Will a Mental Health Technique Spark a Grassroots Movement to Help Pasadena’s Children?

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5:28 am | May 4, 2018

Spirits were high at the inspirational 45th Annual Pasadena Mayor’s Interfaith Prayer Breakfast Thursday morning, especially after keynote speaker and resident Dr. Niki Elliott delivered a clarion call to the hundreds of attendees to create a new movement to treat childhood trauma which she calls “Other People’s Children.”

“Mayor Tornek asked me to use this speech to issue a citywide call-to-action. Are you willing to join me today in sparking a new movement?” asked Elliott at the early morning breakfast. “To every person in this room who says you believe in God or a higher spirit, you have a moral imperative to care and to act and together we can build a national model.”

Why, Elliot asked, should anybody care about other people’s children?

“Because other people’s children go to school with your children and grandchildren. Other people’s children become the nurses who take care of you when you’re sick. Other people’s children’s people become police officers and bus drivers and everyday people who walk this same road of life as you. Whatever happens to other people’s children affects all of us in the long run,” she said.

Elliott is the Co-Director of the University of La Verne’s Center for Neurodiversity, Learning, and Wellness. She trains classroom teachers, school psychologists, and other education professionals to use a technique called “mindfulness.”

The technique, according to Psychology Today, produces a “state of active, open attention on the present.”

“When you’re mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment,” the publication’s editors say.

James Madison University Professor Dr. Gregg Henriques calls mindfulness “the single most significant development in mental health practice since the turn of the millennium.”

Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek says he supports Elliott’s concept of the Other People’s Children movement and that her speech raised awareness of the efforts the City is making to provide better child and family welfare care across the board.

“I thought she really hit it out of the park in terms of engaging people and making people aware of what some of this issues are, and have them ask the question of what do I do?” said Tornek.

According to Tornek, the City has already taken steps to address early childhood trauma and develop modern support services to help affected families.

“She’s really calling attention to action for things that are already underway in the City of Pasadena,” said Tornek.

“We have a situation in our schools and in society where [some] children have been victimized and as a result, they act out in ways that create difficulties for all of us,” Tornek said. “This focus is to try to understand the trauma that these kids have been subjected to, and how to deal with it.”

The City of Pasadena created the Office of the Young Child in 2015 and continues to work with Young and Healthy on their program focusing on trauma-informed care.

The Pasadena Office of the Young Child is a foundational investment by the City of Pasadena to bring direction and a comprehensive approach to early childhood policies and services in Pasadena. How well children are prepared for school is directly related to their early experiences within the home and within their community at large, which influence overall success in school and in life, according to the City website.

The Office supports the on-going design, planning, and implementation of a comprehensive roadmap setting the direction, pace of the office, and implementing the Eight Building Blocks of assessing early childhood needs.

“It’s not about what the school district is delivering, but it’s about what the school district is receiving,” Tornek observed.

He said that when a child enters kindergarten already psychologically burdened and not mentally capable of functioning well at school, Pasadena Unified has a tough job ahead to teach the child and integrate him or her into the educational process.

“That’s why the City has focused on the fact that we need to intervene and see if we can be helpful for children and families before the kids ever get to school,” said Tornek.

According to the Center for Disease and Control (CDC), childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity. As such, early experiences are an important public health issue.

Elliott said research has shown that mindfulness is a scientifically proven way to help reverse the effects of adverse experiences, toxic stress, and childhood trauma, according to Elliott.

Although its roots are firmly planted in Eastern Buddhist meditation, a secular Western practice of therapeutic mindfulness has evolved in recent years and many programs have since been used in public schools and government agencies.

Advocates say growing evidence suggests that mindfulness practice helps heal the nervous system, increase immunity, decrease anxiety, improve sleep, increases focus for learning, and helps to regulate emotions.

Due to these results, Elliott says mindfulness practices are now being recognized as a low-cost solution to many of the mental, emotional, and physical challenges that children face today.

“Mindfulness practice changes the lens that we adults use to view children. Instead of looking at them and asking, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ mindfulness … requires us to step back and reflectively ask, ‘what happened to you?’” said Elliott.

Elliott provided an example of a real-world success story of one of her University of La Verne master’s program students, an elementary school teacher and former skeptic of mindfulness studies, who reported favorable results in children’s behaviors in the classroom after using methods and practices Elliott suggested for a workshop project.

“A shift of this nature has huge implications for potentially reducing special education placements and closing the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Elliott.

Elliott created a hashtag, #down4opc, for social media users to include when posting photos of their good deeds in the community to help spread the movement and create a web presence in Pasadena and beyond.

“Let’s turn the tide on what’s happening on our social media pages and make it something we can really get excited about. That means that we are willing to do our part in helping other people’s children,” said Elliott.

The City itself has not developed formal plans of action to implement mindfulness practices on large-scale Citywide or school district-levels.

For now, Tornek hopes Elliott’s inspiring words will spark awaremess that will morph into action.

“Let’s agree right now, today, in this room, to walk hand-in-hand, side-by-side,” Elliot exhorted the audience Thursday, “and become actively apart of modeling for our children what true socio-emotional wellness looks like.”