Building Resiliency with Somatic Experiencing: Implications for the Classroom?

Peter Levine’s groundbreaking work in the field of trauma healing has appealed to many therapists and others in the mental health profession.  It wasn’t, however, until I experienced the effects of  some of his work, personally, that I began to wonder how a body-based approach to healing trauma and building resiliency could inform my work as a classroom teacher.

TTACE You can learn more about Peter Levine and his work here: http://www.traumahealing.com/somatic-experiencing/peter-levine.html.  He has worked with with Maggie Kline to offer books and presentations about trauma and children.  Here is a link to learn more about Maggie Kline: http://www.traumahealing.com/somatic-experiencing-students/faculty-kline.html

Eight educators from my school community agreed to join me for five study group meetings to learn more about Levine’s and Kline’s approach.  This post reflects the thinking of this study group.  As a way to explore body-based ways to respond to trauma, we watched the DVDs, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes, a recording of a presentation Levine and Kline gave at the Front Range Community College in Colorado in 2008.  We found it helpful to have a PowerPoint presentation along with the video, which I created and share here: http://www.slideshare.net/jeneye444/reflections-ontrauma-through-a-childs-eyes

The slides helped organize and connect some of the ideas that Peter Levine and Maggie Kline talked about in the recording of their live presentation.  We also read some of the chapter for educators in the book of the same title, but our response is primarily to the DVDs.  We met five times, and many of the group members wanted to continue a book study together over the next school year. Also, while this post reflects my best effort to communicate the thinking of the whole group, my own perspectives and biases naturally influence my thinking and writing here.

A little about who we are:

We are a group of nine educators who teach grades k-3 at an urban public school.  When I first stepped into our school building, I noticed the warm, child-centered atmosphere, and I have taught at this school for almost ten years.  Teachers are encouraged to investigate areas of education that we are interested in and then share our findings with the school.

Over 80% of our students receive free or reduced lunch, and many families in our city face stresses such as difficulties with substance abuse, unemployment, transience, domestic violence, homelessness, legal troubles, mental health issues and bereavement…. At times we feel overwhelmed by the challenges that many of our students bring to school each day.  We also are very data-driven and focused on our students’ academic achievement, particularly in areas of reading, writing and math.  In the past few years, we have done extensive curriculum work, aligning our curriculum to standards and across grade levels.

This curriculum work has been a wonderful, powerful process to clarify and develop our thinking about what each student needs to learn.  However, at times we can feel overwhelmed by the number of standards we are charged with teaching, working so each child reaches each standard.  So we are very focused, as a staff, to “keep our eyes on the (academic) ball,” and we are cautious about adopting anything that might take away from the limited time we have to help our students achieve their academic standards.  Since our challenges and perspective are not unique among schools, we hoped that we might be able to identify some concrete ways that the ideas in the DVD, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes might inform our daily work as educators.

We asked ourselves these questions:  How does the work of Peter Levine and Maggie Kline apply to our day-to-day work with students, in our academically-focused classrooms (and in a No Child Left Behind world?)  What is valuable and meaningful to us as educators?  What is actually reproducible, helpful and do-able, given the many constraints, needs and responsibilities that we need to balance each day as educators?

Guiding Principles:

What is trauma?  Which students may need help with trauma?

Trauma is anything that happens to us that is so overwhelming that we are unable to bounce back.  Being traumatized means that our nervous system is “stuck” somewhere in the activation-deactivation cycle of the fight-flight-freeze response.   This results in our nervous system becoming dysregulated, unable to come back into a balanced state where we can socially engage and learn. (This is probably over-simplified, but we’re going for pith here).

Some students show their trauma outwardly.  Other children may not show obvious symptoms and may not have a history of what we would ordinarily think of as “trauma” (such as severe abuse, violence or bereavement), but may have become overwhelmed by something in their lives that has created symptoms of trauma.  These symptoms may interfere with their social, emotional or academic functioning.

Why would educators focus on responding to trauma in classroom and school settings?

