Creating More Mindful Family Engagement Practices

January 27, 2021, 12:54pm

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As we start out this new year, we find ourselves worn out from the emotional toll that 2020 brought. A pandemic, financial challenges, social distancing, a difficult election, a racial reckoning – it was a hard year to say the least. However, in spite of, or possibly as a result of, the challenges, many positive changes occurred as well, such as creative community-building and a greater sense of universal compassion. As we all try to manage the highs and lows of this prolonged crisis and stress, we seek out ways to find balance and bring about any sense of peace and normalcy, for a few minutes or a few hours, amid the everyday stressors.  This is where mindfulness can help us and the families that we serve

Finding ways to best manage these challenges is what inspired a new series of family engagement posts related to trauma-informed care. Trauma results from the exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual wellbeing. Trauma-informed care understands and considers the pervasive nature of trauma and promotes environments of healing and recovery rather than those that may unintentionally re-traumatize.

The most important factor in reducing the effects of trauma is that children and families have loving, supportive and encouraging adults who support them in times of need. As early childhood professionals, we have the power to be the loving, safe, and consistent caregivers and educators our families need.

Each tip we share in this series will highlight a particular trauma-informed practice. This month, we focus on how we can bring mindfulness to ourselves and to our family engagement practices as a tool to support trauma informed practices.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is defined as moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, characterized mainly by “acceptance”—paying attention to thoughts and feelings without trying to determine whether they are “right or wrong”.

Here are some commonly used terms when discussing mindfulness. You may see these throughout the rest of this tip.

  • Internal Awareness – Also known as self-awareness. This describes how clearly we understand our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others.
  • Internal Awareness Practice – an exercise, habit, or activity that helps us connect with our inner world, taking time to recognize, reflect, and/or experiment. These practices are linked to improved emotional, mental, and physical health as well as increased success in our professional roles. Here are some practices we can use for ourselves.
  • Holding Space – a practice of empathy and compassion that helps us put our needs and opinions aside and allow someone to just be and share their feelings. This allows us to create a safe environment for others. Honor any negative emotions (i.e. sadness, anger, fear) by letting the other individual know that their sharing is a sign of strength and courage. Check out this article for more information. For families, taking the time to honor and acknowledge what they are experiencing can be priceless.

For many of us, it seems like a daunting task to take time during the day to stop and be mindful when there is so much else to do, like lead a classroom or program full of young children.  However, it doesn’t have to be.  Making time to bring mindfulness into our lives can be as simple as:

  • Setting an intention for the day (What do you want to accomplish? How do you want to be?)
  • A 5-minute Breathing meditation
  • 10 minutes of Yoga
  • Being present, breathing deep, and encouraging ourselves while driving
  • Eating with all of our 5 senses attuned to the experience and our body’s reactions

With busy schedules and lives, we can find ourselves moving on autopilot and focusing on completing our responsibilities, troubleshooting what may arise. When we bring mindfulness into our lives, we connect with our present once more and hold space for ourselves, where we can recognize and manage emotions that come forward. When our cup is full, we can more fully engage with families – especially those that have experienced traumas themselves. These interactions with families, virtual or in-person, can serve as healthy spaces for families to feel safe, slow down, and bring awareness to themselves and their surroundings.

Mindful Strategies

Here are some strategies for how we can begin using mindful practices in our own lives and in interactions with families:

  • Listen actively –pay attention to the verbal and body language that families are expressing; listen with the goal to understand, not respond
  • Be present – use our body language, such as good eye contact and posture, while pausing other tasks and stopping distractions, to fully take in conversations
  • Use the power of observation – connect with families by objectively observing and narrating what you see in their behavior and language. This approach can have grounding and affirming results when we highlight the strengths the child and family show us in their actions, words, feelings, and body language. (See box for more details)
  • Hold space for what is occurring and the resulting emotions through an open conversation in a comfortable environment. What is the family experiencing? How do the family feel?
    • In particular, identify “negative” emotions – sadness, anger, frustration, etc. – and highlight that feeling and expressing these emotions does not make a person weak. If anything, it takes courage and strength to open up and bring those emotions forward, especially when our society can often promote an idea that struggling is a sign of failure. This can be incredibly powerful message for families to receive.

Using the Power of Observation:

This tool focuses on slowing down and connecting with families through the child’s behavior.

    1) Observe – What is the child doing? What facial expressions can we see?
    2) Narrate – Describe what you see using detail and leaving out opinions.

    3) Pause for the family’s response – Take a moment for the family to reflect, feel seen, simply react to what they see and hear about their child.  

