5 Mindful, Trauma-Informed Tools to Increase Peace and Improve Behavior in the Classroom

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Recent media events and research have been highlighting the need for educators to become more aware of the prevalence of trauma in the lives of the children we serve. As the ACE’s study has revealed, the rates of trauma and causes of trauma are expansive. They not only impact the child’s life now, in the present, but they have the potential to create lasting scars, which can perpetuate through generations.

In many classrooms across this country, a child’s negatively based behavior is rooted in the pain they have been suffering caused by trauma. Simply put, problem behavior is pain-based behavior. The traumatic event, or traumatizing individual or situation in their life may not be present in the classroom, yet the behavior elicited as a response to the trauma can be in full swing during school hours. This may manifest as aggression, defiance, anger, apathy, withdrawal, etc. If you are an educator, you know what these behaviors looks like.

Having a mindful, trauma-informed toolbox can be transformative in your classroom. Here are a few suggestions to get you started today. In the coming weeks, I will share more examples of how you can use these suggestions in your classroom.

1) Create a safe space

Think of your classroom as a “safe haven.” What does that mean to you, personally? What would it look like to you? Perhaps it is setting up a section of the classroom, which is a cool down zone or decompression destination. Perhaps it is keeping the lights dimmed during part of the lesson (or only leaving one row of lights on). Softer lighting is much more soothing and calming to the nervous system.

Remember that YOU are part of the “safe haven.” The state of your own nervous system is influencing the state of your students’ nervous system. How you “show-up,” matters tremendously. See #4 below for more about  this.

Something that I have been learning from others in the world of “trauma- informed teaching,” is that safety can be self generated. This is one of the greatest benefits from yoga and mindfulness practice. You cultivate safety from the inside-out.

Here are some other suggestions for creating a feeling of safety within the context of teaching for Pre-K through Elementary School and Middle/High school.

Here is how we teach educators to do this in their classrooms for Pre-School, Elementary, Middle and High School.

2) Acknowledge each student as a feeling being, before you require them to be a thinking being

Feelings matter. According to Dr. Daniel Seigel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, feelings run the show in terms of learning. When feelings of anxiety, stress and anger flood the system, the emotional centers of the brain, alarm and charge the primitive centers to kick into gear. Once these lower centers are ignited, you guessed it, the behavioral roller coaster of problem behavior is in play. Calming down the emotional and stress centers of the brain is essential.

Greet your students at the door. Ask them, “How are you today?” Let them know that you care about their emotional state. Based on how your students show up, you may already know the answer to that question. Before you begin a lesson, share a simple mindfulness practice that helps students to regulate and organize their nervous system. This helps to create an internal “safe space.” One of the things we are cultivating through this practice is the feeling of safety within so that we develop a sense of comfort wherever we may be which is not contingent on the external environment being a certain way.

These are components of social and emotional learning. Acknowledging that our personal feelings and the feelings of our students matter, gives them permission to express and release what may be bottled up inside, opposed to bottling them up and waiting until the emotions erupt and explode.

3) Shift from activating your own “auto-pilot reactions” to engaging your reflective and curious responses

When you see and feel negative behaviors rise in your classroom, rather than shifting into your autopilot reaction of “Oh, no, here we go again,” stop for a moment. Take a deep breath in and out. Notice where your mind and body want to take you. Very often it is our snap reactions that engage us and the child into further escalating behaviors. When this happens, we are meeting their primitive brain behaviors, with our own. This is never a productive union. In the moment when you stop and take notice of your own state as you take that deep inhale and exhale, see if you can engage your curious mind and compassionate heart. Ask yourself, “What has happened to this child? Why is this child hurting?” Ask the child, “How can I help you today?” “What would help you to feel better right now?”

4) Nurture through kindness and understanding, but don’t forget about YOU

Rick Hanson author of the new book Resilient, How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength and Happiness would say, “Nurture the hell out of these children.”

To nurture others, we must always remember that we need nurturing first. It is the old saying of , “Put your oxygen mask on first.” Here is a simple practice that I love to use to fill myself up so I have lots of good energy to share through the day. The activities in this video may be very different than what you are used to but, before you cast judgement on whether or not they are right for you, try them, then notice how you feel after.

In the book Unwritten The Story of a Living System, A Pathway to Enlivening and Transforming Education, Lori Desautels and Michael McKnight write,

“Programs, curriculums, materials, and technologies do not change people; only people change people.”

The bonds we build with others literally shape our brain, and theirs. A nurturing, loving, supportive environment/person shapes a brain for further human connection, learning, and resilience. An environment of neglect, abuse (physical or mental), addiction, violence, homelessness, etc, shapes an individual who is charged with surviving, not thriving. This is not only true in our homes, but in our classrooms as well.

5) Teach your students the neuroscience of trauma

Many of our students come to hold a belief that they are bad kids. It becomes a persistent script running through their thoughts. If you watched one of my previous videos on our thoughts, you know that what we continually think, we become. We make it true.

Let’s help them foster a new belief through understanding. Educate your students on how their brains are wired. Students that respond in aggression and anger consistently know this is a problem in every area of their life. They don’t choose to be wired this way, yet they are. Help them to understand why they react the way they do so automatically. Why they have a hard time cooling down, walking away from troubled interactions, etc. Students are actually empowered to learn that this wiring can be changed and that they can actively be involved in shaping their brains to work for them, not against them.

Through the practices of mindfulness, children and adults learn how to find inner peace, feel safe within themselves and develop self-compassion. From these states of well-being, we all thrive in every aspect of daily living and learning.

If you would like us to assist you in implementing any of these suggestions, as well as help you to integrate mindfulness practices into your classrooms and school culture, we would be honored to assist you. Contact me for an introductory call.