Finding Balance: ‘Mindfulness’ program seeks to treat child trauma

‘Mindfulness’ program seeks to treat child trauma

MICHAEL ERB Special to The Times Yoga trainer Amanda James, left, and Emerson Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Joe Spader, right, assume a yoga position during a Wood County Schools training session at the Caperton Center.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories exploring the ways in which educators, public officials and state employees are working to help children struggling to learn and thrive in the midst of a substance abuse epidemic and sluggish economy, throughout the Mid-Ohio Valley. School principals find themselves becoming social services administrators, social workers find themselves overworked and overwhelmed as they navigate the bureaucracy … and some of our local kids are in crisis.

PARKERSBURG — Educators are looking for ways to help children deal with stress and trauma, though one of the newest techniques may also be one of the oldest.

Through Mindful West Virginia, area schools are introducing yoga for students as one way of dealing with behavioral issues caused by trauma outside of school. Pamela Santer, wellness coordinator for West Virginia University at Parkersburg, and Amy Snodgrass with Mindful West Virginia are both yoga instructors and have been working together to teach mindfulness techniques to teachers and families.

Mindfulness is the ability to focus on the moment, to look at and accept feelings and to use techniques to help calm oneself and move forward. Mindfulness training is part of a growing effort to help children deal with trauma and mental health issues which affect behavior. The Mindful West Virginia program, through a grant from Try This WV, is an attempt to connect mindfulness programs from across the state as well as train schools, businesses and individuals in mindfulness practices.

“Many schools are finding a new generation of students who, because of trauma, are unable to function in a classroom,” Snodgrass said. “And it’s not just one school. It’s all of them. Kindergarten and first-grade, they have kids that just cannot self-regulate. They just go.”

Cathy Grewe, coordinator of assessment and student services for Wood County Schools, said the need has increased dramatically in recent years. More students are facing trauma at home due to a variety of factors.

Instances of abuse, neglect, violence and sexual abuse have increased, as have family deaths and loss of housing. The opioid epidemic has increased the amount of trauma many children see at a very early age, she said.

“And yet we expect them to come to school and sit quietly and be good students, and that is just not happening,” Grewe said.

“They are expected to come to school and take off a hat we ourselves wouldn’t necessarily be able to take off and to suddenly be well-behaved students,” said Anna Klosek, safe and healthy student liaison for Wood County Schools. Klosek said students who have suffered trauma often find themselves “in a constant state of fight-or-flight.”

“There is a definite issue with students who are just not able to manage themselves,” Grewe said. “It’s a paradigm shift for educators to look past dealing with the behavior to find out why the behavior is occurring.

“We’re giving the teachers and students the tools to help themselves.”

Yoga is one of those tools, Santer said. The practice helps students slow down their breathing and heart rate, helps them focus and calm themselves, and provides an outlet for energy and physical exercise.

“These aren’t difficult things to learn and teach,” she said.

Franklin Elementary Center uses yoga on a daily basis, beginning school with a 15 minute warmup for students and staff, Snodgrass said. Other schools are looking to implement similar programs as a way of both engaging students and helping them to do better in class.

Santer said the teachers often learn as much as the students when teaching mindfulness.

“They realize sometimes the way they are dealing with a child reflects something they are dealing with themselves,” Santer said. “The focus of mindfulness is those coping and calming skills everyone can use.”

Santer said for many children, their thoughts are the equivalent of multiple people talking all at once, drowning one another out.

“That is what is going on in our minds constantly,” she said. “We have all this stuff in our minds and we don’t know how to sift through it. We can’t focus on the present moment and what we’re dealing with.”

Santer said society has put a premium on the idea of multitasking, handling multiple issues at the same time. But research shows that kind of mental fragmentation can actually be detrimental, lowering the ability to focus and be productive.

“When you teach them to focus on what they are doing right then, and to clear their minds, the heart rate goes down, blood pressure goes down, that anxiety fades,” she said. “They learn to incorporate it into everything they do. That’s exciting, when we see the kids going home and teaching their parents and siblings. It becomes part of their lives.”

For more information on mindfulness programs and yoga in schools, visit www.mindfulschools.org or Mindful West Virginia’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/mindfulwestvirginia/.

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