• Tips for Teaching Trauma Informed Yoga to Children and Adolescents


    I’ve been reflecting on my time spent this summer teaching yoga to children living at a local shelter in NYC and want to share some of the things I learned. The NYC shelter I worked in is provided as transitional housing for children and mothers who were victims of domestic violence. Due to the nature of this work and for the protection of the students, the exact location remains anonymous. Upon completing my second summer at this location and spending some time reflecting, I’ve compiled different strategies, activities and classroom management techniques that have helped me to effectively teach this population. If this is a population you work with, I hope this supports you.

    Unfortunately, child maltreatment is all too common and you probably work or will work with children that have been maltreated.

    According to the CDC, “In 2012, U.S. state and local child protective services (CPS) received an estimated 3.4 million referrals of children being abused or neglected.” In addition, the 2009 National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence showed that over 60 percent of children had been victims of direct or indirect violence over the prior year. 

    As an educator or someone working with children in some capacity, you may not know explicitly that your students have experienced trauma. Therefore, it’s always important to keep trauma informed practices in mind because it may not always be obvious. In my experience, sometimes, the children who are presenting the most challenging behavior or seeking extra attention are also the ones who have experienced trauma. However, this might not always be true, so it’s important we always bring kind and curious attention to our students and what their behavior might be communicating.

    In addition, when I recognize that their behavior is communicating an unmet need, it is much easier for me to meet the child with compassion and look at their behavior as information rather than a threat. This information helps me to create a safe space by offering a class with practices that aim to meet their specific needs.


    Below, I have listed some tips to help you create a safe space for your students and lead a yoga class that gives students an opportunity to connect with themselves and feel empowered.

     

    1.  Safety through Expectation, Routine & Choice – Students who have experienced trauma have experienced a threat to their safety. Creating a safe space for your students is crucial so that they feel safe enough to explore and practice new things. Always tell your students what to expect. For example, I always let my students know that we will be doing a breathing exercise at the beginning of every class. Routines create a sense of safety, so I’ve found it's best to keep the structure of the class the same every week while changing the activities within the structure from time to time. You can also tell them before you’re planning on transitioning to a new activity, and even tell them that you’re going to turn the lights off for relaxation so it isn’t startling. Keep them informed every step of the way. Lastly, allow participation to be a choice. In my classes, I encourage my students to rest in child’s pose or in their tall yoga seat as alternative options if whatever I’m teaching doesn’t feel safe or comfortable in the moment.

     

    2.  Sleep Deprivation & Relaxation – A lot of students who experience trauma have trouble falling asleep at night. This leads to over exhaustion and maybe even a desire to lay down on the mat in the middle of practice.  At the shelter, I found it extremely beneficial to carve out 15-20 minutes of relaxation every class. I would remind the students they had this opportunity so they were less likely to want to go to sleep at the beginning of class. In addition, I emphasized activities and poses to help them fall asleep at night (i.e. belly breathing, tensing the muscles and letting go, and child’s pose).  I offered activities to practice outside of yoga class, not just when I was teaching them. I also asked questions to drive the point home after child’s pose, such as, “Did your energy level go up or down? If it went down, when would be a good time in your day for you to practice this?” Knowing that many of my children were really struggling with falling asleep at night, I found it particularly important to teach them practices that could help them quiet their minds and get a good night’s sleep.

     

    3.  Connecting to Their Bodies – Working with these students helped me understand that traumatic experiences can lead to a person disconnecting from their body as an attempt to avoid pain or uncomfortable emotions.  Our job as mindfulness and yoga teachers is to help students be aware of their bodies and build a stronger, more compassionate connection with them.  The kids I taught at the shelter were extremely disconnected from their bodies. One of my younger students was constantly rolling around and running around the room. It might have appeared like he was trying to give me a hard time but it was clear to me that he literally had no idea where his body was. Whenever I noticed frustration rising within me, I paused and instead of yelling at him to get back on his mat, I would mindfully reflect the situation to him by asking; “where is your body, where is your body supposed to be right now?”  These questions helped him to remember where he was in the moment and what was expected from him. Another activity I found extremely helpful was drawing. By starting the class off with a focus activity, it helped the students get grounded enough to be able to feel their body and mindfully experience movement.

