Breakout Session: Jennifer Elam, PhD

Children’s Spiritually Transformative Experiences: Implications For Teachers, Parents And School Psychologists


In doing the research for her book Dancing with God Through the Storm: Mysticism and Mental Illness, school psychologist Dr. Elam listened to the stories of over 100 people of their spiritual experiences that they perceived to be out-of-the-ordinary, then documented and wrote about them. In the course of listening to the stories of adults, Dr. Elam noted that most of the people stated that they had never talked about the experiences because they did not feel safe in doing so – and a large percentage said the experiences began in childhood. Dr. Elam began wondering if some of the children she saw as a psychologist might be having out-of-the ordinary spiritual experiences that they could not talk about and whether this might have an impact on learning and behavior. In an exploratory project, Dr. Elam spoke with ten children, some of whom had been diagnosed with learning and behavioral disorders. In fact, when interviewed, one of the children described exactly what Dr. Elam had heard the adults say had happened in their childhood. Dr. Elam wondered if a child’s most precious experiences of connection with the divine were not supported by those around them, might that be a factor in leading to learning or adjustment difficulties. In her current research on childhood STEs through ACISTE, Dr. Elam will share results that have implications for teachers, parents and school psychologists.

Presenter Bio

Jennifer Elam is a Ph.D. licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist in both KY and PA. She is nationally certified as a school psychologist through the National Association of School Psychologists. She has studied, practiced, researched and taught psychology since 1969. For most of her career, she taught at the college level, worked in residential treatment, and worked in schools with students aged preschool through adulthood.

In 1996 Jennifer took a four-year leave from school psychology and moved from her home in Kentucky to become a student of Quakerism, mysticism, and art at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study and contemplation in Pennsylvania. During the 1997-98 resident student year at PH, Jennifer was a Cadbury scholar. She listened to many people’s stories of their experiences of God and documented about one hundred of them, many of which came to influence the paintings she was creating. Her books, Dancing with God Through the Storm: Mysticism and Mental Illness and Are You There God or Am I Going Crazy grew out of this work she did to integrate her career in psychology with her spiritual life.

For the past ten years Jennifer has been a school psychologist working with preschoolers. She makes time to lead retreats on arts and spirituality. In 2012 she is taking a sabbatical to pursuit more writing, painting, and dancing; for Jennifer, the creative is a form of prayer. Her primary writing interests at this time relate to children’s spirituality. She is in the process of writing a book called Soul Returns to Preschool.

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