By Heather Sandine, Teacher and CK team member
The girl pictured is balancing her brain with a mindful technique called cupping. Cupping helps to create a positive visualization image in the mind, supporting a Positive Mental Attitude.
You’ve probably heard the words social-emotional learning (SEL), self-regulation, mindfulness, and executive functioning lately. 2020 has created a climate where these topics are important to discuss. However, for many, these phrases are so much more than current buzzwords hurled at our current national mental health crisis. Schools and parents have struggled to teach these skills effectively for years. Whose responsibility is it to teach kids these skills anyway? Parents? Teachers? Do children innately develop them? Here’s what you need to know. The current COVID climate and school closures have made it more evident than ever that our children and students (and often ourselves) need these skills explicitly taught. Where do we start?
There are myriad programs available that offer curriculum in supporting each of these skills. Those programs can be helpful, but what do we do when access to them isn’t available or they are cost prohibitive? What about parents and other community members who need a thorough and inexpensive way to teach these skills to their children?
CALMING KIDS Works!
I took a CALMING KIDS(CK): Creating a Nonviolent World training about three years ago. At the time, I was a special education resource teacher and had a significant number of students with self-regulation and social-emotional difficulties. Students frequently exhibited outbursts of work refusals, destroying other people’s property, and hitting and yelling. These kids felt a lot of frustration and didn’t know how to cope with it.
I had used other programs to teach coping and self-regulation skills. They worked by teaching the kids about how their brains work and to recognize their thinking patterns. These are important skills, but my students needed concrete techniques that they could use independently and quickly after learning them. CALMING KIDS strategies provided this. CK’s research-based curriculum teaches mindfulness, relaxation and body-awareness strategies to support kids’ self-regulation abilities. Parents and teachers can also use CK curriculum to support executive-functioning skills when it is used in combination with other supports.
What We Did
I knew it was important not to overwhelm the students by teaching too many strategies at once. I began guiding the kids to do the CK “check in” by doing a simple body scan and then used their feedback to help them identify and communicate their emotions. The students worked on body awareness and deep breathing using visualization techniques. I guided the students to relate their spines to slinky toys to help encourage proper posture. We imagined that our lungs were like a balloon expanding and contracting inside a basket that represented our ribcage. This helped students to understand the importance of breathing deeply and expanding the diaphragm down into the belly area. I used a Hoberman sphere to model controlling the rate of the breath. My students then learned yoga poses to help manage and process specific emotions.
The goal of all of these strategies was to help students recognize their emotions and to process them in a healthy way. It didn’t take a lot of time to teach the skills either. I was able to teach all of these strategies during transition times or sensory breaks.
The positive impact of these skills on my students amazed me! Before CALMING KIDS some of my students were needing a 5-10 minute calm down break in my classroom every hour. Those students were able to reduce their breaks to two 5-10 minute breaks during the entire school day after learning the CK strategies! To put that into perspective, that’s up to 40 minutes of missed class time per day that I was able to help students gain back by using CK strategies. These effects aren’t short term either. Most of these students are now able to participate in their general education classrooms for the majority of their day. Some students are successfully participating in online remote and hybrid learning as well.
Effects of Mismanaging Emotions
What does my experience with a small group of students have to do with ending our national mental health crisis? My students’ previous limited abilities to self-regulate was apparent in their frequent outbursts, but most people don’t have frequent outbursts. Instead many develop maladaptive coping skills and habits. Some “stuff” their emotions while others turn to drugs or alcohol. Long-term mismanagement of emotions like fear, anger and anxiety (and even emotions that are seen as positive, such as excitement) can lead to both physical and psychiatric problems like depression, poor digestion, high blood pressure, chronic headaches, fatigue and more due to the body’s release of stress hormones such as cortisol. The effects of long-term exposure to stress hormones is well documented in medical and psychological research.
We all know that eliminating stress isn’t going to happen, but we can learn how to manage it. It is critical that we begin prioritizing teaching, practicing and living healthy coping strategies. My classroom impact may have helped only a small number of students, but imagine if we taught these skills in homes and schools across the country. Imagine the positive impact we could see: improvement to our mental health, an end to bullying and school violence, less domestic violence, fewer attempts at and incidences of suicide. All of these things are possible. But we have to start by helping students to learn to process and communicate their emotions in a healthy way. And we have to start doing those things for ourselves too.