Meet Ellis Enlow, an educator who has specialized in early childhood for 19 years
Interviewed by AJ Urquidi
I try to bring an attitude of curiosity to both observing children’s behavior and my response to them. This is true when things are going well, but especially important when things are challenging.
Ellis Enlow told us she has been privileged to teach and be taught by the youngest children among us for the last 19 years. With a Master’s degree in Human Development specializing in Early Childhood Education and currently participating in the UCLA Training in Mindfulness Facilitation Program, she has embarked on a noteworthy journey, having served as a Pre-K classroom teacher, a visiting classroom mindfulness teacher, an educator of parents, a preschool director, and (albeit briefly) a lawyer. When she met Susan Kaiser Greenland around 10 years ago in a teacher development group, Ellis began to discover the benefits of mindfulness and started practicing it herself. Since first working with Susan and completing her Inner Kids Professional Development Training, Ellis has set out to bring mindfulness meditation to kids through classroom education.
Based out of Culver City’s independent Echo Horizon School, she co-teaches in a holistic program for Pre-K students that she designed years ago and continues to evolve. Not only is her school known for its dedication to mainstreaming Deaf and Hard of Hearing students into the program, but it is also the same school where several years earlier Ellis was lucky enough to assist in Susan’s Pre-K and 6th grade mindfulness classes. She occasionally teaches mindfulness to classes outside of the school as well. Mother of two adult kids and proud companion of a new dog, Ellis has found that mindfulness brings balance to the various elements of her life. She was generous enough with her time to provide us with some in-depth advice. Given the many professional hats that Ellis has worn over the years, it's no surprise that she has plenty of stories to tell and wisdom to share.
What is the greatest challenge you have had to overcome in your work thus far?
One of the obstacles I faced in teaching mindfulness to children was accepting that being a “good enough” mindfulness teacher really is good enough! It was tempting to wait to share mindfulness practices with children until I felt just a bit more ready … Another month of practice and perhaps I’d be able to embody the teachings more … One more article or book and maybe I’d be able to bring greater context. Mindfulness has had such a life-changing impact on my own life that I felt (and feel) a responsibility to get it “right.” Having watched Susan teach years ago in my Pre-K class, and having studied with her, I had seen firsthand what I was aiming for! It can feel intimidating even for seasoned classroom teachers to feel we have the expertise required to pass along these tools that we hold so dear. Nevertheless, I forged ahead. However imperfectly, I’ve been teaching mindfulness to my Pre-K kiddos (ages four and five) for the last several years. Some days, it all gels beautifully; other days, not so much (just like in my own practice). And just like I benefit from the consistency of my own imperfect practice, it is clear that many of these young students benefit from the net effect of the range of my inevitably imperfect mindfulness classes. I try to remind myself of all of the gifts of mindfulness my students would have missed if I had waited until I felt completely ready to teach them — because, let’s face it, they’d still be waiting.
Since you’ve taught mindfulness as both a classroom teacher and a visiting teacher in other grades, what are some of the differences you’ve noticed between the two formats?
As a classroom teacher, I have the opportunity to offer mindfulness practices in a variety of ways throughout the week … a formal class, woven in as an activity in a morning meeting or dropped in as a focusing activity during a transition. This freedom and access can feel optimal. However, as classroom teachers, we also have to keep a lot of balls in the air. Of all of the skills that I routinely observe and assess, I have to confess that I sometimes forget to explicitly observe the ways the children may be using their mindfulness skills. Consequently, I can be left wondering about the extent of their impact on my specific class (even though I am fully sold on their benefits for children in general). Recently, I paid specific attention to the ways in which the children may be incorporating mindfulness throughout the school day. It should come as no surprise that seeing the fruits of mindfulness was as simple as remembering to look. One boy who was upset as he went out to recess took a moment on an outside bench, faced the adjacent wall, and focused on his breathing, placing his hand on his belly. Another handed our classroom glitter jar to a friend who was upset. Yet another shared that she and some friends had been “playing mindfulness” at recess, essentially going through the steps of one of our classes. I realized that I had also been remiss in checking in with parents on the subject. It was lovely to hear parental feedback on the ways their children had utilized or shared mindfulness tools. The boy who focused on his breathing to calm himself also did so at home, supported by his parents. One parent reported that her daughter gave a lengthy (if somewhat stern!) recap one evening on mindful eating. Yet another shared that her son took three breaths when he was upset.
