Trauma in the Classroom

Trauma in the Classroom

Trauma in the Classroom

“He just won’t sit still, always trying to escape to the bathroom or sharpening his pencil or something.” “She cannot keep her hands to herself!” “We caught him stealing again.”

Thanks to ongoing training in many school systems – Findlay City Schools, to name one – teachers have come to understand that the negative behaviors experienced in a classroom setting, specifically among younger children, are often the direct result of traumatic experiences. More and more, we find teachers able to vocalize that a student’s challenges aren’t simply due to intelligence or even poor decision making. Science has strong evidence to show that early exposure to emotional abuse, neglect, or other adverse childhood experiences shape the development of young brains and bodies differently than those of children raised in healthy and well-resourced households. 

Recognizing the impact of trauma is a large and sometimes arduous first step in the journey toward helping children find health, and it necessitates its own training. (For more info on adding that to your school’s professional development, contact us.) As teachers and community members, we can – and should – offer empathy and support to these young people. 

We can use our roles as leaders to offer students something beyond sentiment and referrals (both of which are critically important). We can offer them learning spaces that emphasize autonomy.  We can teach them tools for self-regulation, and we can help them acknowledge the messages that the body sends to the brain in an attempt to protect it from future harm. 

Holly Schweitzer Dunn, LISW, who has worked with teachers and in numerous school systems throughout her career has found several elements to be helpful for the personal and professional development of our society’s nurturers.  

Don’t take it personally. It sometimes may seem as if a student is deliberately testing your boundaries – and she/he might be!  But this is crucial in his/her ability to build trust in you as a caretaker.  It’s possible to be loving and firm at the same time, and the best way to do that is to remember that this has nothing to do with you as a person or as a qualified educator. Testing boundaries is typical behavior for students, especially from those who have experienced inconsistency with the adults in their lives. If you focus on the student-teacher relationship, learning will happen. In clinical language, we’re focusing on healing the disrupted attachment the child has experienced with caregivers.  Once the child knows you can be trusted the ABCs and 1-2-3s will fall into place.  

Prepare the container. The brains and bodies of individuals who experience trauma work differently than those who are more accustomed to healthy environments. A traumatized brain signals more quickly and more often that it is in potential danger.  This is the body’s way of keeping the person safe. This is helpful when there is an actual threat; however, the body reacts even in non threatening situations when there is only perceived danger.  Among other behaviors, this presents as test anxiety, acting out, shutting down, and hyperactivity in the classroom.  There are several simple mindfulness-based interventions available to assist children (and adults!) in returning the learning center of the brain to full functionality.

Self-regulation is key. Biologically, we’re wired to follow the energetic and emotional lead of those around us. We’ve all had non-classroom examples of situations where we can sense a person’s anger and feel our own physical reaction to it: perhaps listening to a patron berate an apologetic waitress or walking into a room where a couple has just had an argument. Our own throats go dry and hearts beat a bit stronger, right?  We are, as Brene Brown teaches, creatures wired for connection.  Young people are especially sensitive to the emotions of those around them.  Interacting with individuals who have experienced trauma requires calm and centered responses.  As a leader, your work is to be aware of your triggers so you can respond to challenges instead of react out of habit.  Simple mindfulness exercises, when practiced outside of challenging situations, are more easily accessible in times of stress.  When you do become emotionally activated, knowing what helps bring you back to a place of centeredness is essential to maintain your own self-regulation. 

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What yoga pose will make this kid listen?

What yoga pose will make this kid listen?

What yoga pose will make this kid listen?

Embodied Education

Thanks to a new study getting fabulous publicity, yoga is making its way into classrooms everywhere. At Mind Body Health Associates, we’ve long recognized the importance of bringing the body into the educational setting because of the way it is intimately connected to our brains. Children, especially, need their whole body to be engaged for maximum learning to occur. 

Our in-house yoga instructor, Michele Minehart, has worked with school districts offering yoga as part of their professional development, both as an experiential practice and as interventions for test anxiety. Education is eager to implement these simple tools that utilize the power of mindfulness. You don’t need to get your RYT 200© certification to reap the benefits of helping kids move their bodies and pay attention to their breath. If you’re looking to add a few tools to the toolbox, here are some suggestions:

