9 Lessons from Trauma-informed Mindful Compassion Practices
Marilee Bresciani Ludvik, Ph.D.
It comes as no surprise that the students we serve are experiencing heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Liu and colleague’s (2019) research “point to an urgent need for service utilization strategies, especially among racial/ethnic, sexual, or gender minorities. Campuses must consider student experiences to mitigate stress during this developmental period” (p.1) is a call that can’t be ignored. Many campus leaders are seeking to implement specific ways to heighten students’ sense of belonging and safety as well as reduce their stress and anxiety in- and out-of- the classroom. Mindful compassion practices show promising effects in alleviating stress and anxiety, however they can also potentially have negative impact on mental health and wellbeing when implemented without a heightened awareness of well-researched trauma informed practices (Kang et al, 2018; Magyari, 2016; Treleaven, 2018, Rothschild, 2017).
What follows are a few of the trauma-informed mindful compassion practices that you may consider implementing in your in-and out-of-classroom learning and development opportunities.
- Assume there is trauma in your presence.Informed by thewealth of emerging research about the frequencies of racism-inflicted trauma, and sexual assault-inflicted trauma for all gender identities (Retrieved from http://mcsilver.nyu.edu/sites/default/files/reports/Trauma-of-Racism-Report.pdfon December 8, 2018), we don’t know who among our students has experienced trauma. As such, we invite educators to assume that someone with whom you are in service to has experienced trauma and plan accordingly.
- Co-Create the Container for Learning and Development
We spend a great deal of time discussing with our students what we want them to know and be able to do from whatever experience we are providing them, regardless of whether it is a course, a workshop, or an out-of-class experience. We spend less time inviting them into a dialogue that paints an experiential picture of their optimal environment for learning and development. As such, this is an opportunity to engage in a process where you and the students you serve co-create the ways of how they want to be in their learning and development experiences.
The co-creation of this environment can be done in several ways, the most important point is to make sure everyone has an opportunity to contribute to identifying how they would like to be or show up within an optimal learning and development environment via note cards, post-it notes, anonymous online surveys, photos, or word doodles prior to inviting the students to discuss the words and concepts, grouping them, re-labeling, or further characterizing concepts before crafting a statement that will guide their intentions for holding space for each other’s learning exploration in alignment with their values and goals for their learning. Here are a few ideas that you may want to toss into the learning and development co-creation process to get the dialogue started.
- Engage/ do the work to the best of your ability from where you are and with the resources you have, knowing that your best will look differently from moment to moment
- Honor confidentiality; hold another’s narrative with reverence for their human dignity
- Embody curiosity, which includes observing and objectively noticing while suspending immediate judgement
- Offer compassion/kindness/grace to self and others
- Avoid “fixing”
- Avoid “Doing it Right” or “Striving”
- Use ”I” language so that others have space to speak to their experiences
- Avoid shaming and blaming
- The next moment is a new moment and a new opportunity for a new choice
- Give yourself permission to take care of you at all times
- Courageously ask questions and share comments, while inquiring into how your social context, historical social forces, and global perspectives are shaping what you are seeing, hearing, and asking
3. Invite Students to Opt-in and Opt-out of Pair and Shares. As educators, we don’t always know who is experiencing challenges within our learning and development environment. And we aren’t always sure as to whether what we have invited students into dialoging around will be a further trigger for them. One way to address this concern is by always inviting students to opt-in and opt-out of pair-and-share dialogues or small group dialogues. A simple way for students to indicate whether they want to join in a dialogue or journal on their own is to offer them a card with 1 of each of the heart messages listed below on each side. At the educators invitation, students can turn the green side up if they want to engage in dialogue with their peers, or alternatively turn the red side up if they choose to reflect on the invited dialogue prompt through silent journaling. In this way, the student experiences choice in their learning environment and the instructor can scan the room for colors to determine who may need a one-on-one check-in following the learning experience.
4. Identify well-being resources (internal and external) that can Re-Source students when they become dysregulated. Regardless of how well you feel the co-creation of the learning and development environment was experienced by you and the students you serve or how often you all invite each other into re-embodying those principles, students will find themselves in emotional dysregulation. As such, it is extremely helpful to invite students early on in the educational experience into an exercise that allows them to identify their external resources that serve as well-being anchors for them so that they can turn to these re-sourcing practices in times of stressors that may trigger trauma.