Local radio recently broadcast a story about hair stylists going for training in detecting signs of melanoma on their clients’ scalps.  Why? It’s not what we usually think of as a hair stylist’s job.  They do it because they can, and because they are in a uniquely effective position to offer this service – they see a part of clients’ bodies that the clients cannot see themselves, and they see them on a regular basis, so they can notice any changes more accurately than a doctor might at an annual exam.

Similarly, I argue that teachers are in a uniquely effective position to help students with trauma, and to help all students build resilience to future traumatic experiences.   We spend a good deal of time with the same students each day, and we get to observe them closely in a variety of individual, work and social settings.  We can observe students who may lose functioning of thinking, feeling or body sensing in a moment of being triggered, and we can put many structures in place to intervene when we notice they are getting stuck in their functioning.

What does Trauma have to do with our bodies?

Trauma occurs in the nervous system.  In trauma, one or more of our systems (thinking, feeling, body sensation) shuts down, and when we are reminded in some way of that trauma, one or more of our systems can shut down again.  This prevents full functioning – cognitively, emotionally and/or physically. This is problematic — the structure of our brains and nervous systems tells us that we are meant to integrate sensation, emotion and feeling with thinking in a holistic function in the classroom/school throughout the day.

Why is it important for humans to be connected to our body sensations?

Our nervous systems’ connections among our brains and our bodies tell us that feelings do come from the gut and the heart.  These nerves connect our heart and gut with the regions of the brain that have to do with our highest levels of functioning, including positive human connections and making meaning of how we feel.  The part of our brains that help us to be aware of our body sensations is also the part that allows us to have empathy and make meaning of our experiences.  It is an important and valuable part of our brains to strengthen and further develop.

Co-Regulation:

“WE ARE ALL BORN TO PARTICIPATE IN EACH OTHER’S NERVOUS SYSTEM.”  “We are capable of “reading” other people’s intentions and feel within our bodies what they are feeling.” (Peter Levine offers these quotes drawn from the work of Daniel Stern, The Present Moment)

 Our nervous systems continue to be formed in a social context.  This means that through social interactions, we are still changing and developing our nervous systems.  Everything we do as teachers affects students’ nervous systems.

“Who is in Front of the Classroom”:

We teachers also have our own histories of trauma, to varying degrees.  We can become dysregulated/upset when we work with students who are having a hard time.  The degree to which we are able to tune in to our own body sensations (somatic experiences) allows us to continually bring ourselves back into a regulated state.  This has multiple benefits for us and our students:

  • We are more able to step back and stay calm and effective when students become dysregulated (such as with defiance, shutting down, and passive-aggressive behaviors).
  • We feel more calm, effective and less vulnerable to taking student behavior personally, so we feel more at ease in our work.
  • Students’ nervous systems can be helped back into balance simply by being in the presence of a calm, regulated adult.
  • We can avoid triggering or increasing symptoms of fight, flight or freeze in our students by not engaging in power struggles, or becoming out-of-control angry or anxious.  Instead we can help them move through a stuck state by stepping back, being clear, firm and neutral.  We can also show empathy or repair shame, if and when that is appropriate.

The most powerful tools we have for communicating with our students’ nervous systems are our bodies, faces and voices.  The way we use our body, face and voice tone to communicate with students is often more important than what we say.

 Good Ideas:

Teachers can learn to tune into their own body sensations throughout the day, as a way to stay calm and regulated. There are a variety of ways we can practice this.

image: fredjones.com

image: fredjones.com

 Again, the most powerful tools we have for communicating with our students’ nervous systems are our bodies, faces and voices.  The way we use our body, face and voice tone to communicate with students is often more important than what we say.  Our own regulated presence is an important way we can help our students become regulated.  (On a personal note, I used to try to “fake it,” keeping my voice calm even when I didn’t feel calm inside… which felt a little false, was tiring and not so effective in helping my students…. After learning to tune into my own sensations by exploring some of the work for adults that Peter Levine offers – I am better able to  notice body sensations that directly relate to the truth of the moment I am in when with my students.)

