Research informs back-to-school mindfulness and stress relief tips
By Kate Hunger
For Doctor of Occupational Therapy student Elise Gray, volunteering at a back to school event this summer was more than a way to educate families on the proper way to pack and carry a backpack. Gray and fellow OTD students also shared activities and information to help school children manage stress and anxiety as they head back to class.
“We were telling them if they come home and are really stressed, these are some things they can do to try to destress from the day,” Gray said. “One dad called his middle schooler over and said, ‘You need to come see this. You need to take this sheet home.’”
For those outside the profession, the role OTs can play in helping children reduce school stress and anxiety may not be immediately obvious. Yet that is just what the OTD students did during the back-to-school event. In addition to educating young students and their families on the ergonomics of properly loading and carrying backpacks, OTD students also shared tips for mindful eating, a mandala coloring activity and sensory-based calming and alerting strategies “to cope with anxiety and stress associated with the back to school transition for child and family,” said Assistant Professor Mei-Ling Lin, PhD, OTR.
“We want to share the occupational therapy knowledge,” Lin said. “The backpack awareness you think of as physical health, but back to school is really a transitional time for the families and the kids. It can be overwhelming for kids and family, so we had physical health and mental health.”
Joining the OTD students were Lin and Associate Professor Kimatha Grice, OTD, OTR, CHT, who previously led the program’s participation at the event for several years.
Several of the mindfulness activities the students shared were similar to those included in a pilot study conducted by Lin and fellow researchers during her time on faculty in the Department of Occupational Therapy at the University of Texas at El Paso. In the pilot study, researchers sought to determine the effectiveness of a universal mental health promotion program to reduce stress among students at an underserved, predominantly Hispanic elementary school. Lin was lead author on an article describing the study that published in July the Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools, and Early Intervention. A majority — about 70% — of the 5th and 6th graders who participated indicated confidence and competence in using the calming tools and activities from the program when experiencing stress in the future.
The article “found that social emotional learning activities and mindfulness-based coping strategies are of particular benefits to children who have low emotional self-efficacy beliefs,” Lin said.
Lin said she plans to continue her research in local school districts and hopes to work with OTD students who are interested in health promotion for their capstone projects. Lin was able to apply findings from the study in the back to school event. She recruited OTD students for the back to school event and applied part of her research evidence to the activities shared with attendees. The activities were intentionally designed to be customized to the individual, which is a key part of OT.
“It’s not universal or cookie cutter,” Lin said. “We wanted them to experience that here-and-now moment. We didn’t emphasize the need to finish. We were teaching them the tool and we used the activities as the medium.”
The experience was meaningful for Gray, who said she and other students volunteering felt excited by the families’ interest.
“OT is so diverse, which I absolutely love about it,” Gray said. “Volunteering, I 100% saw the benefit of OT, especially in the school setting. I appreciated that we were able to give the community helpful occupational therapy based resources. It was a rewarding experience.”