OT Team Recognized for Innovative Mindfulness Initiative Targeting Elementary Students
Occupational Therapy (OT) Program professors Dr. Mei-Ling Lin and Dr. Cecilia Fierro, together with OT students Dominique Arroyos and Clarissa Medrano, presented at the Region 19 Mental Health in Schools conference in late October on “Creating a Mindful Classroom.” Counselors and teachers from across the major school districts within Region 19 attended the conference.
The group’s mindfulness presentation was based on a successful intervention that Lin and Fierro initiated in spring 2019 at REL Washington Elementary School on El Paso’s east side. Earlier this year, Fierro noticed her own son’s stress levels rising as a result of forthcoming six weeks tests, and decided to approach the school’s administration with the idea of mindfulness training for the students. The proposed project would include modified lessons including deep breathing and mindfulness, sensory instruments, and yoga sessions that had been developed the summer prior by Medrano and Arroyos for middle and high school students.
In mid-February of this year, a group of 24 OT students visited the school and led the intervention for over 300 children in kindergarten through fourth grade. The intervention was a success, and was featured in a TV news spot for KFOX 14.
This fall, REL Washington approached the OT Program with a request for assistance, sharing that students’ stress levels had recently increased as a result of the early August mass shooting in El Paso. The team agreed to return to the school to do a follow-up intervention and, under the direction of a research team led by Lin, to begin evaluating the impact of their previous spring sessions. While the team is still in the middle of data collection, initial results suggest that the students could recall lessons they had learned during the intervention.
“When we asked them to demonstrate breathing techniques and other coping mechanisms, we found that most children could recall and complete the activity correctly,” Lin said. “But we need more hard scientific evidence of the impact of occupational therapists’ work in the schools, particularly at the elementary level. A lot of attention is paid to middle and high school students’ mental health, but not enough is given to elementary students. We definitely see the need – and already see the impact of the mass shooting on these children. They panic when they hear loud sounds at school.”
Lin added that a separate evaluation effort is underway to examine the effectiveness of a four-lesson stress-management program that evolved from the original intervention. While all students will participate, the pre- and post-study will focus on the impact of the program on fourth through sixth graders. The team anticipates completing the final analysis by spring 2020, but initial results suggest a positive correlation between students’ belief that they are able to control their emotions under stress (self-soothing) and well-being measures. The study also shows a significant difference between 4th and 6th graders when it came to self-reported emotional self-efficacy scores, as well as gender differences on emotional self-efficacy (boys were more likely to report higher emotional self-efficacy than girls).
In addition to the Region 19 conference presentation, the team shared their research results at the UTEP Graduate Expo held in early November. OT students participating in the research studies, including Kristina Miler, Cayla Molina, Alyse Nasser, and Emma Smith, led the presentation. REL Washington and the OT Program have been commended by the Texas Occupational Therapy Association for the unique partnership, and received the group’s Letter of Appreciation Award at their annual conference in early November.
In the future, Lin and Fierro plan to expand the program. Fierro will be working with parents and teachers at REL Washington in the spring on their own mental health, and hopes to investigate parent and child interaction and emotional regulation. She has also been asked by the Region 19 Disabilities and Mental Health Division to coordinate a workshop for teachers for all the districts. Lin plans to expand her current research project at REL Washington, and seeks to bring on additional students, particularly at the doctoral level.
“We have identified a great need and want to expand the impact of what we’re doing. We plan to create training videos demonstrating these techniques, and then distribute to as many schools as possible. We’re looking specifically for students interested in mental health, and children and families,” Lin said.
For more information about the Occupational Therapy Program, please visit: https://www.utep.edu/chs/ot/