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School Project: “Teaching Clearing a Space” to Elementary School Children, Ages 6-11 yrs

Folio, Vol. V, Issue 5, 1986, page 148-160

 by Mary McGuire, Psy.D.

 The purpose of the Project was threefold:

1. To experientially check out my belief that most children naturally do what we call Focusing. The younger the child the more direct and unpretentious they are. They relate to a bodily felt place inside that knows when something feels right, when it doesn’t. I was interested in seeing if there was a difference in how Grade I children (6 yrs. olds) related to their worries and problems as opposed to Grade VI children (10 & 11 Yr. olds).

2. To teach Clearing a Space as a Pilot Project to learn what difficulties are involved, how to sell it to the Principal, how to gain the cooperation of the Teachers, how much time is needed, what kind of follow-up and how to measure its effectiveness.

3. To teach children (who don’t already know this) that they don’t have to avoid their problems nor do they have to feel overwhelmed by them. By teaching them how to clear a space, the quality of their lives would be enhanced. This learning early in life how not to carry stress in their bodies could prevent stress related illnesses such as ulcers, migraine headaches, heart attacks etc. Also, by learning to listen to and trust that place inside that knows would lead them to greater self-control and a heightened awareness of their inner resources in problem solving. They would be more inclined to look inside for what is right rather than be swayed by peers and others who think they knew what is right for children without valuing the child’s feelings.

Introducing The Project To The School

It is important to spend time with the Principal and get him/her excited about Focusing. The Focusing Book and the literature on Creative Writing is helpful. You need to talk to the Principal in language that has value in education. For example, concentration, attention span, manner of answering questions, lest anxiety, behavior problems such as acting out their feelings. Once an atmosphere of openness and receptivity is created the Principal is the best one to invite the Teachers to participate. I use the word invite because only the Teachers who want to take part are given the experience of learning focusing. The principal leaves each teacher free. In this way if they participate it is because they want to, not because of pressure from above. If a spark of enthusiasm can be ignited in the teachers this will carry into the classroom where they will want to do focusing with the students because they believe in its value for learning.

Also, in speaking with the Principal be real clear about what you need. For example, how much time, room and space required, how many groups, equipment needed etc.

Since the teachers role is crucial in this whole process you need to spend time with them. Teach them Focusing/listening; let them experience the benefits for themselves. After they have the process for themselves help them guide you through “Clearing a Space”, give them encouragement and feedback. Talk over with them their feelings about doing clearing a space with the children each morning as they begin their day. Listen to their suggestions and through dialogue come up with the best way of carrying this out. It is important that whatever approach is decided the teachers feel comfortable with it.

Ask the teachers if you can be in the classroom with the children before you begin teaching them. Have the teachers fill in questionaire on each student (See Appendix A). Let the children see you, feel you and let them show you their work. Children will intuitively sense your realness or lack of

it. They need to feel you in their world and there can be no pretense about

What you say to them is not as important as what they feel from you without words. This is their criteria for connecting with you or not. For example, I worked with Grade I children making candles for Christmas, another day we built a snowman in the school yard. It was delightful to feel that free child space inside and just be with the children in play. I attended a basketball game with the Grade VI students in which some of them played and the rest of us cheered and laughed.

Introducing Focusing to Grade I & Grade VI Children

I told the Grade I children that I was going to teach them to listen to what they are feeling inside their tummy and chest and to let that feeling speak. Then I said, “Do you know that you can feel happy even when you are worried? And when you feel happy you can let that happy be felt in your whole body. It’s like when you’re playing and laughing … where do you feel that?” They answered, “all over, pointing to head, stomach & chest.”

I asked them to bring their very favorite stuffed animal to class on Friday. There was much excitement and many questions such as can I bring my Cabbage Patch, my Care Bear, can I bring 2 in case someone forgets, etc? I asked them to bring something concrete that they loved because at this age children are very concrete and their attention span is short. Also, the sense of touch is heightened in young children. It is a deep communication.

Grade VI

I walked into the classroom and sat at a table at the back of the room. (The teacher and I decided that we would let them ask me questions rather than have introductions). After ten minutes or so, I walked around looking at what they were writing. They kept working as though I were not there. Then I went to the front and said

“Hello, aren’t any of you going to ask me who I am and what I’m doing here?” One boy asked and I said, “before I tell you I’d like to know what you felt and where you felt it when this stranger walked into your classroom and walked around looking at what you were doing?” One boy said, “ ‘nervous’ like is she an inspector?” I said, “where did you feel that nervous?” He said, “in my stomach like butterflies.” Another girl said, “I felt angry, like who does she think she is?” I said, “where did you feel the angry?” She said, “in my chest, when I get angry it gets tense in there.” I said, “can you feel the tense now?” She said, “a little bit but it is getting more relaxed.”

