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Compassionate Classrooms: Mindfulness-Based Skills to Promote Resilience and Connection in the Autism Classroom

By Guest writer: Megan Davis, LISW/S, RYT/500

Fight - Flight - Freeze and Students with special needs

Our bodies are wired for survival; when we experience stress, anxiety, or viscerally perceive threat, our bodies respond accordingly. We unconsciously shift into a sympathetic nervous system response (fight-flight-freeze), which is an adaptive response to stress. Heart and breathing rates increase, digestion is inhibited, and blood rushes away from the brain. Cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine (stress hormones) course through our bodies. Although this is an adaptive response, it becomes maladaptive or harmful when it becomes our default or chronic. Students with special needs, or with Autism Spectrum Disorder, often experience increased anxiety and differently experience sensory input, both of which can activate the sympathetic response. This chronic activation not only impacts the behaviors and emotional wellness of our students, but it also affects physical health and development.

Safety Physiology is the Optimal Space for Learning

A healthy nervous system is flexible and resilient, and part of that resilience is rest, relaxation, and play. When our nervous system experiences safety physiology or a felt sense that “in this moment-all is well”, it is our parasympathetic response (rest-digest) that takes over. Our heart rate slows, our breath is deep and full, digestion is active, and blood rushes to the brain, lungs, and gut. Feel-good hormones, dopamine, and serotonin are released, and we have the capacity to access higher-level thinking (responsive versus reactive). Yoga and mindfulness practices have been shown to activate the body’s parasympathetic response, as well as reduce anxiety and increase self-awareness by bringing attention to the present moment.  This safety physiology not only supports wellness, but it is the optimal space for learning. A grounded, settled nervous system results in an integrated body-mind, which is needed to engage in executive functions associated with learning, and also to connect with others. Safety physiology allows us to attune to prosody, cadence, and tone of voice and be more responsive to facial expression/gesture and non-verbal communication, which facilitates social reciprocity and relationship.

Integrating Mindfulness Practices into the Classroom

So how does this translate into the classroom? By integrating mindfulness practices into the classroom, we can offer space for students to connect to the present moment, to notice how they feel, and to literally shift their physiology by engaging in practices designed to calm, settle, and re-set their nervous systems. Begin by adding in one to three minutes of mindfulness to your daily schedule. Practice with your students. The visual cue offers a huge benefit, mirroring fosters connection, and you get to experience the benefits too! Consistent and predictable practice is key; having students establish muscle memory and habit around the practice allows them to more readily access the tools as coping skills when they are activated. Here are a few tips to keep in mind, along with a simple guided breathing exercise:

  • In general, a focus on the exhale stimulates the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system), or the brake pedal of our stress response system.
  • Acute attention to the breath may increase anxiety or trigger the SNS (sympathetic nervous system) or the gas pedal, so if this happens, meet them where they are and go slow.
  • Invitational language, choice, and options offer a trauma-informed approach to breathing and mindfulness skills.
  • Use movement (raising arms on the inhale, lowering on the exhale), sensory feedback (place a beanie baby or folded blanket on the abdomen), or cognitive tasks (like counting, affirmations, visualization) to anchor breathing practices.
  • Never require eyes to be closed to practice breathing or mindfulness.
Balloon Breath Application

Sit tall and feel your feet on the floor or your bottom in your chair. Look over your shoulder in both directions and then straight ahead. Find something still to look at or close your eyes if you like. I invite you to place your hands gently on your belly, or one on your belly and one on your heart. We are going to practice breathing like a balloon, in and out through our nose. You might imagine what a balloon looks like when it fills up with air. What happens when you let the air out? See if you can notice your breath right now. Breathe in through your nose and breathe out through your nose. You might notice your hands moving up and down on your belly as you breathe, like a wave. Let’s keep breathing like a balloon, three more times. (cue to breathe in and out, 3-5 more times. Let students know how many rounds you will do) Now, let your hands rest in your lap or on your desk. Look around, notice what you see. How do you feel?

Additional Resources

Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development Yoga Generates Huge Benefits for Children with Autism

About Our Guest Writer
Megan Davis, our guest writer

Megan Davis has over 15 years of experience working as a clinical social worker in inner-city Cleveland, particularly around trauma and loss. Since completing her first yoga teacher training in 2012, she has integrated yoga and mindfulness into her work with children, teens, families, and women. Megan has extensive training around trauma-informed yoga and facilitates training for yoga instructors, counselors, and educators on teaching yoga and mindfulness practices through this lens. She has taught trauma-informed yoga in schools, mental health agencies, and drug and alcohol treatment settings. She currently teaches yoga and mindfulness at Applewood Centers and serves as the director of curriculum and instruction for the local non-profit ZENworks Yoga. Her intention in this crazy, beautiful life is to be a conduit of change and believes that each of us has the capacity for resilience and grace, if given the opportunity to uncover it.

Megan Davis, LISW/S, RYT/ 500 - December 2, 2020


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