16 Jan Grandma Boom: Helping Children with ACEs Build Resilience
Parents: Teach your preschoolers self-control with this fun mindfulness lesson from Grandma Boom.
If a fairy godmother got to pick your child’s kindergarten teacher, she’d probably choose Grandma Boom.
With a wand, a mane of cascading red curls, and gauzy, colorful gowns, Grandma Boom — aka Janai Mestrovich, MS — resembles a cross between Glenda the Good Witch and Lady Gaga. (“I always teach in costume,” she laughs.) Mestrovich, 69, has a Master’s Degree in Family and Child Development and was an early pioneer in children’s educational TV, starring in two popular midwestern shows. Her following nicknamed her “Mrs. Rogers” — a nod to Mister Rogers’ beloved children’s show.
In Oregon, where she moved in 1985, she raised a family, taught classes about child empowerment at the University of Oregon and Southern Oregon University, and wrote seven books, including a self-help memoir.
Now – still working in her trademark fairytale costumes – Mestrovich has created a website that teaches parents and teachers how to help children, including those with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), build resilience through her own brand of magic.
“I create lessons that let children learn in a joyous, tactile kind of way,” Mestrovich says. “It’s so important for children to feel emotions in their body and to use touch and all their other senses when learning. And they have so much fun doing it!”
Working with kids who’ve experienced trauma
Mestrovich is especially sensitive to children who’ve suffered trauma, since she herself experienced trauma as a child. Back then, she tried to hide the welts from being punished by beltings or a peach tree switch. She attributes the physical abuse and the parental screaming matches to her parents’ lack of coping skills needed to overcome her father’s war-related PTSD or her mother’s rough childhood.
“We all lived in a confusing, emotionally tangled muddle while the best level of love and family glue Mom and Dad could muster up was indeed present,” she writes. “I did feel cared for and loved……and very stressed and confused.” She has received several grants to work with children with ACES, in which she teaches troubled children how to calm themselves, think and make good choices. She reinforces such lessons through play, 3-D learning and simple, catchy songs similar to those from Mister Rogers and the children’s show Daniel Tiger.
A lesson on self-control that kids love
In one lesson, Mestrovich gave a classroom of children each a paper plate, which they made into a makeshift steering wheel with an ‘X’ at the top and smiley stickers at the bottom, representing the Inner Steering Wheel of Self-Control. “I told them to hold the steering wheel and drive as if they were really angry. And they were so excited to run around the room pretending to be a bunch of crazy cars.
“Then I asked them to flip the wheel over after taking deep belly button breaths, and they would switch to driving calmly,” she said.
“Then we’d play crazy cars again, and they were just giddy with glee. We did that a few times, learning how to switch from tense cars to calm cars, and they got the idea that they have an inner steering wheel they can use when they feel overwhelmed. It’s an important lesson, and one children learn best if they can feel it.”
A life-saving lesson
Mestrovich didn’t realize how critical another of her lessons would be for one second-grader, whose parents were arguing furiously on a bridge on a cold Oregon night. Forgetting their son was there, they accidentally knocked him off the bridge, where he managed to catch onto a limb overhanging the water. He told Mestrovich he remembered the song she had taught his class the week before, when they all marched around the classroom singing “Breathe, think, and make a good choice!”
The boy did just that, Mestrovich said, and figured out the way back to shore. “His life changed – he had been sad and withdrawn but now his eyes were bright and shining. He was empowered from saving his own life.”
Based in Ashland, Oregon, Mestrovich continues to delight children by guest teaching as Grandma Boom in schools, kindergartens, preschools and migrant day-care centers. As executive director of the nonprofit SuperKid Power Inc., Mestrovich has done workshops and spoken at conferences around the United States and internationally; she was also asked to be a regular blogger for the Oregon Association for the Education of Young Children. “I was extremely honored to become one of four people on the blogger team for the state,” she said.
But she hopes her website at www.superkidpower.org will carry her message still further. The site includes a free video and parent/teacher handouts, and teachers (or parents) interested in ACEs and toxic stress can order a kit of 7 lesson plans. With videos and printable lessons, the kits are designed to build self-confidence, inner control, empathy, social skills and resilience.
“It’s my dream to get these kits into every kindergarten and preschool class,” she said. “Imagine all children having these skills…We could have a very different world.”
Flook, L., et al. (2015). Promoting prosocial behavior and self-regulating skills in preschool children through a mindfulness-based kindness curriculum. Developmental Psychology 51 (6).
O’Reilly, D. (n.d.) These Children Are In Your Classroom: How Teachers Can Integrate Social-Emotional Learning to Support Children with Adverse Childhood Experiences. Dominican Scholar.
Photos used with permission from the Janai Mestrovich archives