image: ehow.com

image: ehow.com

For example, when I noticed the wave of heat that rose up my torso when a child answered me in a rude way last week, I took a breath and then chose how to respond.  In doing this, I was more effective and felt less personally upset by his behavior. I’ve also noticed that the hair on my arms sometimes stands on end when I witness a student synthesizing new learning or when I’m reading aloud a part of a story where the story’s themes come together. Another teacher in our group told of a moment when a student, whom she knows has history of trauma, was being very defiant and refusing to leave the room when the class was going to a special.  She described how she could feel her “heart and feet pounding” as she walked to a phone to call for coverage for that child…. I suspect she could also feel the process of her body returning to regulation, as a little time went by.  We can feel calmed and empowered by the ability to let these sensations rise and pass.

It is essential that we build rapport with our students, and among our students, early in the year and all year long.* The sense of social engagement, face-to-face interaction and enjoying each others’ company facilitates cognitive growth and engagement for all children, and can be transformative in repairing attachment in the nervous systems of children who have had trauma.

All students need daily (and regular) doses of belonging, significance and fun.*  One great way to do this is a Morning Meeting, which can be brisk, focused and academically productive.  (You can see a playlist of videos about morning meeting here: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8A9D0222807ABC3C).   There are also many other ways to include experiences of belonging, significance and fun in students’ days.

Beneficial activities include those that include some of the following elements:

  • Social engagement, face-to-face, enjoyment of others
  • Turn-taking
  • Bringing more energy into the body through fun, play or movement
  • Calming or resting, especially as a return to regulation after excitement
  • Activating energy and excitement and then calming, as a way of  practicing the activation-deactivation cycle
  • Self-observation/tracking sensations

These elements would ideally be woven into activities that also support academic goals.

When talking about an anti-violence curriculum, Maggie Kline asserts that she knows of “nothing better” than noticing about how one’s body feels and how it can change.

All students benefit from daily and/or regular practice in becoming aware of their somatic experiences (body sensations).  Such self-observation and tracking sensations can be a calming practice, and it also supports the development of integration and empathy in our brains and nervous systems. (wow!)

Image from: genutsu@blogspot.com

Image from: genutsu@blogspot.com

Ways to do this include:

– Finding on-the-spot moments for students to briefly  notice their own body sensations change, and then come back into regulation, such as  after recess, when there’s a loud noise, or when something startling or exciting happens.

– Maggie Kline does a brief practice with students:  They spend 1-2 minutes observing their breath.  She gives them sticky notes ahead of time, and tells them them 3 questions she’ll ask them at the end: “What did you notice about your breath at the beginning?  How did it change?  What did you notice about your breath at the end? ”  Then after 1-2 minutes, student jot their noticings on the sticky notes.  The questions and notes, Kline adds, create just enough anxiety to help students focus.

— Another idea Kline offers is to use what she calls “gingerbread man” outlines of students’ bodies.  Students can fill in the outlines using colors and textures to show different sensations.  Then they can also create a key to the diagram, explaining what each kind of mark stands for ( hot, cold, tingly, itchy, sore, peaceful….)

We can also model self-awareness of our own “experiencing,” for example verbalizing a think-aloud: “I notice that when that door slammed, my body changed – my throat got tighter, my breathing changed, and my shoulders tensed.  You might also notice changes in your bodies.  Just notice whatever you’re experiencing – where you might feel tense or loose or strong, or warm or cool, or what you feel in your breathing or throat….  and then see what happens next.  You could ask yourself, what’s happening now?”  (I don’t usually have students share or answer verbally, it’s just a way to calm down when something exciting or startling happens, to learn to tune into our sensations, and to come to trust that our sensations change — we do naturally come back into regulation, given a little time.   I also have found that some classes benefit from doing one minute of this after recess before coming back to learning).

