from developing as they get older.
“The younger they start learning these coping mechanisms, the bigger the impact we can have on their mental health,” said Medrano, a former yoga instructor who developed the kid-friendly yoga sequence.
According to a study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, 7.7 million children with a mental health disorder in the United States were left untreated.
Mei-Ling Lin, Ph.D., a UTEP occupational therapy assistant professor, said the mindfulness program was an opportunity to prepare MOT students to provide much-needed mental health services to an entire student population, not just children with diagnosed mental health disorders.
“(Occupational therapists) can be involved in more prevention and public health initiatives,” Lin said. “That’s the reason I want to incorporate students in providing schoolwide interventions that are more preventive. We don’t want to wait until a mental health disorder happens. We want to be more proactive.”
Keep Calm and Carry On
Gabriel Medrano, a counselor at REL Washington Elementary School, said mindfulness training fits into YISD’s Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) curriculum, which teaches kindness and infuses social and emotional competence in children.
REL Washington implements a lesson once a week during the school’s Power Wednesdays.
“One of the reasons why I wanted to collaborate with (UTEP) is because this is a needed skill,” Medrano said. “We’re teaching the students life skills. So not only are we exposing them to careers, but also presentations like this where they’re able to take those skills with them and hopefully apply them in real life.”
UTEP occupational therapy students also offered a mindfulness session to teachers at the school in December 2018. Teachers learned coping techniques to help them and their students manage stress and stay focused in class.
They received sensory bins that included noise canceling headphones, fidget toys and other supplies to help students focus, and sensory boards with different textures and scents like cinnamon to help students nodding off in class become more alert.
Some children expressed their gratitude for the training on response cards. A fourth grader wrote about being mad all the time but that the yoga and meditation techniques helped very much.
“This is just a small population that we’re doing this with,” said Medrano, who hopes that schools will implement mindfulness education into their curriculums. “Can you imagine the bigger impact we can have if other schools did this?”
Author – Laura L. Acosta – UTEP Communications