Addressing Adversity through Sensations, Emotions, Art Movement and Breath!
Dr. Lori Desautels
College of Education
Butler University

Trauma/ Adversity and Education is changing in that educators are required to attend to much more than teaching reading science and math. This time calls for a deeper understanding of how our brains develop, respond to adversity and how every experience changes the structure and function of brain architecture. Educators have the ability and honor to address the science of adversity and the biology of stress that hijacks the brains of so many of our students across all schools in our country.
We know that children and adolescents are carrying into their classrooms and buildings chronic levels of anxiety. Fifty-one percent of children in public schools live in low income households, equating to over 47,000 schools. When poverty rates are less than 10% the United States ranks at the highest levels of any country in the world in reading, math and science. But when the poverty levels exceed 50%, there is a significant drop in academic performance across all grade levels and this is where the media distorts how the students in the United States are performing overall! In this time, 25% of all adolescents are experiencing anxiety disorders and this number actually climbs to 30% with adolescent girls. https://www.elementsbehavioralhealth.com/featured/teenagers-are-feeling-more-anxious-than-ever/
Up to one in five American youngsters — about 7 to 12 million, experience a mental health disorder each year, according to a new report billed as the first comprehensive look at the mental health status of children in the country. And the rate is increasing, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which produced the study in 2014.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/cdc-says-20-percent-of-us-children-have-mental-health-disorders/2013/05/19/8c316b42-c0b3-11e2-8bd8-2788030e6b44_story.html?utm_term=.4bc4c0f7b7e7
Significant poverty, anxiety, and other adverse childhood experiences compromise and impair the systems in our brains that are intimately connected to learning, behavior, and positive emotion. In particular the limbic system has an affinity for cortisol, a stress hormone produced in our bodies and brains when we need to be alert and pay attention. When children are exposed to unbuffered chronic levels of stress, cortisol is overproduced and can actually kill off receptors in the hippocampus, an area in the limbic system responsible for learning and memory. When adversity and trauma have been present throughout a young child or adolescent’s life the sensory and motor areas and the right hemisphere in the brain are compromised from a lack of maternal input and emotional regulation during critical periods of development. The right hemisphere comes on board the first year of life and holds negative emotion, visual images and implicit memories. Adversity can become stuck in this area as students move through development.
Many children and adolescents carrying in adversity and trauma struggle with processing, organizing and expressing incoming stimulation which can impede higher cognitive learning! When we activate the right hemisphere through sensations, movement, art, music, connection and play, we help our students to regulate negative emotions, feel connected and integrate left and right hemisphere where connections between verbal and nonverbal communication strengthen.
Just as there is a neurobiology of stress and adversity, we also have uncovered a neurobiology of trust and connection which helps mediate the adversities so many of our students carry into the classroom. We are now called as educators to understand the malleability of the brain and the power of relationships that can safeguard and heal the interconnections between various areas of higher cortical thinking and the emotional centers of the brain.
Why does all of this matter? In today’s world, teachers are not only facing significant challenges within the fragile brains of students that directly impede learning but more important, our educators are experiencing second hand trauma from the pressures of being unprepared to address the emotional and social challenges of a child’s well-being.
Students “carry in” their experiences, private thoughts, cultures and a continuum of feelings that change often! Students who carry in pain based behaviors sometimes need for us to enter the back door of their brains (the brain stem area) as the frontal lobes are often shut down and not able to process words, logic and challenges. The back door is where we can address the lower parts of the sensory and motor systems that are often compromised when chronic stress is present.
Teachers who can step out of a disruptive pattern of communication and behavior with salient tasks, have a much better chance of attaching and connecting to the students first thing in the morning and throughout the class period or day! There is an area in the brain called the Reticular Activating System (RAS) and this area in the brain stem is always on alert for salient information in the environment. It is a primitive filter and when sensory information comes in that is pleasurable and motivating …even for a few minutes, the higher brain has a better chance of processing cognitive tasks and academic assignments.
Regulating brain states is not a warm fuzzy extra. Our students are walking into our classrooms and schools with significant anxiety and negative emotion! The impact of stress and adversity on the brain and body intimately affect our emotional physiological and cognitive health. When the stress response is chronically activated there is decreased volume in the hippocampus which affects memory, irregular levels of neurotransmitters, an overproduction of neuronal connections in the limbic areas of the brain affecting fear, anxiety, and impulsive responses.

The following strategies and activities are intended to assist with emotional regulation, build attachment and connection in the classroom, as most of our troubled students are operating from the lower structures of the brain with reactive cognition. When we can support these lower structures there is a much better chance for information to reach the Prefrontal Cortex which is attached to all parts of the brain.
Adversity intimately affects development of the Right hemisphere and this right hemisphere is the locus of control over emotions and behavior.