Image from: photocase.com

Image from: photocase.com

Another simple and beautiful technique for helping students bring themselves back into regulation is what I call the “break chair.” This is an approach skillfully modeled on a DVD by the remarkable teacher Caltha Crowe.  (You can see a preview of this DVD here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70UPAQx44i0) The chair is a non-punitive place that anyone can go to when they need a few minutes to regain self-control. When this structure is in place, we can calmly redirect students when we see any signs that their behavior or their regulation is starting to go off-track.  Students can use the chair whenever they feel they need to.  In addition to allowing learning to go on for all students when one student needs a minute to come back into regulation, this technique supports students in noticing changes in their body when they start to get upset, and noticing when those sensations have calmed down, as they return to regulation.  Teachers could choose to highlight the awareness of body sensations in the ways they set up and reinforce the practice of a break chair throughout the year.  (Here is an article about “Positive Time-Out:” https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/article/positive-time-out)

Other Questions and Some Answers:

Do these practices help build resiliency in all students, to help them deal with overwhelming experiences in the future? (In other words, do these practices benefit all students, or are they just beneficial for students who have had obvious trauma?):

There are some practices that teachers can do daily and/or regularly which benefit the learning of all students, and provide special added benefits to students who have experienced trauma.  Teachers can integrate these practices into the academic work we already do to bring benefits to all of our students.   (This is tier 1 support for all students – some students may also need tier 2 or 3 support outside the classroom).  In addition, all students need belonging, significance and fun, all students benefit from the cognitive gains that come from body movement and social interaction, and  all students  are well-served by learning that our body sensations can help us know – or become aware of – how we feel.

Peter Levine describes how, when infants are upset, they need adults to help them return to a regulated state.  This helps the young person learn two things, he explains:  1. that life is good and 2. no matter how bad things get, things will be okay… we’ll be able to come back into regulation.  When students learn – through their own felt experience – that they can come back into regulation when they are upset, they are building resilience for future life experiences.  Thank goodness our nervous system continues to be formed by our social experiences, because we can help all students continue learn this more and more deeply, no matter what age they are.

 Can a classroom really create a field in which unmet developmental needs can arise and be re-negotiated, and still focus on the academic learning for all students?

Our group generally felt hopeful that there are ways to integrate some of the “good ideas” we gathered from our discussions and the DVDs into our daily work.  We also reflected that there may be ways teachers can support each other, as we look for more and more ways to integrate such practices and principles into our busy days.  Some of us may find connections that others have not yet seen.

Also, many of the ideas that we gathered were not especially new to us, but they gained a new level of importance as we thought about how our choices can help or hinder students in dealing with life’s challenges.  For example, many teachers went through trainings in Fred Jones’ approach to Positive Discipline, which also encourages teachers to stay calm, clear and consistent in responding to students’ behaviors. (You can learn more about Fred Jones’ approach at http://www.fredjones.com/).   Other teachers have received training in the Responsive Classroom approach, and have found ways to integrate social and emotional learning into the school day through RC’s principles and practices.  For teachers who might choose to take the path of becoming more aware of trauma and the resilience gained through awareness of our body sensations, we can discover many connections to good academic and management practices we already do or know.

image: carolheil.com

image: carolheil.com

If the Cerebellum is so very important, coordinating everything, including emotional states, and is essential for learning – how do we access this in our students?  How do we support their development of this part of their brains? What primary or secondary research has been done about these questions? We don’t have an answer to this one – we’d love to hear if you have any ideas or connections!  

 Thanks:

I wish to offer a huge thank you to all the caring and thoughtful people who have come together to help think through this material and these questions, and sincere thanks to Peter Levine and Maggie Kline for sharing their research and urging educators to integrate these insights into their work with children.

* This idea or practice is aligned with the Responsive Classroom® approach, which offers many excellent ways to integrate social, emotional, cognitive and kinesthetic learning throughout the day.  You can learn more about this approach at: https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/   You can also see many helpful videos on the Responsive Classroom YouTube Channel at: http://www.youtube.com/user/responsiveclassroom

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3 thoughts on “Building Resiliency with Somatic Experiencing: Implications for the Classroom?

  1. Pingback: Somatic Experiencing for Kids? | A Moving Experience: Learning with Mind and Body

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