Exercises that help young students who’ve experienced trauma transition into the school day in a relaxed and ready state.
For the past year and a half, I’ve been working with the directors and educators at St. Mary’s Early Childhood Center in Indianapolis. During my frequent visits, I’ve been introducing brain-aligned sensory and motor system strategies for emotion regulation to 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children.
Many of these children have experienced significant adversity and trauma, and their brains are functioning in a survival state originating from these early life experiences. Many don’t have the secure emotional attachments that we all need, and as a result they may have disorganization in the lower brain regions, which prohibits healthy brain development. This can lead to dysregulation and chronic behavioral, social, and academic issues.
To develop and strengthen cognition in all children, including those who have experienced trauma, we must address their level of brain development. Implementing sensory and motor system strategies for emotion regulation as part of our daily routines and transitions in early childhood provides an opportunity for sustainable healthy changes when the brain is malleable and more adaptable to experiences and environmental structures.
The routines described here can be used to begin the day with children who walk into school anxious, angry, and dysregulated. They can help counteract the adversity these children often face in their lives. At St. Mary’s, we used these strategies to promote rhythmic activity and body awareness. These routines were developed for pre-K through the primary grades, and some can be implemented with older children.
5 Strategies to Start the Day
Steamroller: This strategy is helpful for children who do not like to be touched directly yet need some deep pressure to calm an activated nervous system. The children lie on their tummies with their arms spread wide, and we roll a large exercise ball up their bodies from their feet to their heads while we sing about a steamroller. Then we roll it side to side down one arm and then the other. This is calming and rhythmic, and the children love to sing while we implement this strategy.
Burrito: Combining rhythm and gentle but firm pressure like the steamroller, the burrito is helpful for body awareness. Children lie down on a blanket and we slowly roll them up so that the blanket is wound around them, providing nice pressure. When they’re ready, we unroll with a little speed as the children pretend to roll down a hill.
Peaceful brushing: This has been one of the children’s favorite calming and regulating strategies that we recently began implementing. We sit in a circle as I model peaceful brushing, circling my face and ears with a makeup brush—we have a variety of these brushes. I then brush my arms, hands, and palms. Next I brush areas of the children’s faces, necks, arms, and hands. Many of them do not want me to stop. Some of the children brush their own peaceful spots. This light touch is stimulating in a gentle way—it’s a very effective strategy before naptime and during transitions, as well as when students first arrive at school.
Trauma- and tension-releasing exercises: In these exercises, we squeeze different muscle groups and then release and shake them out. We begin by scrunching our faces tight and then releasing those muscles. We make fists with our hands and then slowly release, shaking them out. We repeat this contraction and release with our shoulders, legs, and arms, and then scrunch down in a pretend bear cave to get as small as we can before releasing all our muscle groups and growing big and tall once again.
These exercises provide a contraction and release of muscle groups related to the psoas muscles in the lower back, which are connected to our flight-or-fight response. Many children who have experienced significant trauma and adversity feel tension and tightness in their bodies, and these exercises help release that tension.
Meet our buddies: This strategy extends well beyond the start of the school day. We gave the children small stuffed animals over the winter to care for and attend to while at school. They gave their buddies names, cared for them throughout the day, and napped and ate with them. We discussed what their buddies might need to feel peaceful and calm. Many of the students truly cared for their animals.
In addition, many of the children projected their own lives onto their buddies, providing us with really useful information. We kept a log noting how the children interacted with their buddies and how often, and how they used or implemented their buddies during the day. We observed a calm in many students that we had not seen before.