Meet Kathy Hegberg, Founder of FocusedKids™
Interviewed by AJ Urquidi
Working with children and families since the 1970s, Kathy Hegberg, M.A., is a licensed counselor whose experience includes crisis intervention with families in distress, working in private practice with families and children, providing specialized groups in public schools, and teaching child and family therapy at the University of Colorado-Denver. (Visit Kathy online at www.focusedkids.org)
Most recently, Kathy created the FocusedKids™ program in 2013 following an encounter with a group from Head Start preschool. With strong support for the idea of teaching mindfulness to 3-4 year olds, when their brains are growing most dynamically, the FocusedKids™ program was born. Partnering with a local program, the Valley Settlement Project (VSP), she piloted her idea. VSP had created a mobile preschool to serve immigrant children. They converted small buses into preschool classrooms, which travel to key spots in the community where parents can walk their kids to class.
The FocusedKids™ program is simple: the the goal is to help children self-regulate using the knowledge of how the brain works and specific skills to help them calm and focus. FocusedKids™ teaches parents and teachers the same curriculum so that not only can the children self-regulate, but also co-regulation can occur between adult and child. The program’s assumption is that children who have these skills will do better academically, as well as in their relationships with others. Specifically, these children will be kindergarten-ready with healthy social emotional skills to support academic effort.
Using puppets for parts of the brain (owl for prefrontal cortex, elephant for hippocampus, and dog for amygdala) together with a brain chart, kids learn how the parts work individually and together. There’s a focus on the amygdala, which seems to get us into trouble, and on how to calm it down when it gets big feelings. Teachers then introduce the “calm down” basket, which includes several age-appropriate tools to help with developing the skills of self-regulation. That basket is left in the classroom, and children are encouraged to use it (quietly) any time they need to calm or refocus themselves. With the parent training, each family gets the same basket to use at home to reinforce the learning of these skills.
Now on any given day in the classrooms, visitors can hear the chime provided to the class and see a group of 3-4 year olds sitting in a circle, eyes closed, hands folded in their laps, breathing quietly for 2-3 minutes before they start their day, or the next activity. They are cooperative, happy, and becoming self-sufficient. After four years, children are testing into kindergarten at average academic readiness, and by the end of the kindergarten year, they are in the top 10%. Their social emotional skills are testing above average for their age group.
Because of her success in guiding these kids, Kathy recently released a children’s book, Mindfulness Coloring Book for Kids: With Guidance for Those who Love Them, in both English and Spanish. Kathy has been kind enough to share with us a few keen observations, recommendations, and snippets of advice.
What is the greatest challenge you have had to overcome in your work thus far?
Letting go of helping everyone who crosses my path! Winning resistant parents over. Keeping myself on the “take care of” list.
What’s the first thing you do when working with a new group of students?
Take a deep breath, introduce myself, and ask how their day is going.
What advice do you have for kids and families who are struggling?
Find the helpers near you. They are there.
If you could go back in time, what is the one thing you’d most like to tell yourself as a child?
Are there any stories of working with kids or caregivers that you’d like to tell?
Two stories: the first is about a dad. I did the FocusedKids™ training with a family with two boys ages three and five. We learned about the brain and ways to calm and focus when needed. Dad called a week later to tell me that he had returned home after a rough day at work, and expressed this to his kids. They took his hand and led him to the “calm down” basket, saying, “Come on daddy. You need to breathe.” They took out the Hoberman sphere and moved it slowly in and out while they all breathed together. Dad had tears when he called.
This spring, I worked with a group of young kindergartners in their classroom. We did two exercises: Tic Toc and the Rock Meditation. After completing both, we were discussing the experience, and one little boy took his rock and placed it on his head, crossed his legs, hands in lap, eyes closed. The other kids noticed, and followed suit. All sat quietly with their rocks on their head, while the teacher and I picked our jaws up off the ground! Then they started the Tic Toc motions while trying to keep their rocks on their heads. With several tries, they all succeeded. I now use this as a lesson extension!
What books have most inspired you and are there any on your shelf begging to be read?
What do you do to take care of yourself?
I make time for family and friends, spend time with my dogs who provide lots of unconditional love, hike five times a week, short meditations every day, shoot for eight hours of sleep every day, read a lot, and eat well. (It took 65 years to get to this point!)
What is one thing you have experienced in your work that accomplished what you set out to do?
Created FocusedKids™. Every time I teach it to kids, I am amazed that it actually does what it is supposed to do. (This also took 65 years!)