Using Movement to Help Reduce Students’ Trauma Responses
A variety of exercises that promote self-regulation can function as elements of a safe and supportive learning environment.
During craft time, an alarming hush overtook the second-grade classroom. A student, usually cheerful and self-assured, sat under a desk, head lurching side to side, emanating distress that unnerved the class. No amount of empathy or encouragement from the teacher elicited a response from the child. After the class was sent outside for recess, the trauma-informed school psychologist collected the student and walked the child to the counseling office.
To the teacher’s surprise, the student returned to the classroom smiling and animated after only 80 minutes with the counselor.
“The transformation is unbelievable,” the teacher said. “How in the world did you do that?”
“We walked around the playground, then drew sailboats,” the psychologist said. “Talking helps with trauma. Getting a child to do something physical also helps.”
Trauma and Common Classroom Interventions
According to The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders, “Trauma can be defined as a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing.” One out of every three children between birth and age 17 has had at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), and 14.1 percent had two or more ACEs in the past year, according to the 2017–18 National Survey of Children’s Health.
Sustained toxic stress—ongoing and repeated exposure to situations that overwhelm a child’s ability to cope—can cause a child to stay on high alert indefinitely. The nervous system becomes dysregulated, excessive cortisol is produced, and the hippocampus shrinks. As a consequence, memory and concentration problems severely degrade academic performance and negatively impact peer-to-peer and peer-to-teacher relationships.
Whether or not the educator has observed survivor behaviors associated with trauma (such as overwhelming fear and social withdrawal), teachers can support traumatized students by taking the following steps:
- Communicate care (Example: Celebrate student successes, big and small, and listen to children to get to know them.)
- Provide a predictable, respectful, and safe classroom environment (Example: Communicate expectations for how students should treat each other, and model how to build relationships.)
- Be transparent and build trustworthiness: Be open about your own teaching practices, goals, and beliefs, and follow through on these priorities.
- Expand on students’ competence and empowerment (Example: Encourage students to make choices about what and how they will learn, and relate new learning to students’ strengths and experiences.)
- Connect students to classmates and counseling resources (Example: Invite the school counselor to model to your class how to build peer-to-peer relationships.)
- Help students make sound choices (Example: Provide students with options for what they read, and let them choose based on interest.)
- Foster cultural connections (Example: Invite diverse leaders in the community to discuss their cultures, or explore curricula to authentically include culture within instruction.)
- Teach self-calming techniques (Example: Show students how to engage in progressive muscle relaxation.)
- Incorporate laughter and joy into the school day (Example: Children can perform skits based on content they’ve learned.)
Beyond those recognized approaches, teachers can safely and confidently incorporate stress-reducing physical activities into the school day, even without formal training in trauma-informed practices.
Physical Activities and Classroom Motor Tasks Help Lower Stress
Unsurprisingly, the effectiveness of using exercise to complement clinical approaches for alleviating trauma symptoms is well documented. Physical exercise produces endorphins, reduces the fight-or-flight response, and improves physical confidence, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Teachers can offer students the following specific physical practices that lower the stress hormone cortisol:
- Intentional movement activities that students enjoy, such as painting or working with clay
- Low-intensity walks, ideally performed in nature
- Belly breathing
- Yoga and stretching (see “5 Poses to Calm Overwhelmed Kids” from Class Yoga Kids by Helen Clare)
These activities and other exercise breaks benefit every student, not just those surviving trauma. After your class participates in these activities, you may see their energy mellow in just a few minutes.
According to a 2019 study of 71 elementary school students, increasing motor skills also improves children’s chronic stress response. The researchers theorize that reducing the mental load of coordination frees up cognitive resources to negotiate complex emotions. Also, focusing on a concrete physical task can afford students a much-needed distraction. The following classroom activities involve motor skills and help students regulate their emotions:
- Pouring juice into cups during snack time
- Sponging off desks or cleaning whiteboards
- Using flash cards or playing card games
- Opening containers and distributing items
- Playing rhythm and rhyme games
- Participating in a nondominant-hand drawing challenge (for fourth grade and up)
Some physical education routines can be modified for use in the classroom, such as pinpoint, magic cauldron, on the edge, and cooperative (wadded paper ball) tennis. Dan Batty describes all four games in his short video.
Do Strength Activities Lower Stress?
Strength exercises (not the same as powerlifting) have a positive impact on physical and psychological manifestations of trauma. For kids as young as age 7 or 8, light resistance, body-weight exercises, and controlled movements work best, but don’t overtax the same muscle groups for more than one day in a row. Here are some strength exercises to try:
Classroom strength activities
- Passing out heavy textbooks
- Squats or wall sits
- Heel-raise sticker game
- Tennis ball squeezing
- Rearranging desks and/or chairs
Playground or gym strength activities
- Climbing on playground equipment
- Rope climbing
- Superman exercise
- Parachute cooperative play
- Tug of war
- Total body resistance exercise (TRX)
Jane Clapp, a trauma-recovery coach specializing in movement, recommends balancing exercises such as standing on one leg or crawling because they trigger the nervous system’s “righting reflex” to foster better self-regulation. However, discourage children from building human pyramids as many schools have banned them for causing serious injuries.
Implement These Practices Under Advisement
When combined with general trauma-informed interventions and trauma-sensitive practices, integration of movement into the school day supports emotional regulation and reduces students’ stress, especially when these activities incorporate play. Always consult with your school counselor, administration, and parents when applying practices and routines that could affect traumatized students. Some children experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder or other traumas may be exercise avoidant, so start slowly with gentle movements.