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 of the things I’ve learned 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.