  • Use internal awareness practices – these can be done individually, in partners, or in a group. We can offer these practices in person or virtually; especially using options like Zoom, YouTube, etc. During this time of social distancing, we can also adapt these practices for in-person settings; each individual can spread out 6+ feet apart while wearing a mask and feel part of the practice. These practices can help us get in tune with our thoughts, sensations, and emotions. Some practices include:
    • Grounding and orienting exercises – use our senses to help us feel calm, settled, and focused
    • Breathing practices – focused attention on our breath brings us back to the present moment
    • Gratitude and joy – making a list of what brings us joy or appreciation creates a positive shift in our mindset
    • Play – games with adults and/or children energize us and bring joy and lightness to our shared environments

Check out more examples of mindfulness exercises for families here. If you prefer a video, here is one with mindfulness exercises for families!

Why Is Mindfulness Important?

Mindfulness has proven to be a valuable approach for reducing the symptoms of trauma. As Dr. Jason Linder shares here, the essence of trauma is not based in the here-and-now; rather, it keeps us stuck in the past or constantly fearing the future. By practicing mindfulness, those of us who have experienced trauma can shift our perspective back to our present and heal from past experiences. Some specific benefits to using mindfulness include increased ability to focus and decreased stress and anxiety all of which can help reduce trauma-related symptoms.   

Mindfulness as a Resource for Enhanced Family Engagement

When we have taken the time to learn how to incorporate mindfulness into our own daily routines, we are able to better understand how more mindful practices could enhance our interactions with others, including our own families, co-workers, and the families that we serve. As we seek to build our family engagement culture on a strength-based approach, guided by the Strengthening Families Protective Factors, there are natural connections between Mindfulness and two key Factors: Parental Resilience and Social-Emotional Development of Children.

For a quick overview of the Strengthening Families Protective Factors, please see our Family Engagement Tip from May 2020.

Mindfulness and parental resilience

The families we serve are managing as best they can, pushing forward through these unprecedented times. Just like us, it is impossible to prevent the strong emotions associated with everyday stressors from spilling out in a way that children may notice and feel affected. As part of a family’s support system, our responsive relationships and demonstration of mindful practices with families can help build secure, trusting relationships that can buffer children from stress and support families’ ability to be resilient in the face of challenges. Two great mindfulness activities for families are (1) expressing gratitude before a meal and (2) sense exploration where family members tune into all five senses as they eat, play, walk, etc.; taking in what they see, smell, touch, taste, and hear. These are two examples of mindfulness exercises that support families in recognizing and managing their emotions so they can be resilient in the facing challenges. The mindful techniques that we share with families formally and informally will help support their ability to use them in the future as well as enhance our relationships with those we serve.

Mindfulness as a key for social emotional development

Incorporating and demonstrating mindfulness strategies when engaging with families also helps us support them with another Strengthening Families Protective Factor – the social and emotional development of their child(ren). When children see that we have a trusting and positive relationship with their adult family members it signals to children that they can feel safe trusting and relating to their early educators, thus opening the door to receiving support in identifying, labeling, and better understanding their emotions. When we model mindfulness with families, we simultaneously model social emotional regulation by showing how to slow down, gain awareness of our emotions, and use techniques to manage challenging emotions.

Opportunities to Bring Mindfulness into Staff and Family Interactions

Bringing mindfulness into staff gatherings can positively affect a program’s culture, extending as far as decreasing personal and work-related stress & improving staff bonds.  This can have a positive effect on family-staff interactions, as well. As we have covered in previous family engagement tips in 2019 and 2020, modeling and incorporating program-wide practices with both staff and families through parallel processes can create larger and lasting impacts.

Here are a few examples of how programs of varying sizes can integrate mindfulness into existing staff and family interactions

By modeling these behaviors, site leadership is telling staff and families that it’s okay to take care of yourself at work and when at home caring for children. Consider what your program and staff can comfortably implement with your families.

As our work makes us all too aware of the traumas and challenges families regularly encounter, we also have the power to incorporate these types of mindful, healing practices in our work to support those we serve. Using mindfulness techniques helps us slow down and support families in softening the rough edges of life’s difficulties and the ensuing emotions.

Check out the links below for additional information and great resources!

Resources

Sources

Cristina Espinoza
Family Education Coordinator, Quality Start Los Angeles

Cristina Espinoza has worked as a family and youth development professional for 5 years, including having served as a Peace Corps Volunteer as a youth development promoter in Costa Rica. In conjunction with Quality Start Los Angeles, Cristina is passionate about supporting families to feel empowered in the changing landscape of their surroundings with their children’s wellbeing at the forefront.  She is a champion of strengths-based systems and services that build resilient families and youth.