This exercise can begin with a question such as, “What are ways that you re-source your sense of well-being?” You may want to provide some examples such as taking a walk, having a cup of herbal tea, chatting with a friend, taking a nap following an evening of cramming for exam, looking at a photo of a redwood tree or the moon setting over a snow-capped mountain range, rubbing their thumb over a stone, listening to a favorite song, or reading a poem, etc. These would be examples of external ways that we re-source our well-being.
Once students have at least one example that they feel good about, invite them into a guided imagery where they can see themselves doing or being in their well-being re-source practice. As they imagine themselves re-sourcing their well-being in a particular way that feels welcomed to them, invite them to imprint that image into their mind while absorbing all the sensations associated with this well-being re-source experience. You may even – if appropriate – invite them to journal on what they noticed as they practiced their re-sourcing imaging exercise. Perhaps they noticed their jaw softening or their shoulders becoming less tense. Next, invite them to either bring in a small physical object that reminds them of that re-source experience to each meeting you all have together or invite them to simply draw on an index card a few words or a symbol that will bring them back to this re-source moment and the positive sensations associated with it whenever they want to re-source themselves in this moment.
Again, because we don’t always know when our students need to re-source themselves during the learning and development opportunity we are providing and when they might simply be confused, we offer another visual tool for them to use.
Invite your students to display the blue Re-sourcing heart when they are practicing taking care of themselves with their rehearsed re-sourcing exercise. Or if they are confused and noticing they are withdrawing from the learning and development exercise, invite them to display the yellow heart which signals to you that they are simply confused and need some other ways in which to understand the material you really want them to be able to know and do.
5. Invite students to safely inquire into what they notice when they are in their emotion regulation process. While identifying external well-being re-source experiences may be useful, sometimes, students won’t remember to bring their well-being re-source objects with them or they will forget to pull out their index cards when they need them. As such, it may be useful to explain to students that we, as educators, know they won’t always be in the most optimal state to learn and develop at all times. As such, it may be useful for them to begin to identify when they start to move out of that optimal state so they can take care of themselves to the best of their ability, which includes their giving themselves permission to seek professional support that the institution provides them and expects them to use. The intention here is to normalize help-seeking behaviors, while also reinforcing they have the educators’ consistent and constant permission to seek those resources.
The diagram below is adapted from Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (Fani & Ghaemi, 2011) and Kristen Neff and Chris Germer’s work on mindful self-compassion (2018). It may be useful to share this diagram or one that you adapt with students to illustrate how the blue safe and comfortable zone is a great place to return to when they are challenged by learning and development. It is state that we hope their well-being re-source practices brings them to. The yellow zone is when they will likely feel emotional activation or arousal; it is an optimal place for learning and development as long as they don’t become too aroused or emotionally activated to where they no longer feel safe in their learning environment. When they notice they begin to feel unsafe, as educators, we want to be sure to give them permission to return to the challenge learning and development zone, but that may mean they need to ground themselves by using their re-source well-being practice or other practices (some of which follow). Returning to a sense of safety, once they feel they are approaching feeling unsafe, may be the only way in which they can then re-engage in their learning and development experience.
Once you share this diagram with your students in the context of learning and development, invite the students to journal for 1minute on each of the following prompts for each zone. Prompts: A) What within you (thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations) signals to you that you are operating in this zone? B) What well-being strategies help you stay within this zone (if it is zone 1 or 2) or empower you to return to the zone of feeling safe? C) In what ways can your educator(s) empower you stay within this zone (if it is zone 1 or 2) or empower you to return to the zone of feeling safe? D) What would you like your educator(s) to know about how they can best empower you into your optimal learning and development zone?
The point of emphasis is that if students can begin to recognize the experiential attributes of each zone as they arise, they can utilize strategies that serve them well in order to move back to the optimal learning and development zone or the safety zone. The intent is also to re-enforce permission for them to seek their educator’s and/or professional support if they find themselves in the feeling unsafe zone or check out zone and not knowing what to do about it. As educators, it is important for us to infer that if students find themselves in those zones, they won’t be alone to navigate their way out. We must consistently invite our students into awareness of the choices they have to respond, so they feel empowered to healthfully respond to what they know they need in any given moment.
6. Begin learning and development experiences with the invitation to engage in grounding exercises. In the interest of leaving the student in choice, beginning learning and development exercises with “invitations” to engage in any activity is important. This invitation leaves students in choice about when and how to engage, thus empowering them into their own emotion regulation strategies (assuming they have been coached into awareness of what their healthful strategies are, which is what we are inviting trauma-informed practices to facilitate).
