Empowering youth through mindfulness
By Jeannie Howard | Photo Credit Tony Tamayo
The stress and trauma individuals experience can be expressed in vastly different ways. For children, the expression of traumas experienced or stress they may feel often manifests into bad behavior and choices. These symptoms in youth, especially the most disadvantaged, are typically met with reactionary disciplinary tactics, which all too often worsen the behavior, according to JG Larochette, founder and director of Mindful Life Project. Instead, by taking a whole-child approach, Larochette and his team are teaching students and educators coping tools through the practice of mindfulness. “We really believe that mindfulness is about empowering our youth to have skills to make wise responses to life’s challenges,” he said.
Taking a scientific, secular approach, Mindful Life Project defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose to the present moment without judgment,” and that “through focused and specific awareness, mindfulness builds skills to navigate all experiences by strategically living in the here and now.”
Each week Mindful Life Project’s fifteen diverse instructors work with students at 22 Title 1 schools in and around the Richmond area that have partnered with the organization. The two core programs students, from preschool to high school, participate in are Mindful Community, which is brought to all partner schools, and Rise Up, which works with eight of the partner schools. “Our whole-class Mindful Community program goes into the classrooms, with the classroom teachers, each week for 20 to 25 minutes to teach and practice the major skills of mindfulness,” described Larochette.
The Rise Up program works deeper with small groups of about eight students per grade level each week outside of the classroom. “It’s a combination of teacher and principle referrals of about four or five students per group that have behavior problems, and then three or four are referred based off of their high level of academic and social-emotional performance,” he described. “I did this because often the kids with problems due to trauma are sent to group therapy or anger management, and it just makes them feel more isolated.” This mixture, Larochette said, was motivated by the belief that the kids who were do well academically probably have a strong support system in their lives and that they could be a strong support system to the kids who seemed to have been through trauma.
In addition to their weekly mindful practice, students have the opportunity to earn time in Mindful Life Project’s mindfulness and performing arts school, where they can create spoken-word or hip-hop song projects centered on mindfulness messages. “Each week our instructors and classroom teachers refer students,” said Larochette. “Our hope is that instead of taking away from our youth, we can show them that, though positive reinforcement, they can earn stuff.”
It was through his own personal struggle that led Larochette to practice mindfulness and go on to open Mindful Life Project in 2012. “I hit a wall of anxiety and depression in the fall of 2011,” he shared. After trying a variety of treatment methods, a friend encouraged Larochette to try different types of meditation. “When I found mindfulness meditation it was something that quickly changed my life,” he said. “After just three weeks I felt so different—physically, mentally, and emotionally.”
As a third grade teacher at Coronado Elementary School in Richmond at the time, Larochette said he realized that his students, a majority of whom had experienced a lot of trauma in life, would also benefit from practicing mindfulness meditation. “It was magical to see my young folks being able to practice mindfulness,” he said. With the overwhelming support from all of his students and their parents, practicing mindfulness became a daily routine for his class. “I saw a huge impact not only on our classroom learning environment but also a change in ourselves.”
Through the encouragement of his students, Larochette took the leap and created Mindful Life Project. “It was one of those movements when I had to take a leap of faith. I had to make a decision to benefit my wellbeing and the community,” he described.
Since its inception, Mindful Life Project has worked with nearly 35,000 students and has witnessed just how transformative the practice has been for the students. “Health and wellness, especially social and emotional, outcomes are challenging to score, but what we do know, based on our surveys of teachers and students, is that individuals are healthier,” said Larochette. “Our young people and adults are learning how to respond and not react. There has been a significant decrease in suspensions at our partner schools, and teachers are reporting an increase in quality teaching time—time that had previously been spent on classroom management and behavioral issues.” Additionally, according to Larochette, teachers report students having an increase in self-awareness and impulse control, are able to better self-regulate, and pay attention for longer periods of time.
Through dedicated community support from parents, students, and fellow educators, Mindful Life Project has been able to show the school district how impactful mindfulness can be. The organization’s overall goal is to encourage more school districts to invest in a whole-child approach to education. “Unless we are really investing in the wellbeing of our youth we are going to keep pushing kids out of school and toward activities that they feel are safe but aren’t, like gangs or drug abuse, as a way to avoid the suffering they feel,” said Larochette. “Our hope and dream is to see schools that are full of mindfulness and compassion so that next generation of adults has some really amazing opportunities to grow their personal wellness and empowerment.”
For more information about Mindful Life Project visit Mindfullifeproject.org.