It starts with the ringing of a chime.
Immediately, a kindergarten classroom falls silent as 30 students sit intently, each one waiting to raise a hand the second he or she can no longer hear the chime’s resonating tone. The sound continues to abate and one by one, the hands go up until, finally, the ring fades for the last student and all hands are in the air.
The students are practicing active listening – doing absolutely nothing, and focusing on absolutely nothing, but the act of listening itself.
It’s a rare thing for children, or adults, to dedicate such time and attention to a single task – to sit, in the moment, and concentrate on nothing more than where they are and what they are doing. But being mindful can have enormous benefits to one’s mental and physical well-being, according to researchers.
Western Education professors Claire Crooks and Karen Bax recently received $1 million from the Public Health Agency of Canada to explore those benefits by teaching social and emotional learning techniques, like mindfulness, to children and parents, and to study the resultant outcomes.
“Being mindful is really the best way to be,” said Crooks, who is also the Director of Western Education’s Centre for School Mental Health. “It is the least stressful, it taxes your brain the least, and you’re able to respond to people and learn new things much easier.”
Crooks and Bax are using an existing program of social emotional learning skills called MindUP.
In partnership with the London District Catholic School board, they are working with full-day kindergarten classes in 15 schools to map the program onto the existing curriculum.
In addition to mindful listening, the kindergarteners are learning things like choosing optimism, expressing gratitude and appreciating happy experiences. They’re also learning to recognize feelings in others.
“So, when a child sees their friend Sally having to give up a toy because the teacher asked her to, we ask them to think about how she might be feeling in that moment,” said Crooks.
The researchers are also bringing the skills to children and parents in the community in conjunction with Merrymount Family Support and Crisis Centre, the home of Western’s Mary J. Wright Research and Education Centre.
To work with the community-based group, they adapted the content into a new program with separate components for children and parents, as well as a component where kids and parents work together to help reinforce transferring the skills to their everyday lives.
The children, all between two and five years of age, learn a series of mindful techniques, including mindful smelling, touching and tasting. They also practice mindful breathing by expanding and contracting a multicoloured ‘breathing ball’ in time with each breath they take.
Parents in the program also learn the mindful techniques, like the importance of closely listening to their kids, as well as social emotional relationship skills.
“We tell parents that relationships are like a bank account,” said Bax, Director of the Mary J. Wright Research and Education Centre. “You can’t constantly be taking something out without putting something back in again.”
Both school and community programs have a neuropsychology component to help explain to kids and parents what is going on in various parts of the brain when they’re not being mindful. They’re taught, for example, the amygdala is involved during times of extreme stress, excitement or fear.
“Learning about the brain and how it works really helps the kids understand much better,” said Bax. “We had a student tell us his amygdala was really acting up at recess and he knew he had to calm himself down again.”
The brain architecture information is also helpful for parents, who can learn to recognize their own individual triggers for stress or high emotion, and become better at controlling themselves.
The researchers are using a trauma-informed approach to the work, which means understanding how trauma and adversity affect people, and being sensitive and knowledgeable about how to respond. Educators need not know which kids or parents, if any, have experienced past trauma, however, as participants with no history of trauma will still benefit from the skills being taught.
The grant will enable the work to continue for the next five years, during which time Crooks and Bax will measure the resultant outcomes and successes for children and their parents in terms of mental health, resiliency and social connectedness.
The pair hopes their work in schools and the community will have long-lasting, positive effects.
“Social emotional learning skills, like self-regulation, are extremely beneficial for getting along in the world, and a huge predictor of future success,” said Crooks. “We know the more you’re able to be in the moment, the happier you will feel. This is great material to be teaching kids and parents, and a really neat way to give back.”