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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

Pilot Project Will Teach Fort Worth Pre-K Kids How To Tackle Stress

Momentous Institute
A student at Momentous Institute shows off a glitter ball. These balls help teach children how to cope with stress and anxiety.

Here’s a question. Do you know the difference between your amygdala and the hippocampus? There’s a group of 3 year olds in Oak Cliff who do. And soon, pre-K children in Fort Worth may know, too. The district is teaming up with Momentous Institute in a new partnership aimed at teaching young children how to take care of their social and emotional health.

At Momentous, an Oak Cliff school run by the Salesmanship Club, children as young as 3 learn some pretty amazing things about the brain.

“They can tell you their amygdala helps them or is in charge of their emotions,” says Michelle Kinder, executive director of Momentous. “They can tell you that their pre-fontal cortex helps them make good decisions and that their hippocampus helps them remember.”

Why teach kids so young something a lot of people don’t learn until college? Kinder says teaching children how the brain works can make a huge difference in their lives socially and academically. She says a kid who’s out of control or feels overwhelmed is going to stay overwhelmed. On the other hand …

“A kid who understands that that means his amygdala is in charge, and you’ve helped him build strategies for soothing that amygdala and getting back into his pre-fontal cortex, that kid is gonna approach distress in a completely different way his whole life,” Kinder says.

One way kids learn these things is through songs. In a YouTube video, students are seen singing “The Brain Song.”

“I have a brain and it is used for thinking. B-R-A-I-N. B-R-A-I-N. B-R-A-I-N. My brain is for thinking.”

That’s an example of what you may hear next school year in a Fort Worth pre-kindergarten classroom. It’s a two-year pilot project that’s estimated to cost $924,600. A grant from the Sid Richardson Foundation will cover $870,000 of the cost. The district will pick up the rest.

“If we can help our younger kids develop skills that will help them handle crisis in their lives before those crisis really arise and start to affect them in everyday life then we can have a big impact,” says Fort Worth spokesman Clint Bond.”

Last year, Fort Worth voters agreed to expand the district’s pre-K program.

“If you’re in a classroom and you have something going on in your life and you really don’t know how to handle it, then you’re not really paying attention academically and you’re not maybe interacting appropriately socially,” Bond says.

He explains the concept of the glitter ball. It’s kind of like a snow globe. When you shake it, the glitter goes everywhere. It’s a way for kids to visualize that when something bad happens, their mind can become clouded. And just like that glitter ball …

“If they just wait a few moments and they allow that crisis to settle down and it clears their mind, they are able to make better decisions to handle that event,” Bond says.

Michelle Kinder says Momentous teachers explain to students that this glitter ball is not some kind of magic trick. They still have to learn to deal with their problems when the glitter settles.

“You teach kids that and then that becomes shorthand for them,” Kinder says. “So we hear kids on the playground all the time telling each other, ‘You need to settle your glitter. It’s hilarious.’”

And that, says Kinder, is what sets this apart from your average class for three year olds.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.