  1. Start with breathing. Ask your kids to take a big breath before starting the next activity. Our classrooms are filled with hurry and taking a brief moment in the transition will help them to fully arrive at the next activity. 
  2. Give it only 2 minutes. Let go of ideas that you need to devote an hour of classroom time to yet another thing. Science says that 60-90 seconds is all that is required to return an activated stress response (fight or flight) to one that is ready to learn. A few deep breaths with arm movement followed by a standing forward fold, or a balancing pose on a day you feel fancy, is plenty for them to begin. 
  3. Name your targeted outcome. You’re probably not looking for kids to be able to wrap a leg around their neck. What are you looking for when you institute some form of classroom yoga? One of the most noticeable benefits is behavior change, specifically in the realm of self-regulation. You can create a habit with the children to take a deep breath when they’re angry before responding by practicing taking a deep breath while they’re not angry; over time the habit will develop. 
  4. Remember: Where the attention goes, the energy flows. Some kids may not like the classroom yoga because new things are frequently scary things (this is the body’s protective reaction).  You could meet reticence. That’s okay. Don’t use your energy trying to convince the apprehensive students. Instead, direct your attention to the ones who are participating and appreciating the experience. Success is the best PR, and the kids who are more slow to adapt will eventually want to join along. 
  5. Practice what you preach. You don’t need to join a fancy studio, but you can intentionally find ways to mindfully move your body.  Walks in nature and running are great alternatives, especially if you already have a practice. A home yoga practice can be led via youtube or free apps (Michele recommends Down Dog; therapist and yoga instructor Rachel Tincher loves the practices available on Amazon’s Audible). 

Kids have a BS sniffer and can sense if you don’t believe what you’re saying.  Integrate the idea of moving your body as you notice your breath and the present moment so that you can teach the tools with honesty and integrity. 

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“Marie Kondo” your behaviors, not just your closet

“Marie Kondo” your behaviors, not just your closet

“Marie Kondo” your behaviors, not just your closet

If you caught the Netflix miniseries Tidying Up, you’ve watched the ways in which she’s instructed families to sift through their belongings and release them back to the world when they no longer “spark joy.” In our office, we’ve discussed Marie’s wisdom and what it can offer to our clients and our own sense of well-being.

Her first step is to bring out into the open everything you own in a particular category. We often don’t know what all we have hidden away until we’ve taken it from hiding places. When faced with our large quantities, we can fully grasp the extent of what we have, what we’ve been hanging onto and put it into perspective.

Next, she suggests we hold an item in our hands to feel its weight. We let ourselves not just think about it, but have a physical experience of its presence in our life. And then we ask a crucial question: does it spark joy? Or perhaps, is it a conduit for joy? If it does “spark joy”, then it can find a proper home. But if not? Then we take a moment to thank the item for its service in our life, and we pass it along to be given away or discarded completely.

This process, which often leads to much purging through the home, can be helpful in our mental and emotional lives as well. Our EMDR-based philosophy recognizes that particular behaviors have been adapted because they served a purpose: to keep an individual alive and functioning during or after a point of trauma. It’s an old solution that no longer works.

We can actually be grateful to our survival mechanisms because they served a purpose, for a period of time. But just like that tattered college-years hoodie, it doesn’t serve the same purpose anymore. With the help of your treatment provider, you can acknowledge these behaviors, thank them for their service, and then be done with them. With the new spaciousness, you’ll find freedom to adapt lifestyles more congruent with your present instead of your past.

But what about sentimentality? How can we get rid of the mementos and reminders of our history? Holly Schweitzer-Dunn, LISW, reminds us that we can respect and honor our past without keeping it right in front of us. Letting go doesn’t diminish its history, but hanging on may diminish the future.

Surfing Why you should Marie Kondo Your Relationships

Reading Real Love: The art of mindful connection by Sharon Salzburg; The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr; Mothers, Daughters and Body Image by Hilary McBride; Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

Listening The Robcast: Kristen Bell on Anxiety, Part 1 and Part 2; Another Name For Every Thing

Watching One Strange Rock on Netflix

Visiting Sunny Florida! Nicole, Michele and the Schweitzer-Dunn family made recent trips.

Eating Holly recently dug out the greens for a fresh pesto!

Moving NeuroMovement- Learn more from Jill Bolte Taylor and Anat Baniel

Hancock County Park District is sponsoring a free Take a Walk in the Park day on March 30. And Aqua Zumba meets Holly’s need for a little bit of silliness and fun in a workout.

Registering The 3rd Annual Jenelle Hohman Color Me Happy 5k Run/Walk to support Hancock County NAMI is coming up May 18

Leading Andrea led a workshop on the Enneagram at the Findlay MOPS group and our office will be conducting a breakout session at the University of Findlay’s upcoming conference on Trauma and Addiction.

Creating Planning an herb and vegetable garden to be planted soon!

Resting A trip to Miami for family R&R

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The 5 Senses Check-in: Spring addition

The 5 Senses Check-in: Spring addition

The 5 Senses Check-in: Spring addition

  1. Make note of the color that is quickly changing across the landscape – greener grass, bright crocuses, and longer hours of daylight.
  2. Sniff out the earth’s work – even the smell of mud and earth carry with it a promise of something new.
  3. Listen for new hope – baby birds in the morning makes it a more pleasant way to wake up.
  4. Get a taste for the greens – our early asparagus, kale, and arugula help us connect with the brightness and lightness that await our days.
  5. Walk (barefoot!) – notice the texture of the ground beneath you as you take a brief walk, making connection with all the changes underfoot.

