Kindergarten classes learn mindfulness

Shepherd University psychology students are teaching weekly mindfulness lessons to kindergarten students at Shepherdstown Elementary School. Pictured seated, from left, are Taylor Carroll, Kearneysville; and Lacey Emry, Winchester, Virginia, standing, Dr. Anne Murtagh, associate professor of psychology; Alaina Hilditch, Falling Waters; Katlyn Brantner, Augusta; Samantha Keplinger, Augusta; and Suzanne Offutt, retired principal of Shepherdstown Elementary School.

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Children in the three kindergarten classes at Shepherdstown Elementary School are learning special lessons from Shepherd University students through a collaboration to teach mindfulness meditation techniques to the younger students. Dr. Anne Murtagh, associate professor of psychology at Shepherd, and Dr. Suzanne Offutt, retired principal of Shepherdstown Elementary, are leading the project, which includes collecting data on how the lessons are impacting the kindergarten students.

Murtagh said meditation is a set of techniques to train and focus the mind, and mindfulness involves tuning into the present moment with full awareness and without judgment.

“We teach the children to pause, breathe, listen, and try to quiet their minds a little,” Murtagh said. “It is hoped that the kindergarten classes will establish a routine of mindful moments a few times a day, to pause and breathe.”

Part of the training includes teaching the children basics about the brain and how in times of stress the “wise leader,” or prefrontal cortex, is less in charge. By pausing and breathing, this wiser part of the brain can guide one’s actions. Students also learn about mindful seeing, mindful movement, kindness, and gratitude.

Murtagh and Offutt have trained five Shepherd students in mindfulness, basic child development for kindergarteners, the ethics of working in a school and with young children, and the practical aspects of visiting the school and kindergarten classrooms. The Shepherd students are leading 10 weekly lessons in each classroom using the MindUP curriculum, which is designed to help improve behavior and learning.

“The research suggests educating children in mindfulness can be helpful,” Murtagh said. “Data shows it can help with self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship skills.”

“This program is research-based, and it’s designed for implementation in schools,” said Offutt, who incorporated mindfulness lessons into the curriculum before retiring in 2016. “We tried it in a couple of grades. I went in and taught and was really impressed with how well it worked.”

The Shepherd students who are participating are enrolled in a Faculty-Led Research class and are collecting information about the effectiveness of the mindfulness lessons.

“We are collecting data from the kindergarten classes on behavior issues that happened at the end of last semester and then again at the end of this semester to see if there’s any improvement in the self-management of their behavior by the measures that we have,” Murtagh said.

The Shepherd students who are participating are psychology majors Taylor Carroll, Kearneysville; Alaina Hilditch, Falling Waters; Katlyn Brantner and Samantha Keplinger, both from Augusta; and Lacey Emry, Winchester, Virginia. They have been meeting every week to prepare the lessons.

“I thought participating in this would be a great way to implement something into my own future practice,” said Carroll, who wants to become a child psychologist. “I enjoy helping the kids learn how to take their feelings and experiences and get them out positively.”

Hilditch, who is also interested in a career in child psychology, said she understands children often need extra help because she has a friend who confessed he tried to commit suicide at age 7.

“That really opened up my mind to how children are affected by stress and by the things around them,” Hilditch said. “There is a perception that children are resilient, and they are, but it’s so vital for us to give them the skills they need to fully become resilient.”

Brantner, who wants to go into counseling, said she had not meditated before and this is her first experience working with Murtagh on a research project.

“I was just really excited to try to work with these kids,” Brantner said. “They’re really fun. They just want to learn everything. It’s cute to watch them try to figure out what life is about, even in a small setting like a classroom. Just watching them play together is really fascinating.”

Keplinger plans to go into child psychology and hopes to help and comfort children suffering from severe trauma.

“When I saw this opportunity, I thought that learning about mindful meditation further and learning all the techniques and how to teach it to children would be important for my field in the future,” Keplinger said. “The kindergarteners are my favorite age to work with. It’s their last year of being that complete little sponge and they just want to learn absolutely everything. They’re just fascinated by the world so much still.”

Emry has been practicing meditation and attending Meditation Mondays, which Murtagh leads every Monday from 12:05-12:50 p.m. in the Student Center Cumberland Room and is open to the students, faculty, staff, and community members. Emry said working with 5- and 6-year-old children is interesting.

“You’re in this room and trying to breathe for one minute, and you see how difficult that is for them to be in their own space and in their own skin for a minute,” Emry said. “If we teach these children to become self-aware, I think they’ll just skyrocket at every opportunity they have.”

Kindergarten teacher Melissa Back said her students have enjoyed working with Keplinger and Brantner, who visit her classroom once a week.

“The lessons have been a good thing because it helps the kindergarteners learn what mindfulness is, along with strategies to help them self-regulate and calm down,” Back said. “The children know that breathing helps them think more clearly and calm their bodies. Although we have set times during the day that we do our mindfulness breathing, there have also been several times students have asked to breathe mindfully or to do the breathing on their own.”

Back said her students are also learning the names of different parts of the brain and how they work. She said the students’ ability to breathe mindfully for a minute continues to improve and they are applying the knowledge they learn during the mindfulness lessons when they are stressed or upset.

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