From Chaos to Peace – Using Mindfulness in Special Education
Close your eyes and imagine walking into a classroom and seeing what can only be explained as pure chaos.
You can see students arguing with paraprofessionals, a student laying on the floor and kicking his feet while he yells, a student sitting in the corner with his hood on (no doubt trying to cancel out the yelling he’s hearing) while staring at an iPad, and another student screaming and climbing up on the sink while her teacher blocks her because she wants the bubbles and won’t take no for an answer.
You see the defeated look on the teacher and support staffs face, as well and the anxiety and exhaustion. Fun, huh? Now walk into that same classroom months later and you see an entirely different scene. You see students sitting at their desks either diligently typing on a Chrome book or writing in their daily journals the mornings writing assignment. You see paraprofessionals standing near, but not next to the child they are aiding, gently giving support when needed.
You hear soft music playing overhead and notice that the only light in the room is the natural light coming from the big windows on one side of the classroom. Next you hear a gentle bell ring as you see a teacher hit stop on the timer on her phone and prompt the students for the next transition. What’s missing from the first time you went into that classroom to the second? What happened in roughly 180 days? Oh yeah, that overwhelming feeling of anxiety and chaos! That was my classroom and I want to share with you the changes I made to go from chaos to the peaceful environment every teacher dreams of.
Mindfulness is a huge buzz word right now and with movements, such as Goldie Hawn’s MindUP organization, mindfulness is becoming less of an enigma and more accessible to our children all over the world. Anxiety in children seems to be at an all time high, and with more schools implementing mindfulness practices, students are being taught positive behaviors and habits to help combat it. But what about their peers with autism? I’ve worked with children of varying diagnosis in my career and one thing I’ve found to be a constant; there is a layer of anxiety in many children and they may not know how to deal with it appropriately when triggered.
Think about what triggers anxiety in you, this could be a stack of bills or being late for work. Someone who has autism is likely to become anxious about things like making eye contact, holding up their end of a conversation, or trying to make a connection with another student. This anxiety may cause a student to act out in a way that they don’t want to, because of lack of other strategies, and the outcome is not what they would like. When we are feeling anxious our bodies cannot self-regulate because we are using self-control to fight our bodies initial response to the trigger (our fight or flight response). So how can we help students with autism decrease their anxiety? That’s where mindfulness enters the classroom!
A few years ago I started using mindfulness practices (such as meditation, deep breathing, yoga, etc.) after being diagnosed with anxiety. Anxiety is one of the most common diagnosis, affecting somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 million Americans. I don’t know about you, but I wanted to move out of that neighborhood! As I worked on my own anxiety I noticed how my students where suffering from many of the same symptoms, so I began implementing these techniques in the classroom.
And what I saw over the year was that injurious behaviors decreased tremendously, their expressive and receptive language increased, as did their attention and academic readiness. But the biggest payoff for me was to see the pride they had when they were able to navigate a situation that used to trigger anxiety. Here are just a few of the techniques I used:
Circle of Control
Being able to see what is or isn’t in our control is something that is always great to learn, even for adults! I will give a student a paper with a big circle on it and we will go through what is in their control. When we perceive something is in our control we tend to get very upset or perseverate on the outcome we want or wish we had.
By learning what is in our control we can look at a situation and figure out how to get the outcome we want by what is in our control. An example of what is in my control are my feelings, reactions, actions, or how I talk to myself or others. This is also a great way to transition into the conversation about how to use positive self-talk to increase your students confidence and self-esteem!
Meditation is typically used to make us more present. I used meditation to help my students focus more on an outside voice, and less on the internal chatter. Sometimes the committee in our own heads is enough to give us a migraine as well as have your anxiety sky rocket! Having my students focus on a guided meditation, where they were focusing on another’s voice, helped to pull them out of their own internal dialogue for a bit.
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Choosing guided meditations that are short but high in positive self-talk pack to biggest bang with decreasing anxiety and increasing self-confidence. There are so many to choose from on your phone or iPads, as well as activity cards and books that use meditations and gentle yoga poses.
Anxiety hates when you’re proactive about what you need. Some students may by hyper-sensitive to stimuli in the classroom (such as fluorescent lights, multiple conversations going on, or too many people) and become overwhelmed with the sensory input they are getting, other students may be hypo-sensitive and not receiving enough sensory input.
While one student may need a quiet area to decompress, another might need some heavy lifting activities (such as moving some books or a box to another room) to help self-regulate, shake off excess anxiety, and refocus. Some students have this written into their IEP’s and others you just figure out along the journey! By making a schedule that incorporates these sensory breaks that speak to the specific need of the individual you are helping them to decompress, regulate their emotions, refocus, and be ready to learn.
What had once been the “Quiet Zone” for my elementary students transitioned to the Chill Zone when they got into middle school. There are so many creative ways to create a Quiet Zone in your classroom or at home (I mean, have you looked at Pinterest lately?!). For some of my students I used a house made out of cardboard that was generously donated from our kindergarten class.
This provided the perfect space for one student at a time who needed an enclosed, dimly lit, quiet area when he/she was feeling overstimulated. And some students needed an area that was rich in activities that utilized their fine and gross motor skills, as well as addressed their heightened sensory needs. For this I would use knobby balls, medicine balls, exercise balls, kinetic sand, therapy dough with beads hidden inside, and various other activities that satiated this need for input.
Have you ever had someone ask how you are and you just didn’t really know what to say? Sometimes we’re a tangle of emotions or feelings and it’s hard to separate them. By providing a word bank of emotion words a child can choose how they are feeling and provide multiple words. Some students I have worked with found it challenging to relay their emotions or feelings verbally so I started doing a body scan.
It’s much like you would while you’re doing a mediation, checking in with all the parts of your body from head to toe. For students who could not relay that they didn’t feel well, asking about a specific body part made it a little easier than them having to figure out what didn’t feel good on their own. This was a great tool to help a student realize if they were feeling certain emotions that it was ok and we could work together on that and turn their bad feelings into good ones!
By using these techniques students are not only feeling respected and valued, but they are being empowered by adding more strategies to their toolbox! We all feel appreciated and accepted when someone takes that little extra time to find out what our needs are and ways to help us succeed. So let’s work together to meet your child where he/she is and watch he/her soar to success!
Ronette Parker has been in the special education field for over 20 years and is now the owner or Mindful ABA where she incorporates traditional ABA with mindfulness practices to decrease anxiety. She also produces educational videos in her Mindful ABA Education Library that addresses topics from early development milestones, early intervention, the IEP process, behavioral strategies, to sensory friendly family vacation ideas. Ronette currently resides in Aptos, California with her fiancé and is writing a book with her 10-year-old daughter who has Juvenile Diabetes to help other children deal with the challenges of growing up with diabetes.
This article was featured in Issue 85 – Top Strategies for Supporting your Family