Each time you meet with the students you serve, it may also be useful to invite them into a physical grounding exercise of gentle movement such as stretching, where they are invited to bring their attention to rest gently on parts of the body that are moving. You might also invite them to bring their attention to simply sitting on a chair, noticing the sensation of their feet on the floor, seat in the chair, back upright or slouched, etc. This can be a fairly quick exercise that brings the students’ minds and bodies into the space where invitations for learning and development are about to be experienced. If your students are opened to it and following an invitation for them to become aware of their bodies in the chair, you could also invite them into bringing a gentle attention to rest on the breath sensation in the body, noticing for instance, the sensation of the belly rising and falling with each breath. Many students find this brief practice quite useful.
However, not all students will welcome arriving into the learning and development space and bringing immediate attention to their bodies in the chair or bringing a gentle attention to the breath sensation in their bodies. As such, it may also be useful to begin with an invitation for them to move – in whatever ways are comfortable to them – and to bring attention to their bodies in the way they move with each inhale and exhale. What is important here is that as educators, we are offering as many supportive alternatives as we can to aid in our students full arrival into the learning and development space.
7. Give permission to regulate the arousal system in a way that honors students’ survival skills. Continuing forward with the theme of inviting students into choice in any given moment, acknowledge that they all have survival strategies that have served them well. As such, give them permission to engage in those if they find themselves nearing zone 3 or in zone 3. A symbolic practice to illustrate this to your students may be this one, taught by David TreLeavan (2018). Invite your students to close their dominant hand’s fist as tightly as they can, if they are able. Invite them to imagine that their safety is dependent on that fist remaining closed. Then invite them to take their other hand, if they are able, and attempt to pry their fisted hand open with force. What do they notice? Now invite your students to take that fisted hand and rest it gently in the palm of the open opposite hand. Invite them to imagine that their survival strategy is welcomed here. What do they notice?
8. Invite Students to Use an Arousal Scale from 1-10. It may be helpful for students to gauge their own arousal by using a 1-10 scale. David TreLeaven suggests putting some framing on this scale such as 0-3 means I am feeling foggy and spacey, 4-6 means I am in the optimal learning and development zone, and 7-10 means I am experiencing anxiety. Inviting students to place a number on what they are noticing within their own arousal process before and after inviting them into these practices may be very helpful to their noticing which practices are working well for them in which situations and which are not.
9. Inviting in Other Anchors of Attention. When practicing mindful compassion, we often use the breath as the anchor of our attention of the object of our focused attention. David TreLeaven invites us to offer students other anchors of attention or objects of focused attention such as sound, smell, the body connecting to the chair, the feet on the floor, or some small movements. Just as you would guide an opening arrival to class mindfulness practice, you may want to change the object of focused attention around so students can explore what works well for them in particular situations.
There are many other trauma-informed practices, specifically those drawn from mindful compassion work, that we can invite into our in- and out-of-classroom settings empowering our students to safely care for themselves, while we work to reform the systems where they may not feel they belong. I am happy to share those with you so feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org you are interested. In the meantime, I invite you to consider that the very fact we are re-designing our learning and development spaces to be compassionately mindful of our students who have experienced trauma is a powerful step toward that transformational process.
Do you want to use the hearts in your classroom? Simply email us at email@example.com learn how to get your colorful, laminated, card stock heart trauma-informed messages.
Fani, Tayebeh & Ghaemi, Farid. (2011). Implications of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in Teacher Education: ZPTD and Self-scaffolding. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. 29. 1549-1554. 10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.11.396.
Kang, Y., Rahrig, H., Eichel, K., Niles, H.F., Rocha, T., Lepp. N.E., Gold, J., and Britton, W.B. (2018). Gender Differences in Response to a School-Based Mindfulness Training Intervention for Early Adolescents. Journal of School Psychology, 68, 63-176.
Liu CH, Stevens C, Wong SHM, Yasui M, Chen JA. (2019). The prevalence and predictors of mental health diagnoses and suicide among U.S. college students: Implications for addressing disparities in service use. Depress Anxiety. 36(1):8-17.PMID: 30188598.
Magyari, T. (2016) Teaching Individuals with Traumatic Stress: Applying a Trauma-Informed Framework to Teaching MBIs.In McCown, D., Reibel, D., and Micozzi, MS (eds).Resources for Teaching Mindfulness: An International Handbook. New York.
Neff, K & Germer, C.(2018). The mindful self-compassion handbook. Guilford Press: New York.
TreLeaven, D. A. (2018). Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing. WW Norton & Company: New York.
Rothschild, B. (2017). The body remembers volume 2: Revolutionizing trauma treatment. WW Norton & Company: New York.