If you work with children in any capacity, chances are you’ve come across a situation in which a child appeared angry, sad or frustrated, and you had no idea why. Last week, several of our youth program leaders spent their Saturday learning how to respond and intervene in situations like this, with children who have undergone trauma or chronic stress. This powerful Sustainability Institute workshop was led by experienced social worker and presenter, Ellen Blaufox, who is the clinical director at Linden Hill, the largest psychiatric, residential treatment facility in New York State.
Ellen showed the group that trauma and chronic stress are disturbingly common; 63% of American adults in a massive study in 1997 reported at least one so-called “Adverse Childhood Experience” or “ACE” including domestic violence, homelessness, family break-up and more. These ACEs can have a lifelong impact, increasing risks for addiction, disease, mental illness, and intimate partner violence.
As Ellen walked us through the symptoms of trauma and chronic stress that we might recognize in children we work with, she encouraged us to focus on the question, “What happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?” This can lead to a more holistic understanding of what might be triggering a child and what sort of response is most appropriate. For example, if a child is acting aggressively toward a classmate, a teacher might take the child aside, calm him or her down and attempt to determine what might be triggering that aggression, rather than simply punishing the child for acting out.
Here are four mindfulness exercises that can help in situations like this, whether with an individual or a classroom full of children. We hope you can implement them in your summer camps and after school programs:
- The Melting M&M: Each person is given a single M&M (or raisin if she prefers) and asked to hold it on her tongue without biting or swallowing it. (If a person feels she must bite the treat, that’s okay too.) The room then enters into a state of calm and quiet as each person waits—often several minutes—for her M&M to melt. This helps to ground people and gives them something to focus on. It would be especially useful in circumstances where a child is experiencing post-traumatic stress-related flashbacks or any sort of anxiety. It also teaches delayed gratification (especially if you allow children to have a couple more M&M’s once the exercise is over).
- Listen for the Bell: The instructor strikes a bell. (You could use a cowbell, Tibetan singing bowl, or any sort of instrument that will ring when struck.) Participants are told to raise their hands when they can no longer hear the sound of the bell. This exercise creates immediate quiet and focus in a room, allowing participants to become centered in the present moment.
- Describe the Object: Working in pairs, one person closes his eyes or turns away from the other person while she places an object (nothing gross or dangerous) in his hand. He then uses words to describe the object without looking at it or naming it. This exercise takes people into the present moment and helps them develop descriptive language. (Try explaining the texture of a piece of paper for five minutes. It’s harder than you think!) It has particular applicability when working with young people who have endured traumatic circumstances that may not be easy to describe or talk about. It also helps individuals focus on a concrete activity.
- Memory and Smell: In this exercise, the instructor passes around small plastic bags with powdered spices, soaps and other scented objects inside them. Participants take their time smelling the contents of each bag and considering what it reminds them of, and whether it calls any memories into their heads. Memories are often positive or funny especially if the smells are related to cooking, and sharing these stories can lighten the atmosphere of a room and help us get to know one another They also teach participants about triggers, and help them to be present in the moment.
To find more resources from the workshop, click here. Thank you to everyone who participated, asked questions and practiced techniques during this workshop, and thank you to Ellen for sharing her knowledge. If you’re finishing up the school year, we hope it was a good one, and if you’re getting ready for summer camp, blessings on this new season!