When someone goes through an experience that feels threatening to their life or safety, we call that experience a trauma. We often think of trauma as something that only happens to an unlucky few, but it’s actually a lot more common than you may think. Studies show that most of us will experience a traumatic event at some point in our lives, and up to 40% of students in the U.S. have gone through trauma.
When working with students in any capacity, it’s important to use trauma-informed practices to make sure that kids who have gone through trauma feel safe. Mindfulness is no exception; you can use these trauma-informed tips and exercises to teach mindfulness to K-12 students.
What is trauma-informed mindfulness?
More and more people in helping professions are educating themselves on trauma-informed practice. When something is trauma-informed, it means that it takes into account the ways that trauma can affect people. Trauma-informed practices intentionally bring trauma into the conversation so that every practice is psychologically safe for those who’ve experienced trauma.
Trauma-informed practice is gaining steam in the field of education, too. More and more teachers are learning about how trauma may be affecting their students 一 their behavior, their attention spans, and more. Teachers are also equipping themselves with guidelines and practices they can use to make their classrooms psychologically safer for these students.
Trauma-informed mindfulness trains people to use and teach mindfulness in a way that is safe for trauma survivors. Trauma-informed mindfulness teachers understand that having been through trauma can affect the ways in which we experience mindfulness.
The practice of mindfulness invites people to sit with whatever thoughts and feelings are present. For some trauma survivors, immediately starting the mindfulness journey with sitting meditation may be overwhelming. People who have been through trauma might be flooded with memories and sensations of the traumatic event 一 which isn’t helpful when you don’t feel like you can cope with it. For mindfulness to be effective and healing, it needs to feel safe.
Trauma-informed mindfulness is based on the idea that there are many different ways to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness has been found to be very helpful for people who are feeling the effects of traumatic stress, but it needs to be approached in a safe, and often modified, way.
Guidelines for teaching trauma-informed mindfulness
Don’t know where to start when it comes to guiding your students in trauma-informed mindfulness? Not to worry; follow these five guidelines to make sure that your students feel safe and grounded while practicing mindfulness.
1. Recognize the signs
First, it’s important to learn everything you can about what trauma is and how your students can be affected by it. Trauma can manifest in many ways; if you can recognize the signs of it, especially in children, then you’re more likely to be able to approach it in a helpful way when you see a student suffering from its effects. And the studies show us that we can never assume that any student’s life has been free from trauma.
Learning about trauma can also help you have more empathy for your students. What seemed like disruptive behavior before can be approached differently once it’s recognized as a possible sign of trauma.
2. Give choices
People are robbed of choice when they go through a trauma 一 this is especially true for children and youth. Part of why traumatic events are so terrifying is because we feel like everything - including our own safety, and sometimes our lives - is out of our control.
Keep this in mind when teaching mindfulness to students who have been through trauma. Empower them, and give them back a sense of control over their choices. Be intentional about the language you use. Always invite students to practice with you 一 never force them or demand it from them. At every step of the way, remind them that they can choose not to follow along if they feel uncomfortable.
3. Modify instructions
To further build on the idea of providing choices, you may want to consider modifying the actual instructions and practices you use to teach mindfulness to your students. For example, many mindfulness exercises invite practitioners to close their eyes. You may want to rephrase this; tell your students instead that they may choose to close their eyes or to find a soft gaze.
You can also modify anchors of concentration. Most mindfulness practices ask people to rest their awareness on something either inside or outside of them; most often, people are asked to focus on their breath. When working with students who have been through trauma, consider modifying the practice to anchor awareness on something external, like a sound or a flavor. Trauma is stored in the body, so these types of practices are good ways to focus on body-awareness with your students.
4. Build safety
Both emotional and relational safety are important when teaching trauma-informed mindfulness to your students. By that, we mean that it’s important for your students to both
- Have coping skills to be able to safely deal with difficult emotions that come up for them, and
- Feel psychologically safe in their relationship with you and their classmates.
Trauma-informed mindfulness ensures that students’ psychological safety always comes first. Before asking your students to engage in a mindfulness activity with you, you should feel confident that your students feel safe with you. Never judge or discipline a student for not wanting to practice mindfulness with you.
5. Don’t be afraid to step away from meditation
Lastly, don’t get too hung up on what you think mindfulness “should” look like. If your student isn’t ready for any type of meditation (whether it’s sitting or walking), remember that mindfulness can - and should! - be practiced in every moment of our lives.
Invite your students to listen to music mindfully, following every note with their awareness. Or take a classroom walk and notice every color that you find out on the playground. Mindfulness doesn’t need to happen on a cushion with a bell. Try to let go of this idea.
3 trauma-informed mindfulness exercises
For more specific ideas about how to teach trauma-informed mindfulness, try these three exercises with your students. All of them have been designed to keep possible trauma in mind when guiding sessions.
Snack or lunch can be excellent opportunities to teach trauma-informed mindfulness to K-12 students. Before giving the go-ahead for your students to begin eating, invite them to pay close attention to their food. Invite them, if they are comfortable, to notice the different colors in their food, and think about all the different factors that had to come together to create the food that’s in front of them. Guide them to smell their food and savor the aroma before taking a bite.
Once they start eating, invite your students to chew slowly, savoring every bite. Ask them to notice every individual flavor and seasoning, and to stay fully present with each bite rather than thinking ahead to their next spoonful.
Texture scavenger hunt
Trauma-informed mindfulness can be taught as scavenger hunts of all kinds. This is a fun and easy way to teach mindfulness to K-12 students, especially in younger grades. One type of mindful scavenger hunt you can invite your students to complete with you is a texture scavenger hunt.
Ask your students to walk around touching things, and finding all the different textures they can. You might consider giving more specific guidance, like finding soft textures, or bumpy textures. Using the sense of touch can get students out of their heads and more grounded in their physical environment.
Another way to get students grounded in their physical environment is by inviting them to connect with their bodies. As we mentioned before, the effects of trauma are often stored in the body. By inviting your students to engage in a mindful movement like stretching, they can start practicing mindfulness in a way that’s trauma-informed.
One common type of movement that’s used to teach mindfulness is the practice of yoga. Although yoga and mindfulness aren’t the same thing, they often go hand-in-hand as exercises that help students to connect with their bodies and notice tension.
At Calm Classroom, we always incorporate trauma-informed practices in our mindfulness teachings and activities. Sign up for a free trial of Calm Classroom’s trauma-informed mindfulness training to learn more.