Resources for Recovering Resilience: Teaching Children to Calm Themselves

A participant in my Bouncing Back workshop at IONS a few weeks ago passed on to me this opinionator blog from the March 14, 2014 New York Times: Teaching Children to Calm Themselves by David Bornstein, co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network which supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

The article focuses on a program called Head Start Trauma Smart which serves 3,300 children annually in 26 counties in Kansas and Missouri. One of the exercises taught to pre-schoolers who have experienced “chronic childhood adversity” through neglect, severe stress or sudden separation is, when they start to feel angry:

  • look at their reminder bracelet
  • stop, take a deep breath
  • give themselves a hug
  • if necessary, ask an adult for help

Adults can benefit from this kind of calming and soothing, too. When stressed out in a business meeting or stalled in traffic or about to lose it because our child is losing it in the grocery story, using a cue – a bracelet, ring, watch – can remind us to stop, breathe, give ourselves a hug (this will work in business meetings and stalled in traffic as well as at the grocery store with the kids) and, if available, turn to a friend or colleague for a reminder to breathe, or even another hug.

The Head Start Trauma Smart program is based on an evidenced-based trauma intervention framework known as ARC (Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Competency) developed by the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, MA. The idea is to respond to children’s acting out – attention seeking behavior as a bid for connection and the soothing that comes from safe connection. All of the adults who interact with children in the Head Start Trauma Smart model – teachers, parents, bus drivers and cafeteria workers – receive training in trauma, too, so they can calm and care for themselves when they are over-stressed.

The article quotes Stephanie McIntosh, a bus driver for 20 years who received the training through Head Start Trauma Smart, “I deal with pre-schoolers. I’m the next adult the kids see in the morning when they go to school. I used to be the kind of person who said, ‘The way it looks is the way it is.’ But I don’t look at it that way anymore. There are things that happen to people that we don’t know about. Now, I watch the kids better, their body language. I give them reassurances. They always want to give me hugs before they get off the bus. It makes my work more enjoyable.”

Another tool in the Head Start Trauma Smart program is a “calm down corner” with shoeboxes filled with sunglasses, pinwheels and tactile things: nail brushes with soft bristles, bendy Gumby animals, or pieces of burlap or velvet. Parents can creat “calm down corners” at home as well. By taking a time out in a calm corner, children learn over time that they can gain control over themselves and return to an emotional place where they can enjoy playing and genuinely benefit from learning opportunities at school.

The author of the article, David Bornstein says, “The problem that Head Start Trauma Smart is trying to address, chronic childhood adversity, is so widespread and so essential to human well-being that it’s hard to imagine an intervention that could yield greater payback for society.” I agree. And encourage you to read the entire article, try the simple techniques offered in the program – reminders to breath and give a hug, calm corners, and others – to help the children in your life as well as yourself, strengthen the sense of calm and connection that allows us to be resilient, learn, and thrive.