     

    4. Touch & Consent – I never gave hands on adjustments to students in yoga poses and I never recommend doing that with children, especially victims of abuse. However, human touch can be very healing, for example, getting a hug when you’re sad.  A lot of students have trouble relaxing and switching gears from fight-flight-freeze mode to rest & digest mode.  What I found helpful, after developing relationships with my students, was placing a hand on their head during relaxation. This was the only time I ever placed my hands on a student, and I only did it with his or her approval. I would ask if it was OK to place a hand on their head, and if they said yes, I would tell them if at any point it’s not OK anymore, to tell me and I’ll take it off. I would also ask during the activity, “is my hand still OK here?” After a week or two of this, some of the students started asking me to place my hand on their forehead. This was the only time I ever placed my hands on a student, and I only did it with his or her approval. A lot of students have trouble relaxing and switching gears from fight-flight-freeze mode to rest & digest mode.  So I would ask if it was OK to place a hand on their head?   If they said yes, I would tell them if at any point it’s not OK anymore, to tell me and I’ll take it off. I would also ask during the activity, “is my hand still OK here?” After a week or two of this, some of the students started asking that I place my hand on their forehead.  This gives them an understanding of what it means to give consent, which gives them a sense of agency. I also spent a lot of time teaching them soothing holds so they could support themselves whenever they need it and not have to depend on my hands.

     

    5.  Personal Power – My main goal as an educator is to leave my students feeling empowered and inspired. A lot of the kids at the shelter, as a result of their past experiences, felt weak and discouraged. I found that students really loved practicing the warrior poses as it made them feel powerful. Another activity that helps build personal agency is saying the affirmations, “I am so strong” and “I can do this.” Towards the end of our time spent together, these were some of the activities that stood out the most in the children’s minds.

     

    6.  Joy & Love – The most important thing we can offer children is our joy and our love. I’ve found that when I get too serious or try to stick to my class plan a little too rigidly, I lose my sense of joy and that is when the students disengage. If we can give our students plenty of opportunities to be seen, heard and really feel supported, they will feel joy and they will know they are loved.

     


    Psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel says, “For a child or an adult, it’s extremely powerful to hear someone say, ‘I get you. I understand you. I see why you feel this way.’ This kind of empathy disarms us.”


     

    Below please find links to books and courses to get more information and get more training on this important topic.

     
    Center for Adolescent Studies
    Our friend and colleague Sam Himelstein, Ph.D has online trauma-informed care training for educators as well as a blog with lots of information.
     
    Somatic Experience Trauma Institute
    For those interested in more in-depth training this institute, founded by Peter Levine, offers certification in somatic experience therapy to support healing of trauma and other stress disorders.
     
    Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Peter Levine
    Originally published in 1997 but still a very relevant and powerful look at the way our bodies physiologically responds to trauma and how that knowledge can help us understand and heal trauma.
     
    Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body, Peter Levine
    A quicker read and comes with an audio CD with practices and activities.  A great introduction for those wanting to know more about Somatic Experiencing.

    The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk
     A great resource if you’re interested in research on the impact trauma has on the brain and offers various treatment approaches.
     
    The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog, Bruce D. Perry
    The author skillfully shares stories from his therapy practice that highlight the impact trauma can have on children and ways he explored healing trauma.  A quick read but a tear jerker.

    Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, Linda Graham
    This book defines resiliency and offers activities to support rewiring our brain so that we can meet life’s challenges.

     


     

    I hope these tips are useful and provide you with insight on the importance of empathizing and finding compassion for our children and students, especially victims of trauma. It’s important to remember that when we teach yoga and mindfulness, we can only offer them what we have practiced in our own lives. Remember to be compassionate towards yourself and your own growth and healing especially when working with this population. When I practice self-compassion, I embody what I want my students to learn.
     


    Lauren Buckles, RYT, is a certified yoga teacher and a teacher for Little Flower Yoga. She teaches yoga and mindfulness to adults and youth and has 10 years of experience working with children. Lauren has completed trainings with Little Flower Yoga and The Yoga Room and has studied with Mindful Schools and RISE Yoga for Youth. 
    For more information about Little Flower Yoga and The School Yoga Project, visit www.littlefloweryoga.com. Contact Lauren by email at buckles.lauren@gmail.com.
     
