THE IMPACT OF TRAUMA, THE PROMISE OF MINDFULNESS
The effect of complex childhood trauma in the classroom has become increasingly clear. Students who are exposed to chronically stressful and overwhelming experiences like abuse, neglect or household dysfunction tend to underperform academically, have difficulty focusing and relating to others, and often display extreme and volatile emotional reactions that can disrupt an entire classroom.
At the same time, research on mindfulness is increasingly demonstrating that students and teachers who practice mindfulness experience benefits ranging from improved academic performance and enhanced memory, attention and learning to improvements in classroom culture, relationships, and an increase in positive emotions.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
While the benefits of mindfulness are indeed promising, care needs to be taken when teaching mindfulness to someone who is currently experiencing trauma (or has experienced trauma in the past). The essential function of mindfulness is to improve attention and awareness of both internal and external stimuli (thoughts, emotions, behaviors, sensations, and environmental cues).
One could imagine that increasing awareness in a chaotic, unpredictable, and painful situation could be difficult at best, and counterproductive at worst. As Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a leading expert on trauma, points out “mindfulness is only useful if it is accompanied by self-love and self-compassion.” In other words, we do not want to teach mindfulness to survivors of traumatic experiences without also teaching them how to hold those difficult experiences with compassion.
START WITH YOURSELF
So, how can you bring mindfulness to your classroom while remaining sensitive to the needs of all students?
The best place to start is with yourself. In fact, research has demonstrated that students of teachers who have their own mindfulness practice but do not teach mindfulness in the classroom still experience the academic, social, and emotional benefits of mindfulness. Even further, students of teachers who teach mindfulness but do not have their own personal practice tend to get worse on almost all measures.
These 6 teaching tips are simple ways that you can leverage your own mindfulness – your awareness of your internal state and the environment around you – to improve your relationship with your students and enhance your teaching practice.
1. Internal Monitoring
A large part of a well-developed mindfulness practice involves bringing awareness to your emotional state from moment-to-moment and how your emotions influence those around you. Parents of young infants will understand this intuitively – when you are angry or upset, your child is likely to also be upset. When you are calm and at ease, your child is more likely to respond in turn.
This ability, to notice your emotions in the moment rather than be swept away by them, is sometimes referred to as internal monitoring. The more that we practice monitoring and shifting our internal state, the more we can choose to create a warm, receptive, and caring emotional environment for our students. While this may seem like a stretch at first, scientists have discovered that we actually possess specialized neurons (known as ‘mirror neurons’) that naturally attune and mimic the emotional states of those around us – particularly those in a caregiver role.
So, before seeking to change the emotions and behaviors of your students, reflect on how you are feeling in that moment and see if you can shift your experience first.
2. External Modeling
Consider how subtle physical cues, including your body language, breath rate, pace of speech, tone of voice, and facial expressions, create reciprocal responses in your students and classroom culture.
Attempting to create order by yelling or using controlling and aggressive tones in the classroom, for instance, will actually have the opposite effect. Students will respond to these physical cues by becoming further escalated or fearful, creating a negative feedback loop that results in a decidedly unsafe classroom culture.
Instead, try shifting your physical presence to be more congruent with the type of response and culture you would like to create. The more calmness you can bring through a slower pace of speech, deeper and slower breaths, and calm gentle tones the more your students will feel safe and at ease.
Of course, this requires that you first have an awareness of what you are modeling externally from moment to moment. This type of awareness is generally only cultivated through an ongoing mindfulness practice.
One way to quickly bring awareness to your external modeling is to set a handful of random alarms on your phone throughout the day. Each time you feel it buzz, take a brief moment to check in with your physical sensations. How quickly are you speaking? Is your breath shallow of full? Is your posture open and receptive, or closed and guarded? Are you smiling or frowning? Notice how these small adjustments effect your students.
3. Respond to Student Body Language
As we increase awareness of our own internal and external states, we also become more aware of these cues in others. Students are constantly communicating with us, mostly without any words at all. By paying attention to student’s body language we can adjust our interactions with them to be more appropriate to their current emotional state.
A student with clenched fists, tight jaw, dilated pupils, rapid breathing, furrowed brows, and perhaps even beginning to sweat, for example, is clearly experiencing a fight-or-flight response. These are all clear ways that the student is communicating “I’m not ready to talk. I don’t feel safe right now and I need space to calm down.” Listening to these cues rather than trying to override them with force or reason could be the difference between a student calming down and returning to their work and an out of school suspension.
We may also encounter students who are unusually collapsed in their posture and presentation, overly tired and fatigued, experiencing frequent mysterious physical symptoms and are generally disengaged from the classroom experience. This is a strong indication that the student is experiencing emotional distress and needs extra support and attention as a result of overwhelming or traumatic experiences elsewhere in their life.
“To control the breathing is to control the mind. With different patterns of breathing, you can fall in love, you can hate someone, you can feel the whole spectrum of feelings just by changing your breathing.”
- Marina Abramovic
Our breath has been referred to by many as the “remote control of the brain.” While there are many ways to use your breath to change how you feel, the simplest method is to practice belly breathing.
Anytime you need to create more calm in yourself and your classroom, just take a moment to draw in three deep breaths to the bottom of your belly and then exhale fully.
Notice how deeper, fuller breaths can impact your mood and the climate of your classroom.
5. Create Nourishing Routines
Students thrive on routine, especially students with trauma. While you may already have scheduled and predictable routines built into your school day, consider including or expanding the amount of ‘self-care rituals’ built into these routines.
If students know that each transition will be accompanied by a moment of calm reflection or deep breathing, for instance, this can ease some of the anxiety and misbehavior often associated with transitions.
Greetings and goodbye rituals can support students who struggle with attachment issues.
Snack-time, water, and frequent bathroom breaks can ensure that student’s physical needs are met.
Time for play and fun is another need we all share. Use your creativity and include short breaks for energizers, games, and fun activities.
And, of course, if your students are familiar with mindfulness you can build in mindful moments throughout the day ranging from 30 seconds to a few minutes or longer.
Seek to make these routines as predictable and consistent as possible. Students can then come to rely on these built-in moments in their schedule to self-regulate, self-soothe, and take care of themselves before they become dysregulated.
6. Provide Choice
Trauma occurs when one’s active response to threat does not work. In simple terms – the most traumatic situation is one where all of our choices are taken from us and we cannot escape.
Sadly, teachers and administrators with positive intentions regularly create these types of situations in schools when they remove student choice. While a small choice around academics or a ‘minor’ discipline proceeding may not seem like a big deal to us as adults, it is important to remember that trauma is subjective and relative and can result from real or perceived threats. We can imagine, for instance, how failing an assignment or being forced into a punitive consequence without having a chance to make reparations could feel ‘life or death’ to a student with trauma.
Being mindful of student choice is a critical best practice for trauma-informed teaching. Whenever possible, provide students with choice and ‘a way out.’ This will create a safer classroom environment and minimize explosive outbursts from students who have experienced trauma.
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