Pilot program in Jackson County aims to support preschoolers' mental health through mindfulness

A new study will test whether and how mindfulness-based food-body-mind interventions can optimize young children's cognitive function and behavioral health.
This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Michigan preschoolers often present behavioral health issues. Some have anxiety disorders that make them feel scared or panicked in front of their teachers or classmates. Others may exhibit attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder that causes them to have trouble focusing or makes them overly active. Those living with autism may have poor social skills and difficulty with communication. And preschoolers with behavior disorders can be aggressive, feel angry toward others, and easily lose their tempers.

"Our preschoolers' behavior issues create an emotional dysregulation or a lack of ability to sustain what we would typically expect in terms of upset," says Codi Benjamin, children's program director for the Community Action Agency, which administers Head Start programs in Jackson, Hillsdale, and Lenawee counties. "What's manifesting for us in Jackson County is higher rates of physical aggression — hitting, kicking, biting, maybe throwing, pulling hair. We're utilizing our mental health consultants more than we have in the past."
To help address the behavioral health needs of the littles in Jackson County's Head Start program, Benjamin recently welcomed a pilot project that introduces mindfulness activities to its preschoolers and their families. The pilot is based on research conducted by Dr. Jiying Ling, associate professor and PhD program assistant director at the Michigan State University College of Nursing, who has been conducting research in Michigan to promote preschoolers' health for over 10 years.
Head Start students at St. John's Universal Church of Christ in Jackson learn about cucumbers and dragonfruit in a lesson on mindful eating.
"I work collaboratively with daycare teachers and parents to develop interventions to promote not only children's physical health but also their mental health." Ling says. "Our previous research shows that mindfulness activities — such as mindful eating, deep breathing — can help children to have gratitude toward foods and calming [their] mood."

Addressing challenges through mindfulness

Benjamin notes that the Head Start program has higher rates of students with disabilities causing language delay. As a result, they lack the skills needed to talk through their feelings and emotions.
"We're seeing increasing rates of children who are experiencing trauma, especially in our agency," she says. "A majority of our students are through foster care or Child Protective Services or below 100% of the poverty guidelines, so we're seeing rates of behavioral health concerns in our classrooms expanding."
In addition, she believes the COVID-19 pandemic has had a lasting impact on students, parents, and staff. While preschoolers generally have opportunities to interact with peers and community members during their first three years of life, those born during 2020 and 2021 have not all had those opportunities. Meeting other kids in the classroom can be difficult.
"Children's needs are a little different. Families' needs are a little bit different," Benjamin says. 

The new pilot study, funded by the National Center for Complementary and
Integrative Health, will test whether and how mindfulness-based food-body-mind interventions can optimize young children's cognitive function and behavioral health. The goal is to give kids some tools to help them relax and manage unpleasant feelings. The interventions include yoga, deep breathing, and mindful movement. The program also emphasizes mindful eating, a novel approach among youth mindfulness programs.
"We teach children to use five senses to learn various fruits and vegetables, pay attention while eating, eat slowly, and sense their body and stomach to decide how much to eat. This can help them build a positive relationship with foods," Ling says. "We hope they will build the important resilience to help them handle future life events in a thoughtful and mindful way."
Head Start students at St. John's Universal Church of Christ in Jackson learn about cucumbers and dragonfruit in a lesson on mindful eating.
Mindful eating both calms the classroom and helps picky eaters broaden the range of what they will eat to include healthier foods like fresh fruits and vegetables. Children are more likely to try a new food in the company of their peers than at home under parental pressure.
One parent in the pilot shared this with Ling, regarding their daughter: "There were things that she had never tried, and she would not try them, but now she'll eat the different fruits or vegetables, and she'll tell you what they are and if she likes them or not."
With diet-related diseases and conditions like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and eating disorders on the rise, mindful eating makes perfect sense. Another parent shared, "My 4-year-old has been so health conscious lately, eating many fruits and veggies and even stopped putting sugar on her strawberries."
Head Start students at St. John's Universal Church of Christ in Jackson learn about cucumbers and dragonfruit in a lesson on mindful eating.
The mindfulness pilot also involves parents. By helping parents to learn and practice mindful eating, mindful movement, and mindful parenting at home, parents will learn how to bring awareness, attention, and curiosity into their interactions with their children.
"This can promote positive relationships between parents and children and foster a happy home environment for children's growth and development," Ling says. "We will teach parents to practice mindful communication with family members — bringing their attention to their breathing, opening their mind to what they are saying, knowing how to ask the right questions, using active listening by mirroring or matching their facial expressions or behaviors, and replying with encouragement."
Benjamin believes it's important to involve parents in the mindfulness activities, not only because parents are a child's first teachers but also because what happens outside of the school day has just as much or more impact on a child's development.
Head Start students at St. John's Universal Church of Christ in Jackson learn about cucumbers and dragonfruit in a lesson on mindful eating.
"We encourage parents to engage with their children in appropriate ways," she says. "What we're hearing from parents has been most helpful. They are excited to learn how to respond if a tantrum is happening and how to regulate themselves if they have a lot of stressors affecting them."
While data on the pilot haven't been evaluated yet, the pilot is already receiving positive feedback from the teachers and parents participating in it.  
Mindfulness in other Michigan schools
Using mindfulness to help children regulate their emotions and build resiliency is not new to Michigan classrooms. Programs like Mindful Schools, the University of Michigan TRAILS program, and Inner Explorer's Mindful Michigan bring similar mindfulness activities to schools around the state.
Inner Explorer is a national nonprofit focused on transforming mental health, academic achievement, and school safety from the inside out. About 5,000 schools across the country use its programs.
"Mindful Michigan began just a few years ago with this vision of being able to reach every child in the state with access to proactive prevention and support around mental health in response to the national mental health crisis," says David Metler, Inner Explorer regional director for the Midwest. "We need more adults who are trained to handle the challenges that our youth are facing, the chronic stress, trauma, and anxiety over safety."
Metler finds it inspiring to see preschool students develop mindfulness skills that increase their capacity to regulate their own behaviors and build resilience that helps them overcome traumas.
"The great success of Head Start programs is really about early intervention and supports for success," he says. "Seeing the research, it really would be a disservice to not have access to these types of supports that are so critical for dealing with chronic stress and trauma. For youth even as young as preschoolers to really start to tap into their own inner voice and have this experience of being able to choose wisely — to not be stuck in their emotions."
The Inner Explorer platform for preschoolers entails a daily five-minute practice and additional one- to two-minute transition practices. Principal Erin Dixon of Fortis Academy in Ypsilanti reported that the platform resulted in a 16% year-over-year decrease in "behavior events." Across the country, schools participating in Inner Explorer programs have seen a more than 60% decrease in behavior issues

"We're also seeing an increase in academic success," Metler says. "It's not surprising — being able to settle in and be ready to learn and having these skills around attention and focus are key."

Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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