I then told them who I was and that my purpose in coming was to teach them a skill that I believed would be of value to them. I said: “it will be like play, there are no exams, no grades and you can’t fail.” Also, I shared with them that I had asked for Grade VI specially. They were very excited that their class had been chosen to be part of the project. I had them tell me their names and one thing they wanted me to know about them. When they had finished I said, “It’s not fair, I have twenty-six names to remember and you have only one.” One boy answered, “well, you better stay after school and memorize them.”

I then talked about Focusing, how it started and its many applications. I spoke of Clearing a Space in terms of learning how to relate to their problems in such a way that they didn’t have to run away from them nor did they have to sink in them and stay feeling down and sad. I said, “there is a middle way that I will teach you.” I explained that this could help their attention span and concentration. They asked many questions such as, “if I learn this will I have more energy?, will it help me sleep better and feel less pressure?, will it help me get along with my sister?, will it help me feel less sad about my Grandfather’s death?”

They wanted to do it right away and after consulting with their teacher regarding time I lead them through some focusing exercises. I asked them to get comfortable, put down pencils etc. I explained that focusing required being quiet inside and sensing one’s body between their throat and lower abdomen. I said, “can you go inside and say a nice friendly, “hello” and ask how am I feeling right now?” (silence). Then I asked if anyone wanted to share what it felt like inside. The answers were: tense, butterflies, soft, jittery, cramped, full and excited, nothing there.

Next I had them feel their big toe, without moving it, their leg, their thigh, lower abdomen, stomach and chest. Then I did some breathing exercises having them pay attention to their lungs as they breathed in and out. I then checked if they could have imagery by asking if they could see the bed they slept in last night. They all could. I asked them for other imagery to get a sense of their capacity to know an imagery space. They shared very rich imagery such as: one boy imagined himself flying the space ship to the moon, from his description and body gestures, it was clear that he was bodily feeling the thrill of this. Another girl shared that when she feels sad, she imagines herself sitting by a pond watching the stillness of the water and it feels peaceful inside.

Next, I talked about “Clearing a Space” and how they could feel good inside even though they had worries and problems. After discussion and questions we arranged a time to meet the following day. The library chairs were more comfortable and we could sit in a circle together.

The Experience of Clearing a Space with Grade I Children.

There were thirty-one children in the class. We sat in a circle on the floor in their classroom. I used their classroom rather than the library because I felt it better to keep them in familiar surroundings.
I felt that this would create a more safe atmosphere for them. The children pushed each other to get close to me and two of the boys sat on my knee. They each held their stuffed animal and I had one too. I began by saying, “I’d like us to get real quiet, maybe we could all close our eyes. I’m going to begin with asking you some questions like “when you feel happy where do you feel that? I went through excited, loving, peaceful, sad, angry, frustrated, left out, tense and anxious, asking where they felt those emotions. They answered, in my chest, in my heart, in my tummy, (pointing). Then I said, “let’s close our eyes again and see what you are feeling now. (silence) Answers: excited, warm, playing, laughing nervous. I asked one girl, “where do you feel the warm?” She said pointing to chest and stomach, “it flows all through here like the sun.” The boy sitting on my knee said, “and what do you feel Mary?” I said, “happy”. He said, “do you feel happy in here, pointing to chest? I said, “I feel it like warm water flowing in here” (chest & stomach).

Next, with each child holding their stuffed animal I asked them to cuddle the animal and to feel their loving it inside, and to let loving go through their whole bodies. There were smiles, their little faces shone with pleasure and joy as they caressed their animals (silence 2 minutes or so). Then I said, “keep your eyes closed and stay with the feel of loving your animal.” Now see if there is something you are worried about and if you find something see how that feels inside. Then take that worry and put it in your secret hiding place. Do you all have one of those? I purposely asked this question because I intuitively believe that children know such a place. They answered “yes.” After you do that hug the animal again and get the feel inside as opposed to the feel of when you are worried. (silence).

Take each little worry and put it in your secret hiding place. Then go back to cuddling your animal. Notice how each feels. It won’t be long before I’ll let you open your eyes and talk, just a minute or so. (One could visibly see the different body gestures and expressions when they were with the feel of a worry as opposed to a loving place).

