I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO MY BREATH

This fall I began working with an eight-year-old girl named Luz with a history of anxiety, who was experiencing crying spells, restless sleep, and intrusive thoughts, especially of death. This was making daily life a challenge for her. It was hard to concentrate in school while worrying what heaven would be like. For her parents, too, it was challenging, when she didn’t want to let them out of her sight.

I knew immediately that much of our time together would involve mindfulness and relaxation techniques. The first was the easiest and one of the best, a particular method of controlled deep breathing that I learned from the Medical University of South Carolina’s online TF-CBT training. It involves laying one hand over the heart, the other above the bellybutton, breathing deeply in through the nose to swell the belly and move that hand, then breathing slowly out through the mouth, all the while keeping the heart-hand still. Diaphragmatic breathing, in other words, but with an added component that is meant to stimulate oxytocin release in the body.

To explain the technique in terms familiar to Luz, I referenced the Pledge of Allegiance. Doing things by rote tends not to foster deep thinking, so despite my own childhood experience of that rituala daily recitation in school made with one hand on the chestit’s only now, thinking of this breathing technique, that I’m struck by the symbolism of the gesture. True patriotism would seem, indeed, to involve the heart, and deeply I do love this country, meaning the landscape itself, its original contours and ecosystems and the wisdom we might glean from them.

But I digress. With the sweet alacrity of children, Luz not only adopted this method of breathingwhich her parents prompt her to practice before bedbut she gave it the name that made sense. Now when we talk about her therapeutic homework, and all the skills she’s learning, she refers to her breathing as The Pledge. She recently made a drawing depicting it, which I will cherish for years to come: a girl with two ovals for feet; long lashes above wide-open eyes; a broadly smiling mouth, as if singing; hair flying out in happy wings; and a chubby hand over the heart. Calm and confident. Luz’s breath, a pledge worth making and keeping.

+

To maintain confidentiality, “Luz” is a pseudonym.

WITH LIBERTY AND RESILIENCE FOR ALL

As a graduate student of social work, certain terms I’ve encountered in my studies have come to have a galvanizing meaning for me. One such term is “risks and resiliencies,” the balance of factors that undermine or support a person’s well-being. How does this term apply to the project at hand?

Many teachers know a great deal about their students’ lives in a general sense, and children who come to school in distress may relate the specific reasons to those who’ll listen. Still, in a classroom of, say, twenty-five kids, there are twenty-five complex and ever-evolving sets of life circumstances with the potential to impact learning—twenty-six, if you count the teacher’s.

One of my inspirations for this site was an article I read last year titled “Mindfulness in School Psychology: Applications for Intervention and Professional Practice” (see below for attribution), wherein the authors posit mindfulness as an intervention with three tiers of application: universal, targeted group, and intensive. This conceptualization is similar to the Response to Intervention (RTI) model that will be familiar to American educators and possibly others.

During my internship, I drew on mindfulness in my individual (i.e., Tier 3) counseling work with several young clients. Some of that I’ll likely describe on another occasion, as my memories of that work count among my happiest, but the main purpose of this site is to consider what can happen when mindfulness is made accessible to all—and to inspire readers who are new to it to try it.

Therapists of various stripes are in the privileged position of making active listening their work; but not even the most trusted listener can ever know all the risks and all the resiliencies in a child’s life. No one can ever tell the whole of a life, and especially not a child, who is so much in the midst of things.

What children can tell about themselves is powerful, however, and can make the crucial difference for them—if they have the chance to be heard. But guidance personnel in schools are even more outnumbered than teachers, and as my supervisor often lamented, there are too many kids not getting the time that they need.

This brings me to the beauty of the Tier 1 intervention, and the use of mindfulness in the general classroom setting. With the ability to strengthen executive function and reduce anxiety, among other beneficial effects—more on these in future posts—mindfulness can foster resilience in students and possibly “catch” those who need catching before their (often unknown) needs and troubles escalate.

Mindfulness activities are not a replacement for counseling when it’s needed, but the physiological effects on a child, I believe, can be similarly helpful and even profound.

 

+

“Mindfulness in School Psychology: Applications for Intervention and Professional Practice,” by Joshua C. Felver, Erin Doerner, Jeremy Jones, Nicole C. Kaye, and Kenneth W. Merrell, in Psychology in the Schools, Vol. 50(6), 2013. doi: 10.1002/pits.21695