Atlanta’s Emmaus House Takes a Mindfulness Journey with Parents, Students, and Staff
By Greg Cole, CFRE
Executive Director, Emmaus House
Who is Emmaus House?
Emmaus House is a non-profit organization that grew out of the work of Father Austin Ford, an Episcopal priest and advocate for civil rights. Father Ford moved into a dilapidated two-story home in Peoplestown, along with two nuns and a seminary student, in 1967. He garnered resources to benefit Peoplestown residents and established an after-school program, once-a-month transportation to Reidsville State Prison for family members of inmates, chapel services, hot meals, and a poverty rights office. More than 50 years later, Emmaus House has continued to evolve while remaining true to its core mission of supporting the residents of Peoplestown as they work towards economic security.
Peoplestown is a neighborhood in Atlanta south of Georgia State Stadium. Forty-eight percent of families in Peoplestown live below the poverty line and thirty-three percent of residents do not have a high school diploma. Emmaus House is committed to reversing the negative trajectory that many families and children travel in Peoplestown and helping create pathways to success in school, college, and careers. This commitment is consistent with our two primary goals of increasing educational outcomes for children and youth and providing opportunities that lead to economic independence for families. Emmaus House offers programs that are child- focused and parent-focused.
- Child-focused programs include a summer Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program, which has a parental engagement element; Saturday Arts, which meets for 24 weeks throughout the school year; and Youth on the Move, an out-of-school time program for 6th through 12th graders that meets five days per week during the school
- Parent-focused programs with children and youth elements include Fostering Family Leaders, a peer-to-peer leadership
One of our strategies is to incorporate an emphasis on the social and emotional competence (SEC) of parents and children in existing programs. Because of our focus on SEC, we have also taken parents, children, and the staff on a mindfulness journey over the last two years. The remainder of this article describes Emmaus House’s mindfulness journey.
Why We Initiated Mindfulness Practices with Parents
Emmaus House began to introduce mindfulness practices in the spring of 2016 as part of its longstanding parent education program, A Great Start for Parents and Children, or simply Great Start Parenting Program.
Great Start is an informative, fun, and interactive learning experience for expectant parents and those already caring for young children, birth to 5 years old. The program is eight weeks long, and each training session is two hours (including a meal). Great Start supports parents and caregivers, including expectant parents, to obtain valuable knowledge about three areas:
- personal health and how parental health affects babies and young children;
- child development and key developmental milestones; and
- tools for managing stress in daily
A qualified instructor facilitates sessions that include topics such as healthy mothers/babies, child development milestones, infant brain development, creating baby-smart homes, bringing your baby into family traditions, strengthening your family and stress management.
During our 2014 parent cohort, we detected a challenge. When asked (pre and post) “how much do you know about handling stress in your life?” 83% of participants reported either “1 – don’t know much” or “2 – I know a little” in a pre-assessment, using a 5-point Likert scale. By the end of the 8-week cohort, 71% still responded in the bottom two response options. The high percentage of low self-ratings raised a red flag and got staff thinking about whether we were addressing stress management effectively in the existing training.
Early Childhood Partners Helped Us on Our Way
Having access to few evidence-based approaches to stress management directed specifically at supporting families from low socioeconomic backgrounds, in the fall of 2015 Emmaus House brought this challenge to our partners at Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS). GEEARS had been working with the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University to drive innovation in the field of early childhood through strategies that build caregiver capacity to promote healthy development and protect children from toxic stress. Through this relationship, Emmaus House connected to Dr. Andy Roach at Georgia State University’s (GSU) School of Public Health. We learned that Dr. Roach had experience using mindfulness-based interventions in many settings, including with first-year teachers to help manage stress as they learned to work with and support young learners.
Mindfulness Ambassador Program Interactive (MAP Interactive) Modified for Parents
From a programming perspective, the staff at Emmaus House did not want to discard its Great Start parent training program altogether. Instead, the preference was to find an evidence-based program that helped to fill in the gaps relating to stress management and social and emotional competence. Based on research on the application of mindfulness in parenting interventions, Dr. Roach and Emmaus House developed a modified-version of Mindfulness Without Borders’ MAP for parents.