We stopped and there was much sharing. They could feel inside and when I kept asking where did you feel that, the same little boy who was sitting on my knee said, “did you come all the way from Chicago to ask those stupid questions, everybody feels in here (pointing). Their imagery was very symbolic and notice I did not check out if they could have imagery. Examples of where they placed their worries: in their tree house, wrapped them in a blanket, in their mother’s apron pockets, in a safety box in her room that only she has a key for, among her dolls in the closet, in Grandma’s house, etc. It struck me that all of their imagery places were loving, soft, friendly and gentle. (As you will see this was not as prominent with the Grade VI students). There was much rich sharing and the children really enjoyed the experience. It was an energizing experience for me and I left their classroom feeling enriched and lifted by them. There was no doubt in my mind about these children’s ability to focus. They sang a song they and the teacher had composed for me.

The Experience of “Clearing a Space” with Grade VI Children

We formed a circle in a big colorful room in the library. Some of the children sat in chairs and others sat on the floor. There were twenty-six students.

I talked about the importance of feeling in a “safe atmosphere.”

I explained that when it came time for sharing that I wanted them to check inside if they felt comfortable sharing. If they didn’t, they could say “I pass.” With this understanding we could go around the circle so that everyone who wanted to share would have a chance and yet no one would feel pressure to do so.

I asked them to get comfortable, some of them took off their shoes. They had rushed in from recess so we began with breathing exercises to help them come down and get quiet inside.

I asked them to put their attention inside somewhere between their throat and lower abdomen and to say a nice friendly “hello” once they were there. (Silence, to give them time to do that). I want you to ask in there, “how am I feeling right now? What is in the way of my feeling all ok? (silence). When a problem or a concern comes up, see what feeling it gives you in your chest or stomach and then place it in an imagery space outside of you (silence). When you have done this, take a deep breath and sense if it feels any different inside, like is it even slightly less tight?

Then ask, now do I feel Ok or is there something more? Again, if something comes, be with it for a minute, then place it in an imagery space outside of you (silence).

We did Clearing in this manner with four or five times of checking inside to see what was in the way of feeling all ok. Then I asked them to check if there was a background feeling, something that was always there. Again, I asked them to place it out.

After having them stay with this Clear Space for a few minutes enjoying its quality I asked them to pick something they love, not a person nor a pet. Then I asked them to let a body felt sense come inside of their loving that thing. And that they may get a word or an image to help them to hold onto it. (silence). I instructed them to ask what is it about that that gives me this freeing or whatever their quality word was. I asked them to let the feel of whatever came flow through their whole inner space (silence).

I told them we would stop in a few minutes.

The reason I had them Clear a Space and then choose something they love, I wanted to give them an experience of focusing on something positive. I wanted to teach them that focusing isn’t only for processing problems. Yet I felt it was important to teach them to work on a problem that they promised to pay attention to at a later time. We discussed this, and they asked that we have a time to practice how to work with a problem using focusing. What was interesting about this was that because of their class schedules I worked with half the group at a time. The children remarked how much better it felt with a smaller group. They felt safer and it was easier to be with whatever came inside.

The following were shared by the children from their experience of Clearing a Space:

1. I placed it under my mattress (it’s a problem at night) I’m on top of it and I feel strong about it, it doesn’t get me anymore. He says he has it under control of him and that feels different (laughs).

2. He and the problem go up the ski-hill together on the chair-lift. He leaves it at the top of the hill and he skies down. Then he sits at the bottom and glances at it. He feels inside a lightness, not the heavy black that was in his stomach before. Then he laughs saying “but if I can’t go back up the hill because it’s there it still has me, right?” It’s controlling my fun and that’s not right. I said, “check and see what would feel right?” (silence). He said, “1 can go up another hill and have fun. I’ll leave it there then I can enjoy myself. (laughs). I’ll glide down saying ha, ha, I’m in charge of you. (laughs).

3. He imagined his problem as a hockey puck. He beats it around, then has it drop down the hole in the gollie; he skates off feeling free and says, “I have a big laugh inside me; I’m in charge of you; you only think you got me.”

4. She imagined she was flying to Florida; she is feeling weighed down with this problem and can’t relax - she imagined herself getting off in Toronto and let the plane take her problem to Florida - she said, “It now feels like a glow inside and light.”

5. Boy said, “I took my problem down-stairs and placed it in the walk-in freezer; I closed the door and went upstairs. I wanted it to feel cold because that’s the way it feels in my stomach “cold lump”. It felt good inside when I closed the fridge door. But when I got upstairs, it was right back cold in my stomach again. It wouldn’t stay there. I said, “can you feel it in your stomach now?” “Yah, cold lump, it’s there whenever this problem is here.”

I said, “maybe it needs something from you before you place it. Can you check and see if that’s right?” (Silence). “Yah, it’s scared that I’ll forget it.” I said “be nice to the scare; see what’s so scary?” (Silence). “It needs me to promise I won’t forget it, that when I get home from school take it out and give it some attention.”

