Lizzie Johnston and Jaela Cheeks-Lomax ’17

Learning to Stop—in Order to Let Yourself Go

Weaving together child psychology, neuroscience, and theatre, Jaela Cheeks-Lomax ’17 and psychology faculty member Lizzie Johnston collaborated to develop a mindfulness curriculum for 2nd to 6th graders enrolled in a local after-school program.

Jaela and Lizzie spoke about the project and how conference work at Sarah Lawrence takes big ideas from conception to reality.

How would you describe this conference project?

Jaela: My project focused on the practice of mindfulness with children. I was a student at this after-school program when I was a kid, and recently I started assistant-teaching a class there with younger students. The kids perform on a regular basis, including for a huge gala and spring musical they do each year.

I wanted to develop a program that would help them get through all of this, because it can be a lot for little kids. Lizzie helped me create a five-week curriculum and lesson plans that did that.

Lizzie: One of the reasons I really liked Jaela’s project was that it was an eclectic school program that didn’t concentrate on just one thing. There were lots of different exercises grounded in the body—yoga poses, attention to sensory stimulation, the use of imagination through visualizations—a lot of ways to tap into a relaxation response as a way to cope with stress.

Jaela: Right. And another big thing for me was breaking down these groups the students had already formed, I think just out of comfort. But, really, it was detrimental to the function of the larger group, because they were not getting to know the other kids.

Lizzie: Jaela recognized that groups had formed from different schools—groups with quite different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. With this conference project, she saw the opportunity to help them become more aware and accepting of each other.

Jaela: After we would do exercises like visualizations, I would encourage them to let go, relax, and be open to new experiences like making new friends, or becoming more connected to their characters in the show. I’d say, “Set a goal for yourself, and push to make it tangible.”

On a parallel track, as a transfer student at Sarah Lawrence, I was trying to do the same thing. I explained and tried to model that experience for my students, who responded like, “She’s doing it, too.”

What came out of this project?

Jaela: I did see some changes in the students. Some who started out a little shyer became more open.

Lizzie: The flexibility that Jaela demonstrated was part of the success of this project. She found ways to apply the ideas we were discussing in class in a very open and exploratory way that still had structure. It was a nice application of psychological methodologies to a particular practice.

What have you learned from your conference work?

Jaela: This system really allows you to put yourself and your personal interests into your work. I’m a transfer student, so I hadn’t had this kind of experience before. I love being able to research something and to do hands-on work. I’ve grown in terms of confidence, which has bled over into everything: into my dance classes and other academic subjects.

What do you see as the value of conference work?

Lizzie: I love seeing how students develop conference ideas out of the shared class experience and their own interests. From her other classes in dance and theatre, Jaela had ideas about the kind of work you could do with attention and mindfulness, and then applied it to her work in my class with a setting that made sense for her.

Jaela: Conference projects allow you to put all of yourself into the work. And you truly have faculty support to do so. It’s the reason I’m here at Sarah Lawrence. And it’s so important to keep the tradition of conference work alive for future students so that they can have this opportunity, too.