    We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. If you are interested in purchasing any of the resources mentioned above, you can help support free programs like Mindful Mondays by navigating to them through the included links. Thank you for your support!

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  • Introducing Mindfulness to Adolescents

    What’s happening with our students’ brain and how can mindfulness support them? 


    As a high school teacher in the Bronx for 14 years I got to meet and deeply know a lot of teens. Having those relationships taught me a lot about what makes adolescents tick. I saw that the way adults view teens impacts the way teens see themselves, and ultimately the lives they think they are capable of leading. I also witnessed how school settings can be fertile ground for greater understanding and connection, or misunderstanding and miscommunication between teachers and young adults.   


    One of the high schools I worked at was a traditional school, with honors classes, Advanced Placement courses, Senior trips and proms. The other was a transfer school, where students go as a last chance for a high school degree (their prior schools failing to meet these students' needs in one way or another). In this school students call teachers by their first name, they work closely with community based organizations, and it’s where I was lucky enough to introduce mindfulness. You can learn more about that school and my experience introducing mindfulness in this Atlantic article.

    Both schools were Title 1 schools, which meant the majority of the students were receiving free or reduced lunch. Both had committed, caring (and overworked) administrators, staff and teachers.  

    Since leaving the classroom I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with teens in more affluent communities (one of the schools a mere 10 miles north of the transfer school) where kids are getting the best education and resources their parents and communities can generously give. I wasn’t surprised to also see committed, caring, and overworked administrators, staff, and teachers but I was surprised to see how much these teens were also struggling. 

    Even though these adolescents’ educational contexts are very different, a couple of things are true for all of them. The adolescent years are challenging, confusing, and filled with changes to the body, their brain, and relationships. Adolescence is a tumultuous time of our lives!  

    Let’s also not forget about technology and the impact it’s having on our children. Most of us can probably remember what it was like to be bored when we were young and not have a screen readily available. Our parents would tell us to figure it out, go outside, go play. Or they would assign us a chore to make sure we didn’t stay bored. These moments of boredom often led to free play, which is critical in child development.  According to the American Academy of  Pediatrics free play helps children develop their imagination, curiosity, and healthy relationships with the children around them and their parents.

     


    Whether we think the advent of technology is good or bad, it is here to stay and it is rewiring our children’s minds. Many have a harder time focusing their attention and developing relationships outside of their digital persona. 


     

    The Developing Brains of Adolescents

    When I taught mindfulness to my teens in the Bronx, I often introduced the book Brainstorm by Dr. Daniel Siegel. Even though it was a challenging text for them to get through, they were engaged with the book because it was giving them insight into the way adults looked at them.  It helped them understand what was changing in their brains and effecting the way they were feeling and acting. I will summarize some of the things I shared with my students here, but if this is a topic, you think would be helpful to you or your students will find interesting, make sure to add Brainstorm to your reading list. 

     

    Myths of Adolescence:
    The way we see adolescents becomes the way they see themselves. These misunderstandings can lead to confusion and conflict for teens and adults.  Which of these myths are you familiar with?

       

    1. Raging hormones cause teenagers to “go mad” or “lose their minds.”According to Siegel hormones do increase, but these levels then stay consistent throughout much of adulthood. Its not the hormones that are causing behavior changes. What adolescents experience is primarily the result of natural and needed changes in their developing brains.

     

    2. Teens are immature and need to grow up.
    The risk-taking tendencies, impulsiveness, and high emotional sensitivity of teens is not a sign of immaturity but rather an outcome of exactly what they are supposed to be doing during this developmental stage—testing boundaries, creating their own view of the world, and preparing for life beyond the family home and school community.

     

    3. Growing up requires moving from dependence on adults to total independence from them.
    The healthy move to adulthood is toward interdependence, not complete do-it-yourself isolation. Giving care and receiving help from others is the model we should be supporting.

     

    Pause, take a couple of breaths, and reflect on your own middle or high school experience. I’m sure you can understand why adolescents struggle during this time of their lives especially if the adults around them fundamentally misunderstand them. Remembering our own experience can help us be more understanding and compassionate in the interactions we have with teens.