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Spring Cleaning for your Mental Health

Spring Cleaning for your Mental Health

Spring Cleaning for your Mental Health

Once the seasons shift to allow the windows to open, we start to shed our inclinations to burrow much like a bear coming out from hibernation. As we stretch our legs into the springtime, take a moment to notice the natural energies that arise. Perhaps you recognize the pull towards the sunshine, opting to walk instead of drive, or you finally garner the energy needed to wipe down the winter’s dust from baseboards and ceiling fans that you hadn’t noticed for the last three months.

Whatever the case, the rhythms of the vernal months direct us toward a season of release. “Spring cleaning” isn’t a chance activity; our predecessors understood the inherent value of letting go of winter’s residue (and germs). Even our religious cultures lean into this notion, with the tradition of Fat Tuesday lending itself to the act of cleaning out the pantry before the fasting season of Lent. The wisdom of Ayurveda, the sister science to yoga, employs a spring practice of reducing to a mono-diet that is low (or free of) salt, to help the body release the waters it has retained.

A period of taking in less and even ridding yourself of the excess in your environment will, through the mind-body connection, shift your experiences. Research has shown that reducing clutter in your physical space will change your brainspace, which is why Marie Kondo (of the life-changing magic of tidying up fame) says, “a cluttered room leads to a cluttered mind.”

This spring, consider a brief moment of evaluating your life circumstances to notice if there’s an element that needs to be released. Perhaps it’s an old thought pattern or defense mechanism that once served our bodies and minds as a form of protection; instead we can look to new patterns that allow us to grow, much like the tulip breaks free of its underground bulb to bloom. Or maybe you could look at a habit, mindlessly or even joyfully adopted, which has now become a starting place for stress.

The world is alive with a fresh energy for growth and your mind and body share that capacity for change.

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It’s [Too Easy] to Say I’m Sorry

It’s [Too Easy] to Say I’m Sorry

It’s [Too Easy] to Say I’m Sorry

When it comes to family therapy and working with the dynamics of couples, one of the key elements of our work is cultivating a sense of connection through communication skills. Demonstrating an effort at empathy and concern can come through how we apologize – or not.  

Of course some individuals trend toward the side of being unable to effectively apologize for moments that cause harm to a person or relationship. Either the lack of verbal recognition or failure to attempt a change in behavior in the future can leave another person feeling unimportant or disrespected.

However, more often in our Sensible Midwestern Culture, and particularly among women – some people tend to default toward apologies when they aren’t necessary or warranted. What’s wrong with saying “I’m sorry” when you see someone experiencing anguish, or even slight discomfort, even when you didn’t cause it?

“I call them serial apologizers,” says Nicole Flores-McCune, LISW-S. “They actually lesson the power of a good apology when they use them all the time. It takes away from the moments when they need to call upon the words “I’m sorry”  and causes them to feel inauthentic.”

Apologizing for taking up space in public places like a grocery store aisle or being late when held up by traffic doesn’t convey a sense of sorrow, the true weight the words of an apology were meant to carry. Over time receivers find the phrase hollow and when circumstances require a true apology, you find it hard to convey your true sentiment.

Often we find our Serial Apologizers using hollow expressions of regret as a symptom of perfectionism, which exacerbates the sense of not enough they feel. This is why they feel compelled to apologize for saying no and drawing healthy boundaries, or even taking time, energy and resources to take care of themselves. They use “I’m sorry” as a way of softening the blow of “no.”

If you’re a Serial Apologizer, here are a few things to remember:

  1. You are entitled to “no.”  You don’t have to be sorry for saying it.
  2. Recognize that errors happen to everyone. Not all errors cause sorrow.
  3. Express your actual feelings rather than your expected feelings. If you trying to move  through a physical space and you bump someone, it would be a fine to say “pardon me.” If running late, express gratitude for someone’s patience in waiting for you rather than overextending sorrow.
  4. Elevate your own worthiness to the level you place others’. If you would cheer on a friend who took time for herself or put distance in a toxic relationship, then do the same for yourself – without apology.
  5. Find new ways to convey your attempts to do better without using blame statements: I’ll do better next time or that didn’t go the way I planned or even how could I improve this? are statements that allow you connect with someone without the weight of shame that Serial Apologizers often carry.

Over-apologizing is usually a sign we are taking on more responsibility than is truly ours to carry.  Pausing to acknowledge this and then asking ourselves “what do I really what to convey?” can help identify what we really mean.

“I’m here for you.”

“I feel for you.”

“I wish I could make it better.”

“This is so painful.”

“I feel powerless.”

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