The first few weeks and months of a new school year provide a great time for us to delve into the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that lie underneath the challenging and often dysregulated behaviors we observe in our students. When we search underneath behaviors, we discover the root of the pain and discomfort, along with the defensive and protective nervous system states that can show up as defiant, oppositional, disrespectful, or apathetic.
Our brains and bodies are always reacting to our environments, relationships, and experiences. It’s normal for our nervous system states to change throughout the hours, days, or weeks, but when we get stuck in nervous system states of anger, anxiety, or heavy sadness, our behaviors are often misunderstood. Underneath those behaviors, our students are moving into survival and protective states because they often do not feel emotionally safe and connected.
Unless our students can find ways to ground themselves with feelings of safety and belonging, they cannot learn, focus, problem-solve, reason, or regulate their emotions. One way to help students tap into these positive feelings is to teach them about anchors, or practices that they can access during challenging times to feel more grounded. It’s most helpful if these practices can be integrated into daily procedures, routines, and transitions. The following activities will help students and teachers find their personal anchors.
How Anchors Work
Anchors hold a boat in place, so it doesn’t float or drift away. With an anchor, the boat can still move around in the water, floating with the waves, but it’s held with a gentle force that grounds the boat and keeps it safe. The boat is connected to the anchor for stability and the flexibility to move and float. In this activity, we will select the people, places, experiences, and things that feel steady to us. These are our anchors. Identifying our anchors will help us to prepare for moments in school or at home, when we feel so overwhelmed or so stressed that we cannot think clearly.
Our anchors sometimes change as we meet new friends, encounter a variety of experiences, and learn how to adjust to challenging situations, so this list will grow and change, as some of the anchors we identify today may not be our anchors next month or next year.
Some of our anchors help us in school and can be quick practices that we do in less than a minute to feel a sense of steadiness. Other anchors are practices we can integrate at home when we have more time and freedom. These anchors help our nervous systems find safety and connection throughout our days and evenings. They can help us find a deeper breath and create some time and space for us to discover a bit of relief when we are scared, tight, tense, worried, or upset.
Identifying Our Anchors
On large sheets of paper or in our journals, students—and teachers—can draw or write out their anchors. Some students may want to verbally record their anchors in a recording that we can save on our learning management system. Other students may need another student or adult to write out their anchors as they orally share their anchors.
Ask them: What people anchor you? Who do you trust and connect with easily? These could be family, friends, teachers, coaches, or anyone in their environment. Below are some examples.
Nurturing and protective figures: If we feel unsafe, these things or people help us feel protected. Examples might be caregivers, stuffed animals, teachers, parents, siblings, friends, counselors, or nature. Maybe it feels comforting to look at the stars at night, or be near water, or watch the clouds move across the sky.
Wisdom figures: Wisdom figures guide us with their passion and motivation to be our very best. Your wisdom figures could be your parents, grandparents, pastors, teachers, coaches, favorite actors, musicians, authors, performers, or athletes. Who else can you think of as someone you admire and look up to for their courage, being themselves, and their care for others?
Reflection and Discussion Questions
Both teachers and students can benefit for considering the following questions.
What places anchor you? (Do you have a special room, piece of furniture, walking path, vacation spot, or any space that feels soothing or comforting?)
What times during the day are your favorite? What days of the week or months and seasons anchor you? (Are you a morning person? Do you prefer midday? Is evening or late night a rejuvenating time for you?) Do you prefer Sundays or Wednesdays? Is there a preference or pattern to the days of the week where you find yourself more settled or peaceful? What seasons feel comforting to your nervous system?
What things, practices, experiences, conditions, objects, images, music, or even textures anchor you?
My Personal Anchors
I’d like to close by sharing my own anchors as examples. These are my anchors for in-the-moment dysregulation when I’m at school:
- Lemon cough drops
- Cups of crushed ice
- Wintergreen Life Savers
- An image of our rescue dog, Nellie
- Three long deep breaths with an extended out breath for each inhale
And these are my anchors for home:
- 20 minutes of yoga, three or four times a week
- Listening to music as I clean the house
- Walks with Nellie
- Listening to my favorite inspirational podcasts
- Cherry-flavored Coke with extra cherries
- Listening to sleep stories on my Calm app
When we are intentional about getting out in front of our challenging experiences and emotions, we can resource ourselves and our students with practices that buffer or mitigate the felt frustration or anxiety that can often overwhelm our brains and bodies. As psychologist and neuroscientist Stephen Porges shares so often, “Safety is the presence of connection and not just the removal of threat.”
When our children and youth learn what feels soothing, steadying, and comforting to their nervous systems in times of heightened stress, they will be in the habit of accessing these small practices in all moments.