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 in the hopes to support you if this is a population you work with.
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. But 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 givesstudents 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 safer 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. 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. 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Working with a small organization like Little Flower Yoga has been a refreshing and powerful experience. After working in NYC schools in the Bronx for 14 years with tens of thousands of students and with hundreds of teacher colleagues in a huge bureaucracy, I can definitely say there are lots of reason why I love the simplicity of having a smaller team dedicated to one thing—to support yoga and mindfulness practices for educators and students.
And we’re doing it! Last year, we served over 9,000 students in the NYC area alone and we trained thousands of educators and clinicians around the country, who in turn support mindfulness and yoga practices in their communities! I am proud of the work we do and feel like I an fulfilling what I set out to do when I left the classroom.
Leaving the classrroom and my job as a teacher was one of the hardest choices I had to make (a pension and health benefits being a big part of it). Leaving a tenured position at a job I found fulfilling felt irresponsible but sitting in stillness and turning to my practice allowed me to dream of ways I could have a greater impact on the school system itself. I wanted to work with more educators and impact more students and I couldn’t do that in the classroom.
I feel like I’m getting the chance to do that now in a very powerful and special way. I’m extremely grateful for the privilege of meeting educators around the country and helping them start a personal practice to support the work they’re doing in their classroom. I now get the opportunity to explore alongside school leaders ways mindfulness and yoga tools can support their community.
But the question of having greater impact is still one that I think of often. One of the limitations of being part of a smaller organization is that we can’t always meet all school and community demands. We have to be creative about the way we can support our current students and past participants and all the schools and educators who reach out to us. We also want the resources to be as accessible as possible—that means we can’t take educators away from their responsibilities or take from their limited resources by asking for more of their time or to use even more of their income to pay for resources. In that vein we have developed really affordable card decks, workbooks, and webinars to support our educators and students who want to explore yoga and mindfulness.
Mindful Mondays is another ways we’re trying to support our schools.
Mindful Mondays is an initiative I helped start with the School Yoga Project to support schools worldwide in creating and sustaining a mindful culture and community. This program is a FREE resource for schools meant to foster a habit of mindfulness, grounded in simple and practical tools to encourage teachers, parents, clinicians, and students to practice mindfulness and engage in regular self-care and inquiry.
This program was designed for:
When participants sign up, they’ll receive:
Our intention for the program is to give educators the support needed to get a regular mindfulness practice established in their school, classroom, or home. We hope this will help them start the week out grounded and inspired and keep the practice alive all week until the following Monday.
If you know someone who can use the support or if you’d like to participate, please click the following link.
If you have suggestions or ideas about the Mindful Monday’s initiative or for other ideas on how the organization can support you or your school, please don’t hesitate to e-mail email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you and supporting you in anyway I can.
ABOUT ARGOS GONZALEZ:
Argos Gonzalez is a teacher, lecturer, and mindfulness and yoga instructor. He has 14 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.