     

    Qualities of the Adolescent Mind:

    Dr. Siegel goes on to name the attributes of the adolescent mind as well as the benefits and challenges associated with these changes.  His book also guides reader through activities that ask adolescents to reflect and bring awareness to their internal landscape, and which support healthy communication.

     

    • Novelty Seeking: Increased drive for rewards and increased inner motivation to seek new experiences and feel life more fully

    Upside: Being open to change and exploring new ways of doing things that lead to a sense of adventure

    Downside: Sensation seeking and taking risks without considering consequences can lead to dangerous behavior

     

    • Social Engagement: Enhanced peer connectedness and new friendships are explored

    Upside: The drive for social connection leads to creation of supportive relationships that can support and enrich teens their whole life

    Downside: Adolescents might isolate themselves from other adults and only surround themselves with other teens, which can lead to increased risky behavior

     

    • Increased Emotional Intensity: Emotional sensitivity increases, allowing teens to feel life experiences more intensely

    Upside: Emotional intensity can fill teens with energy and a sense of vitality for being alive

    Downside: Emotional intensity can fill teens with energy and a sense of vitality for being alive. Emotions can rule the day, leading to moodiness and, sometimes unhelpful, reactivity

     

    • Creative Exploration: Expanded sense of being leads to conceptual thinking that question status quo and approaches problems with out-of-the-box solutions

    Upside: Sense of wonder, creativity, and curiosity can be nurtured; new solutions and strategies for a fuller life are explored

    Downside: New explorations can lead to crisis of identity, susceptibility to peer pressure, and lack of direction or purpose

     


    Taking these findings into account highlights why mindfulness interventions are critical at this age.   

    There is promising, if nascent evidence, that mindfulness can support adolescent wellbeing by supporting development of their prefrontal cortex (where empathy, thinking of consequences, and other executive function skills live), by enhancing their ability to focus, and helping them name and regulate their emotions. In addition, studies of adults participating in mindfulness interventions like Mindfulness Based Stressed Reduction “suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.” These research studies, coupled with my experience teaching adolescent, makes it easy to argue for introducing mindfulness interventions to adolescents.   

    Introducing mindfulness to teens can be especially rewarding and challenging. Working with adolescents can bring to the surface the unresolved feelings and painful experiences we faced as adolescent. To be effective with this age group, we must reflect and turn to our own practice. We also have to make sure that when we offer mindfulness to adolescents it is relevant and engaging otherwise we won’t be able to truly support them. 

    The following reminders are helpful when working with teens. 
    Some of these apply to all age groups, but they hold special importance when working with adolescents.
    Adolescence spans from the ages of 12 to 24. This is one of the most confusing times of our lives, even when things are going well.
     
    • Remember what your adolescence was like, and have compassion!
    • Students’ feelings should be validated always, but especially keep this in mind now, because many adults are dismissive of the strong emotions of teens.
    • Practices, conversations, and activities should be relevant tothe students’ lives.
    • Learning should be student centered when possible, and students should be given opportunities to share and interact with one another.
    • Students tend to be sensitive about the way they are perceived by others, but they might not fully understand how they perceive themselves. 
    • Support healthy identity formation by creating a culture of acceptance of individual difference and respect for personal boundaries.
    • Avoid stereotypical language, and recognize your own assumptions and biases.

    This is just the beginning of a conversation.  Little Flower Yoga has activities specifically designed for this age group.  Check out our Teen Deck as well as our Teen Webinar, which goes into more details about creating engaging experience when working with adolescents.   

     

    If this is a topic of interest we hope you’ll find these resources helpful.


    ABOUT ARGOS GONZALEZ:
    Argos Gonzalez is a teacher, lecturer, and mindfulness and yoga instructor.  He has 13 years of experience teaching high school in the Bronx and teaches pre-service and in-service teachers at Hunter College School of Education in NY.  Argos is certified through both Mindful Schools and Little Flower Yoga (LFY), and currently serves as the director of professional development for The School Yoga Project, a program of LFY.

    For more information about Little Flower Yoga and The School Yoga Project, visit www.littlefloweryoga.com. Contact Argos by email at argos@littlefloweryoga.com.  

    We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. If you are interested in purchasing any of the resources mentioned above, you can help support free programs like Mindful Mondays by navigating to them through the included links. Thank you for your support!

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