Emmaus House received a grant from Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning to cover the development costs of this program and to launch the pilot cohort in spring 2016. MWB worked with us to integrate the MAP into our existing Great Start program.
The MAP offers participants a forum to meet face-to-face and learn about constructive ways of addressing personal, social, and community challenges. At the heart of the MAP program are basic mindfulness practices that help individuals access the wisdom within themselves and within the group. Participants are encouraged to speak from the heart, ask questions to discover their fullest potential, and explore possibilities that lead to a culture of mutual respect, collaboration, and ethical concern for each other and the world. We selected this program due, in part, to MWB’s success in developing and implementing mindfulness curriculum in diverse contexts and cultures.
Integrated Mindfulness-Parenting Education Program Piloted and Evaluated
Dr. Roach also connected Emmaus House with Georgia State University’s Department of Early Childhood Education and its Urban Child Study Center. During the pilot, these entities served as consultants, ensuring that any new approach to mindfulness with families built on what we already know about supporting family engagement and early childhood healthy development. At multiple points in the project, we asked participants to complete an assessment battery that addressed their levels of mindfulness, stress, parenting efficacy, anxiety, family, and child functioning. Parents received incentives for their participation provided by partners. Josephine Ojo, a Masters of Public Health student at GSU at the time of our piloting our integrated program, administered the assessment battery and collected data as part of her Capstone Project at Emmaus House. Ms. Ojo (now Josephine Ojo Mhende) provides an overview of the evaluation results of Emmaus House’s pilot parent program in a related article. We used the evaluation results to refine the mindfulness- parenting education program.
Involving Children and Youth in Mindfulness Education
Adolescents – In 2017, Emmaus House launched a three-week, six-session mindfulness series with middle and high school students ages 13-18 in our Youth on the Move program using the MAP-Interactive curriculum. Mind- fulness became one of the life-skills enrichment topics covered in depth during one-hour sessions during the series, followed by weekly mindfulness practices beyond the initial round. Ms. Josephine Ojo also supported the evaluation of this series. For data analysis purposes, she administered the following measures to students who were present for the pre- and post-test periods: Social Skills Improvement System (SSIS), Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D), Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI), and Five Facets of Mindfulness Questionnaire (5FMQ). Ms. Ojo’s analysis of the collected data (November 2018 e-mail exchange) indicated:
- Increased levels of mindfulness among participants: Seven out of 11 youth reported higher scores on the mindfulness scale at post-test.
- Decreased levels of anxiety: Six out of 11 youth reported decreased scores on the anxiety scale at post-test.
- Lower levels of depression: Eight out of 11 youth reported decreased scores on the depression scale at post-test.
Young Children –Also in 2016, as part of a six-week summer Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School® program, our team of Servant Leader Interns implemented the Mini-Mind program with 70 students in grades
K-5. Laura Wood, a GSU Ph.D candidate who co-developed and piloted the Mini-Mind curriculum with Dr. Roach, trained and coached the interns. The Mini-Mind curriculum is a series of mindfulness-based interventions (MBI) designed to enhance executive function skills in young children. Ms. Wood describes the Mini-Mind curriculum in detail in her article.
Making Mindfulness a Lifestyle among Staff
As a long-time practitioner of mindfulness, I am thrilled to see parents, students, and my staff members incorporate mindfulness practices into their hectic schedules. Before the convening of staff meetings, we use mindfulness techniques such as moments of silence and deep breathing to let go of the stress so that we can have meaningful interactions and focused discussions. While our journey in mindfulness began with parents, as director, my long-term goal is to help staff see mindfulness as a personal tool, not just a program. Regarding Emmaus House as an organization,
I envision mindfulness as the way we are and how we all live our lives. Mindfulness will become our shared lifestyle as we continue to develop, refine, and implement mindfulness practices with parents and children.
Learn more about Emmaus House and its programs here: https:// emmaushouseatlanta.org/. For further information on the mindfulness programs mentioned in this article, please email Greg Cole at gregcole@ emmaushouse.org.