For many years Melissa Kleinman, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, has worked in medical, not-for-profit, home and school-based settings empowering children to identify and regulate their emotions, form trusting relationships and develop a felt sense of control. Through this work she has had the opportunity to introduce yoga and mindfulness to trauma survivors, individuals with chronic illnesses and those struggling with eating disorders.
Melissa shares that amongst other benefits yoga is an excellent modality for treating anxiety; it is extremely successful in decreasing intrusive thoughts and provides the user with an excellent means for connecting to self and to others. She states, “It was a light bulb moment for me – there was a place for yoga and mindfulness in working with children and families who have experienced trauma and violence in their lives”.
Given that we never know who is going to be in our classes, and a tremendous number of children have experienced trauma in their lives, we all need to learn more about trauma sensitive teaching.
Here are some of Melissa’s recommendations and resource suggestions:
1). What do you think is most important for yoga instructors to know about working with children who have been through Trauma?
Children who have experienced trauma often struggle with inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. They might have difficulty completing tasks and are often challenged with identifying and regulating their thoughts and emotions. These children are prone to exhibiting behavioral problems and at times can pose challenges with classroom management. As a teacher our role is to set a safe environment for them to explore their minds and bodies over time.
Predictability and choice are the key factors in a trauma sensitive yoga class.
Many children who have experienced trauma are anxious about the future. By establishing a structure for classes that is consistent from session to session you are allowing the child to develop a sense of routine and predictability thus decreasing their anxiety about the future. For instance, every class might include a welcoming/grounding activity followed by breathwork, movement, art or another activity and then ending with relaxation and a closing circle. The theme of the class might change but the sequence will remain the same. For the little ones you might choose to have a poster in the room with the routine so they can have a visual reminder of what is next.
With regards to choice many children who have experienced trauma have had their ability to make a choice taken away from them. Regaining their ability to choose is essential to their healing process. Demonstrating they have the right and ability to make healthy choices allows them to develop a sense of mastery and control.
Forcing participation or requiring that an practice or activity be completed as directed can cause the child to withdraw and decreases the likelihood that they will want to engage in yoga or with you in the future.
Some ways you can give the children the ability to choose are by offering an alternative to a pose or giving permission to opt out of an activity. I see participation in class as a choice that the child is able to make on a moment to moment basis. Should a child choose to opt out of an activity or class they are given permission with an alternative offer. “If fish doesn’t feel good for you today you may choose to take ……” “If you are choosing to sit out of class today John that is ok but I ask that you be mindful of your friends who are participating in yoga and watch quietly from somewhere in the room. Should you change your mind and choose to participate you are always welcome to join in” It is important to offer no more than two choices at any given time. This is done both to avoid overwhelming the child as well as to ensure you are able to contain the situation and maintain a sense of safety for all.
2. Are there any books or other resources you would recommend on the topic?
Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper
Trauma Sensitive Yoga in Therapy: Bringing the Body into Treatment by David Emerson, expected out in February 2015
3. Are there any particular practices that seem to really support healing after a traumatic experience?
Breathwork – following trauma the body is hyper vigilant and on alert. They amygdala (the alarm system in the brain) is working overtime causing the person to perceive danger everywhere. Breathwork can be a tool in slowing the mind and body down and putting control back in the hands of the child. Teaching them how to self soothe and calm their body gives them the skills needed to regain control. Breathwork that would be helpful would be flower breath (in through the nose out through the mouth), balloon breath, counting breath, hand on heart breathing.
Partner poses can build community and connection and can be a good way to discuss “leaning in” on someone for support.
Warrior sequences can be used to build internal strength and self-esteem, assertiveness, confidence. They can also be used to discuss where strength comes from and what makes a person strong. A conversation about support systems can take place about who’s a warrior for this child and who they can be a warrior for. You can engage the children in an art project where they draw a picture of a time they felt strong or they draw a picture of themselves and then color the places they feel strong in their body.
I asked Melissa what inspires her especially when she sees children that face such difficulties day in and day out and she shared this with me.
“I am inspired by the child with the brain tumor who tells me they were able to get through their MRI because they used their yoga breathing; the young adult who lives in a shelter with her parents but gets back on her mat day after day because it’s her “home”; the Haitian 17 year old who takes three tap taps (2 ½ hours each way) to get to yoga class. The children and families who have experienced unfathomable heartache but keep smiling and breathing because they have hope that tomorrow will be easier inspire me. I am inspired by those I am honored to call my colleagues and friends (Karen Gilmour, Jennifer Cohen Harper, Lizandra Vidal, Lauren Rubenstein, Cinda Reirson, Kate Reil and so many more) who show me that you can build a community of caring people and make a difference just by using your voice and your heart.”
Learn from Melissa in person at the National Kids Yoga Conference in Washington DC later this month, or at the Yoga Service Conference at the Omega Institute in May 2015. You can also work with Melissa individually through her therapeutic practice, Hopeful Hearts Therapy.
Thank you for sharing your passion for kids, for yoga and for mindfulness Melissa Kleinman! We appreciate you and the world is a better place with you in it!