A Deep Breath, Kids
By Randi Bjornstad
Published: Monday, Feb 7, 2011 05:01AM
On the back covers of her three new children’s books, Janai Lowenstein sums herself up this way:
“Preschool prevention pioneer and advocate for 35 years, lives in the forest in Drain, Oregon. Homeschooling mother; outrageously fun grandmother; married for 35 years; award-winning kids’ TV and school programs; watermelon seed spitting champion; international speaker; published author; University of Oregon instructor on substance abuse prevention for preschool; and a darn good cook!”
That cheery description notwithstanding, success has been a long time coming for Lowenstein. Even with her unflagging enthusiasm and indefatigable promotion, Lowenstein believes that the message that she’s been propounding for decades — teaching very young children the tools they need to control negative emotions, calm themselves and make good behavior choices — finally might be getting the boost it needs to really take off.
Lowenstein just learned that the Hawn Foundation, started by actress and mother Goldie Hawn and dedicated to “creating a world where children thrive,” will list her books as recommended reading for children, parents and teachers on its website (www.thehawnfoundation.org).
“I was attracted to the books because of the positive messages they convey to children,” says Marc Meyer, the foundation’s director of educational programs and initiatives. “This is very much in keeping with the foundational underpinnings of MindUP, the signature social and emotional learning program of the Hawn Foundation.”
In fact, the two efforts — one by a famous Hollywood celebrity and the other by a small-town visionary — seem like two peas in a pod for the intent, if not for the amount of resources available to promote them.
Hawn’s effort, which includes a trademarked program called MindUP, was created by a research organization that blends neuroscience, educational best practices, social-and-emotional learning concepts and “mindful conduct” skills such as breathing exercises and conflict resolution.
The result is “optimistic classrooms” that emphasize readiness to learn, personal respect, positive social interactions, academic success and improved school and family relationships.
So far, more than 50 schools in the United States and nearly 150 in Canada have become certified MindUP schools through the Hawn Foundation.
Lowenstein, on the other hand, has been a one-woman show, concentrating her message in elementary schools in Lane County and north Douglas County while trying single-handedly to develop a greater audience.
“I have been trying to be a voice for children globally for 35 years,” she says with a sigh. “My first rejection was from the Johnny Carson show in the 1980s. I got a handwritten note from a producer saying, ‘We love what you do, but it doesn’t fit our format.’ I have been rejected by Oprah Winfrey’s show every year since she’s been on television.”
She once decided to take her “Fourth R, for Relaxation” campaign to Washington, D.C., where she “marched on Capitol Hill alone. I took my information to every political office (in Congress) and explained it to every receptionist,” Lowenstein recalls. “I never heard back from anybody.”
Her message is simple, intuitive and unchanged through the decades: Self worth comes from the inside out, and even very young children have the capacity to distinguish between external pressure and internal satisfaction.
“If we depend on the outside world to tell us who we are and how we feel about ourselves, we develop a false sense of our own value and we are more likely to get in trouble by trying to conform to what others pressure us to do,” Lowenstein says. “But if we know within ourselves the kind of person we want to be, with the right skills we can become that.”
Through the years, she developed a mantra — “Breathe, think and make a good choice” — that she has taught in countless classrooms as a marching song to help youngsters take charge of their emotions and actions. Unbeknownst to her until recently, the Hawn Foundation’s MindUP program also uses a similar technique of deep breathing and calming to help children identify their feelings and control their behaviors.
Lowenstein says it sometimes moves her nearly to tears when she hears back from children who have used her technique to get themselves out of a bad spot.
“One little 5-year-old girl’s house had just burned down, and after things had cooled down, the firefighters let her family go in and look inside,” she recalls. “Later, she told me, ‘I knew before I went in that I needed to take some deep breaths, because that would help me.’ That’s emotional intelligence.”
When working with classes, Lowenstein always encourages children to share their “success stories,” and one day a second-grader, “who you could see had a really hard life,” volunteered that he had one.
“He said, ‘My mom and dad were fighting on a bridge and they forgot I was there,’ ” Lowenstein recounts. “He said, ‘They accidentally bumped into me and knocked me off the bridge. I caught hold of a branch, and I was really scared. But I remembered your song — breathe, think and make a good choice — and I did that, and I calmed down, and I got myself back up on the bridge.’ ”
Even bullies can learn to practice the method, she says.
“I had been working with a group of third-graders on saying ‘no’ to peer pressure, and about a week later one boy who was known to be a bully told me how he had said ‘no’ to peer pressure,” she says. “He said some boys in the class wanted to beat up on another boy in the class because they didn’t like him. He said, ‘I thought about how I would feel if we did that — my stomach had knots in it, and I didn’t feel good. And I said I wouldn’t, and then the rest of them didn’t do it either.’ ”
Those stories seemed so important “that I had to put them in book form,” Lowenstein says.
The result is her three newly self-published interactive books, two of which feature a girl called Superkid who helps children, animals and even plants to confront — and change — bad feelings and behaviors.
In “Superkid Saves the Day,” the young superhero, often with the help of deep breathing techniques, helps an ant who forgot to be honest regain a good relationship with the rest of his hillmates; teaches her sister a lesson about rudeness; and shows a nestful of bluebirds how much better they feel if they think of a glass as half full instead of half empty.
“Superkid Camp” brings children from all over the world together to share customs, stories and lessons they had learned about good behavior choices that allowed them to become superkids.
The third, “Dragonella,” turns a girl named Claire — with the help of a group of sky dragons — into a force for good, traveling throughout the world to help children everywhere realize that “if they wanted to be happier themselves, they needed to change bad behaviors to good behaviors.”
These books, along with many other publications Lowenstein has created through the years, are available online at www.childstress.org.
The three new books also may be purchased at the store Stargate, 1374 Willamette St.
Lowenstein also takes her message to adults — teachers, social workers, counselors, parents, grandparents and baby sitters — via short online courses through the University of Oregon’s Substance Abuse Prevention Program.
The six one-hour teaching modules qualify for continuing education or professional development credit. UO students can register for SAPP courses online using DuckWeb. Nonstudents may call the SAPP office at 541-346-4135 or the community education program at 541-346-5614 for information.