In contrast, when I visit a class on a weekly basis to work with children, my sole role is that of mindfulness teacher. While I have less daily contact with those children, the contact that I do have is guided by our mindfulness work together. In some ways, it is easier to recognize the impact of the mindfulness practices in that context, since it is the primary lens through which I am observing them.
What’s the first thing you do when working with a new group of students?
The first thing I do when working with a new group of students is to show them a vintage Inner Kids poster with pictures of kids paying attention in all sorts of ways. Then we talk about various things we could pay attention to ourselves. Even the youngest children understand that there are myriad ways they can pay attention … and often they love sharing them. Then we practice a particular type of paying attention by listening to the sound of the tone bar fade and raising our hands when the sound ends. I stress that we all hear differently and they should raise their hand when the sound stops for them, and only they can say when that is. Since our program mainstreams children with hearing loss, I include the ability to hear as one of the factors, along with proximity to the tone bar, that might impact when a child stops hearing the sound. The children seem to love the tone bar and I typically open our mindfulness classes by having one of them ring it.
What advice do you have for kids and families who are struggling?
The advice I have for families with young children who may be struggling … with challenging behaviors, with perhaps feeling out of sync with their kids, or who may be seeking greater connection, basically parallels the advice I try to follow myself in the classroom. I try to bring an attitude of curiosity to both observing children’s behavior and my response to them. This is true when things are going well, but especially important when things are challenging. For example, can we see what may be underlying a child’s frustration, especially if s/he is not able to fully articulate the problem in the midst of an upset? If so, can we anticipate and try to “get ahead” of the next instance of this frustration in order to help the child begin to narrate the experience for herself? I try to step back and notice how I might change my behavior in order to help the child manage his/her behavior. Am I being reactive to certain difficult behaviors, and can I pause long enough to create a space in which I can choose another, more helpful response? Often our children need us to change first before they can change. The good news is that sometimes a very subtle shift in the behavior or attitude of a caregiver can lead to significant positive changes for our children.
If you could go back in time, what is the one thing you’d most like to tell yourself as a child?
My message to my child-self would be one that all children need to hear. I know I heard it, but in your magic time-travel scenario, I would ensure that I truly “got” it. That message is: “You are lovable, you are enough, you matter.”
Are there any stories of working with kids or caregivers that you’d like to tell?
A moment that I will always treasure occurred when I was sitting with a table full of four- and five-year-olds. I was searching on my laptop for a book that I wanted to share with them and was getting frustrated that I kept coming up empty on our library’s data system. One girl got up from her seat, silently walked to me, placed her hand over my heart and held it there. I asked her if she was helping me find my anchor in order to focus on my breathing. She nodded yes. As I closed my eyes to take in a few calming breaths, many other children got up from their seats and also placed their hands on my heart. I remain struck by the compassion of all of these children, especially the first child, who recognized my distress and brought a mindfulness tool that she knew I would value to help me self-regulate!
What books have most inspired you and are there any on your shelf begging to be read?
There are so many wonderful books! I have turned to Susan’s The Mindful Child numerous times … it is so full of wisdom! I love the exercise in which she suggests a parent simply follow the child’s lead for a period of time. I shared this with parents of toddlers with great success! Parts of Dan Siegel’s and Tina Bryson’s The Whole Brain Child have seeped into my consciousness, and I draw on them frequently when working with both parents and children, especially their explanations of the ways in which connecting with children can impact and integrate brain function. I loved Daniel Rechtschaffen’s The Way of Mindful Education, and I am looking forward to diving into his The Mindful Education Workbook.
Two of my favorite books for children are Wait by Antoinette Portis and Out of the Ocean by Debra Frasier. Neither is explicitly about mindfulness; however, each urges the reader to pause and really see what is there. And let’s not forget Susan’s new Mindful Games!
How do you take care of yourself?
I have fun with my grown kids (including watching some questionable TV series), spend time with my friends, walk my dog, and pick up fresh flowers from Trader Joe’s. A critical element of my self-care is maintaining my regular mindfulness meditation practice. I was able to attend two silent retreats last summer, and there is no doubt that I returned feeling that I had taken good care of myself!