Four mindfulness techniques for students with emotional difficulties
I think that children with emotional difficulties as a result of a disturbed home life are one of the most misunderstood groups of people in society. As a consequence of trauma and inadequate upbringing, these children often lack emotional control and struggle to properly understand the nature of relationships. Because so few people have truly experienced what they have experienced, so few people can understand the way in which their outlook reflects the disharmony they are all too familiar with.
Before I began working with such children, I perhaps underestimated how difficult it is to teach a child how to understand and control the emotions that they struggle with. That being said, when I initially got to know my tutees, we all got on so well that I wasn't sure that they were experiencing any emotional difficulties at all. But as it is with people one spends a considerable amount of time with, I soon began to become more familiar with the struggles that they were facing and how they were affecting their lives. I learned that it could be really difficult to defuse situations in which some students were anxious and riled up to the extent that they could not work and disrupted the work of others. I frequently found myself removing particular pupils from their lessons for some air and a fresh surrounding.
Soon, I began to notice that certain pupils really benefitted from these breaks - gaining better control of their emotions as a result. I think it’s fair to say I realised how undervalued time-outs are in schools, quashed by the all-encompassing curriculum, and so a walk in the fresh air outside is too foreign to students and staff alike, in many cases. I began to put some focus on making these time-outs a little more constructive than a simple walk around school, by researching certain techniques. I was able to introduce down-time in the afternoons - ‘chill time’ - to play a game, relax and potentially talk about any feelings and concerns.
However, an epiphany struck me as I remembered mindfulness - something that I had been interested in some time before I became a tutor for Yipiyap. It made perfect sense - mindfulness in many cases leads to better coping mechanisms and is something so adaptable and simple to understand. I’ve been able to use there 5 techniques that I researched to help students with their studying, calmness and emotional intelligence.
1. Sensory exercises
I thought starting with meditation might be a little bit of a leap, so I opted for something a little simpler. I found an exercise that involves pointing out:
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can hear
- 3 things you can feel
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste
This activity gives you the opportunity to temporarily detach yourself from the emotions shrouding any rational thought you may otherwise have, in order to clear the slate by doing nothing but notice the state of the body and environment around you. It gives us the rare opportunity to accept what is really going on. I also have discovered that it works best when I ask my pupils to notice the least obvious things possible, to further draw the mind away from its demons so that they can be dealt with effectively afterwards, perhaps using worry trees - a way to immediately cope with worries by evaluating whether we can do anything about them, before casting them away from the mind. However, this is not an ideal technique when in a high-stress environment, so I have found that a selection of repetitive, simple techniques requiring minimal effort is the best way forwards. For example, counting slowly to ten as many times as is necessary; carrying a repetitive task, like removing blu tack from the back of posters; or being given something small to occupy the hands, perhaps during lesson time.
2. Belly breathing
It is infinitely fascinating to me that there are so many ways to breathe, and these techniques are vital when under considerable panic and stress, in order to return the body to its original relaxed state so that the brain can rationally function again. And teaching a child facing frequent anxieties and emotional outbursts to use simple techniques like this is an excellent step towards helping them cope with their thoughts.
When we are under stress, we tend to breathe high up in the chest, which can end up giving us a great deal of discomfort and actually restricts how deep our breaths can be. Belly Breathing draws our attention to breathing into our belly and not exclusively into the chest, so breaths can be deeper and, in turn, settle blood pressure and heart rate. I ask my students to place one hand on their abdomen and the other on their chest, and breathe into their belly. I ask them to notice their belly expanding, followed by the ribs, then the chest, before exhaling and feeling the chest lower, followed by the ribs and finally the belly. They then repeat this a few times making sure breaths are slow.
3. Understanding emotions through stories
A more academic method I use to help my pupils to understand their emotions is discussing certain social stories with them, examining how the characters within the stories may be feeling, why they might have acted and reacted in certain ways, and most importantly, relating these stories to the pupil’s own feelings, thoughts and tendencies. I think that these social stories are useful because I find that we can be quick to make decisions on how we would act if we were in another person’s situation, but frequently fall down when making decisions for ourselves when emotions take hold and confound us. Encouraging students to step back and view their own emotions and actions in the same way that they do for social stories is a great way to train ourselves for these situations.
4. Taking your shoes off
This is an example of a change I’ve made during the time I spend with my tutees which is not a ‘calmness’ technique per se, but more subtle than that. Taking your shoes off instantly lifts and softens the mood, as I think that there is something incredibly liberating about freeing one’s toes and taking a break from some of the formality of school. I encourage my students to understand that there is no restraint on what they are feeling and what they choose to express to me, and feeling comfortable is the first step to achieving that sense of safety and trust.
When I tell people that my afternoons consist of playing games, they often consider me as lucky to have such fun. I am lucky beyond belief, and we have heaps of fun, but I do not take those afternoons lightly. My afternoon sessions are profoundly important, providing an emotional education that the current curriculum simply has no space for. What I have researched and discovered is important not only for pupils with emotional difficulties, but for everyone, as we all too commonly repress our emotions until they do us harm. We can be dishonest about how we really feel in order to protect those we care about and to keep the balance we work hard to maintain.
Utilising techniques like these is a part of upskilling our emotional intelligence, which is extremely undervalued in society. It is something that the children I work with need desperately. And I think that as a result of Yipiyap, promoting this upskilling of emotional intelligence in an educational setting and beyond has become something that will be a lifelong dedication of mine.