Addressing Implicit Memory, Emotions, Images and the Sensations Resting in the Brain Stem and Limbic Structures of the Brain

1. Sensation awareness can be introduced and shared each morning during the morning meeting or community time.
Adversity and trauma reside in our biology not our psychology!! The amygdale is our emotional switching station but the stress response begins in the brain stem!!!
The language of the amygdala is feelings!
The language of the prefrontal cortex is words!
BUT the language of the brain stem is sensation!
To begin the day, have students share with a picture or description how their bodies feel. Examples are jittery, tense, pressure, cold , tingly, like jell-o, butterflies, hot, chilly, shaky, icy, weak, empty ,full, tearful, goosebumpy, heavy , open, etc.
Here is a Sensation Word Box –
Cold/ warm/ hot/chilly
twitchy/ butterflies
sharp/ dull/itchy
shaky/trembly/tingly
hard/ soft/stuck/jittery/icy/weak
relaxed/calm/ peaceful
empty/ full
flowing/spreading
strong/ tight tense
dizzy/ fuzzy/ blurry
numb/prickly/ jumpy/owie/ tearful/ goosebumpy
light/ heavy/open
Tickly/ cool/ silky
Still/clammy/ loose
Sensations are different than emotions! They describe the physical way the body feels. Children who are struggling with speaking can point to places on their body that hold a sensation. Sensory awareness promotes cognitive growth and self-awareness.
When students can begin to identify their sensations, they begin to tap into the body and brain where the negative feelings and images are!
Questions to ask!
1. What are you sensing? As the teacher begin sharing and modeling your own sensations!
2. Where is this in your body?
3. What might be the reason for these butterflies?
4. Thank you for sharing as it is so important to know how you feel in your body as this helps reduce some of the negative feelings!
5 What would feel better to you? How can we or I help?
What helps?
1. Just sharing can reduce and dampen the stress response
2. A Focused Attention Practice- breathing and some movement
3. Take a few minutes and draw on a sheet of paper what your sensation looks like!! What color would you give to (itchy, tense, fuzzy, or clammy (for example.) Are they small or large? Does this sensation feel friendly or angry?
From the research of Dr. Peter Levine
When we tap into sensations then we can attach emotions to them and finally when we’re ready, we can provide words or the story!!!
Just as the brain is built from the bottom or back to front, our experiences of adversity begin in the brain stem and can become stuck! This is true for all of us. As Dr. Dan Seigel states, “What is shareable is bearable and what we can name, we can tame!”

Animal Totems
Students will view pictures or figures of animals. They will then choose an animal that they are most conned to either positively or negatively.
After exploring their animal the teacher asks the following questions and these can be answered during a whole class exercise or students can share their responses with a partner, through a picture or they may write down their responses.
A. What is it about this animal that you like or dislike?
B. How is this animal like you in any way?/ How is this animal nothing like you?
C. What are the two best qualities about tis animal? What are the two worst qualities?
D. What would the home of this animal look like?
E. Who is in this animal’s family and do they get along with one another?
F. If you could give this animal magic powers, what would they be?
From Linda Chapman’s Work with troubled children and adolescents
2. Bi-Lateral Scribbling
A. With a large sheet of paper and two different markers in each hand, students will follow the directive of the teacher.
B. Make random marks up and down
C. Make horizontal marks across your paper
D. Make large arcs across your paper
E. Make large circles
F. Make circles fast
G. Make circles slow
H. Make dots all over your paper
Questions to Ask!
Is there anything about this scribbling that resembles you or any part of you?
Is there anything about this scribbling that is nothing like you?
Are there any pictures or designs you see in this scribbling?
What word comes to mind as you look at your scribbling?
Would that word describe something about you or someone you know?

3. Filling up the page with shapes and colors! This activity will explore a child’s feelings! Are they aware of their feelings and what might be his or her perception of self? Please select the colors of markers or tissue paper that represent your feelings and begin to draw and color his or her feelings filling up the paper as much as he or she wants! Feelings can overlap, run together or are displayed in any way the students choose. Questions that follow.

A. What color is the largest? If it had a voice what might the color say?
B. What color is the smallest? If it had a voice what might this color say?
C. What color gives advice?
D. What color would like to be in charge? What color is in charge?
E. Which color would like to hide?
F. Which color would protect the hiding color?
G. Which color is most peaceful?
H. Which color is least peaceful?
I. Is there anything you would like to change about the image?
4. Create Your Own Room and Place
Imagine having a room or space that is all yours! They can decorate it and furnish it anyway they would like. You have complete control to decide who is allowed in the room and who is excluded.

Questions
1. How would you spend your time in this room?
2. Who is allowed to visit? Who is not allowed to visit?
3. How would you care for your room?
4. What person, object or decoration makes this room the most special? Why?
Linda Chapman/ Neurobiological Informed Trauma Therapy for Children and Adolescents
These activities build sensory and motor systems to develop the mind, body, self, activating the right hemisphere with visual and sensory experiences! They also address the missed opportunities of emotional –regulation aiding in neurological development which leads to cognitive development!