I said, “can you promise it that? (silence) - “yah, if it leaves me alone during the day. - (silence, breath), he said, “I put it in a blanket in the fridge and promised I’ll take it out for awhile after school. Big breath, (laughs) now it feels like I can breathe.” It really grips me when it’s inside, that feels different (laughs).

6. Girl imagined each problem as a little fish - they swam out in the lake when she told them to; she stayed on the shore; it feels big inside me when they were gone, but it didn’t last; they all came back. Then I had this big Clam; I opened it and I had all the little fish swim into the Clam,

then I closed it so they couldn’t get out again. It felt like a breeze inside me. I then lay on the beach; the Clam was beside me but I could feel a freedom; the sun’s warmth glowed in my stomach because all my problems were in the Clam. I was free of them. Isn’t that weird, how that is so different when they are not in me. (laughs) - I think I’ll just carry around the Clam and keep my problems in it, then 1 can be happy - (big smile & sigh).

7. Girl placed problems in different pages of a book on her book-shelf at home and then closed the book. She said, “I usually take the book and look at it once a week; I can look at those 3 problems then. Do you think that would work?’ 1 said, “I’m not sure, can you ask inside if that is right?” (silence) - she said, “something is nagging me and I don’t know what it is.” I said, “be gentle where you feel the nagging; just be with the nagging”- (silence). She said, (smile) “I need to put them in different books, because when I open the book, they will all come out at once and I can’t handle that. I need to look at one at a time”. I said, “can you place each one in a different book now?” (long silence) “I put two of them in different books (sighs) and that’s better, but the one that bothers me most is too big to stay there.” I said, “ok, take your time and sense inside; let your inside place tell you where to place the big one.” (silence) “At home we have a roat cellar with a big door to the entrance; I’ll place it in there.” I said, “ah, can you do that now?” (silence), “yah, (breath) it’s there all right (laughs) - I said, “what is it like inside now?” She said, “roomy” (laughs).

Some of the quality words they shared from the experience of the love exercise were: invigorating, a gentle breeze, like sunshine, warm all over, excited, freeing, I imagined a garden being watered it felt clean and warm. My work with the children gave me a feeling of being connected with life in all of it’s splendor and beauty. I left feeling like I had received a gift.

Conclusion & Implications for Research:

This preliminary study taught me much about setting up and carrying out a research project with school children. It was a warm joyful experience for me as I felt welcomed by the Principal, Teachers and children. I worked with three teachers, teaching them Focusing/Listening and especially how to Clear a Space. These teachers taught Grade I and 6. My intent was to have them do this with the students after I left. I was in the school for one week. I spent much time in the teachers lounge. I didn’t push anything but I put focusing books and literature on the tables. The teachers asked many questions and many of them wanted to experience the process.

There is a real need for research in this area. Clearing a Space using the same instructions and measures for the various ages, and monitoring similarities and differences. For example, I observed that the younger children placed their worries in loving places. (Was this because I said, “your secret hiding place?”) Whereas, with the Grade VI children I said, “an imagery space outside of you.” I don’t know the answer but it raises some interesting questions. The same instructions would have to be given to both groups.

The Grade VI children seemed to have more of a need to be in control than the Grade I children. Their examples from Clearing a Space indicates this. Also, while over half of the Grade VI children seemed to have little difficulty with the process, others had problems feeling anything inside.

Many research projects could be initiated such as: Focusing and Creative Writing with school children. This project was not set up with a clean research design. I did have a pre - and post questionaire for the teachers to fill in.

They filled in the pre-questionaire (AppendixA) but not the post-questionaire.

The Teachers needed much more support than I was able to give them.

I visited the school 8 months after my initial visit. The Teachers had practiced it occasionally with the students but not on a regular basis. The school was located in Ontario, Canada and much more support and involvement would be needed to keep the project alive. Also, I could see a real need to form groups of Teachers who focus and listen to each other. Also, children’s groups depending on their age could be set up and once they really had learned Focusing/Listening they could pair with each other and the Teacher and/or Parent could be used for consultation when they had difficulty. Also, parents could be taught the process and involved in groups. What a different school and community spirit would develop as more and more people get involved!

Thomas Merton (1979) says, “The danger of education is that it so easily confuses means and ends. Worse than that, it quite easily forgets both and devotes itself merely to the mass production of uneducated graduates - people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade which they and their contemporaries have conspired
to call “life”. (p. 10).

In closing I want to quote from a song that is very meaningful for me.

“I believe the children are our future.
Teach them well and let them lead the way.

Show them all the beauty they possess inside

Give them a sense of pride”.
(The Greatest Love of All).

References: Merton, Thomas, Love and Living, Edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart, Bantam, 1979