Reframing “Bad” Behavior

Two mindfulness tools that help kids regulate themselves by taking some breaths and being aware of when they're triggered and when they're not triggered.

There’s not a lot of data in general around how to support kids in educational environments that have been exposed to trauma. There’s a lot of therapeutic and clinical stuff going on, but in the classroom you have to be particularly careful because you’re not in a position as a teacher and an educator to provide the kind of clinical support a student might need if they get triggered in some way that makes it difficult to work with them.

In my book, I talk about being careful about using mindfulness to engage students in reflections that might provoke memories that will trigger challenging experiences. But I want them to learn, so I’ve created some activities where you can create a proxy for the child. Instead of having the child reflect on their own experience, they can read a story and they can reflect on the child’s story. What would that child feel like? How did that child deal with this?

I would also, for example, loving-kindness practice with a child who’s been exposed to trauma. They may have a lot of uncomfortable and confusing feelings about a loved one that they might wanna choose. I wouldn’t do the loved one thing. I might do something like, how do you think this character in this book felt when his mother did x? So that you’re creating a little bit of space psychologically and it becomes more educational rather than therapeutic, in that way.

Then when you do discover that there is something here, it’s really important for teachers to reach out and support these kids by providing connections to the mental health workers in the schools and then provide the parents with support that they might need in the community. Teachers can be really important in supporting kids that have trauma exposure.

Mindfulness Practices for Kids

Two of the really simple practices that I recommend in schools, I call them “calming” and “focusing.” They’re very common, you hear people talking about them all the time. One of them is just simply taking three slow breaths. The other one is listening to a chime and focusing attention on the bell. Me, I don’t think either of those activities would be at all risky. Those are pretty simple practices.

When you start getting involved in applying mindfulness to emotional experience or physical experience, like a body scan, I think that’s when I would be more cautious and find ways to work around that, depending on their age. But the other fact of the matter is, they can have a student triggered and meltdown anyway.

You could tell kids to open their math book and they could flip out because they’ve got some trauma around math. But being sensitive and recognizing that when a student does have this strong threat response, to know that that’s what’s happening, they’re not misbehaving, they’re not trying to make things difficult. Their stress response is getting triggered in a way that, a response to feeling really threatened.

They may not really be threatened, but in their minds, they are threatened. So when teachers are aware that that’s what’s going on, in any situation, whether they’re practicing mindfulness or opening a math book, they can be more sensitive and if they have a good relationship with a child like that, they can provide them support by saying things like, would you like to take a break, would you like to go lay down, how can I help you? Rather than, what’s wrong with you? Which is sometimes something that teachers will say. Or why are you doing this? Or stop. But giving them some space.

This is another reason why I think mindfulness for teachers is so critical because our automatic tendency when we’re teaching when we see a behavior like that, to immediately assume that it’s misbehavior. It’s just the common go-to. It takes a moment to take a breath and go, wait a minute. Maybe this is trauma, maybe this is something else. These mindfulness techniques, the calming, the focusing, and even the caring practices or the compassion practices, can really provide some resilience to kids who have this experience because really, as you know, they’re self-regulation is kind of out of whack, I guess is one way to say it. They’re over-reactive.

Giving them tools to regulate themselves by taking some breaths and being aware of when they’re triggered and when they’re not triggered. Being sensitive to their own body and how that feels can really help them a lot. It gives them mastery over themselves. When you’re having these experiences, from my own experience as a kid, my tendency as a kid wasn’t to react like that, it was more to dissociate, which for those of you who are watching don’t know that, it’s when kids just sort of check out. They kind of stare into space. For me that was scary, because sometimes I would miss things. It was almost like time stopped and then time turns back on. When you’re in class and teacher’s teaching you something and all of the sudden you blank out, then you come back online you’re like, what are we talking about?

I think one of the most valuable parts of being a mindfulness practitioner is the ability to create a little bit of space between your thoughts, between your experience and everything else and how you’re experiencing it. You’re creating this, it’s kind of like a buffer zone, and it gives you a little bit of space, a little bit of time to make a choice about what you’re gonna do, rather than just reacting. With practice, you become more attuned to your body and you start to notice your stress before it gets overwhelming. Then you can touch it and go, what’s going on? What’s happening?

What I’m gonna teach right now is a really simple breath awareness practice. What we now know is if you take three slow, deep breaths, mindful breaths. A mindful breath means that you are focusing your attention on the sensation of the breathing. You’re not thinking about the breathing, you’re feeling the breath and all your attention is drawn to that sensation of the breath. Taking three long, slow breaths can really calm the nervous system. It’s almost like turning down your thermostat. And when you teach kids how to do this, it’s just amazing because they just go, ah, and you know with kids sometimes you really want them to be able to go, you know?

It helps to sit up nice and tall because you want to be able to sense your full torso because the breath involves not just your lungs, but also your diaphragm. You can close your eyes if you like. You can put your hands on your abdomen if you want, so you can feel the fullness of the breath as it fills your body. At your own pace, begin to take one slow, long, mindful, deep breath. Feeling the air as it goes in and goes out of your body. At your own pace take two more breaths.

Then as you complete your three breaths, allow your breath to settle into it’s normal pace. And notice how you feel. Then when you’re ready, you can open your eyes.