Blog post by Sara Sheridan Preston
Throughout September we focused on building awareness by helping ourselves and our students feel the connections between brain and body. When body schema is immature or atypical we see different sorts of movement and activity challenges. A chaotic environment can also cause internal chaos. This kind of disorganization- whether internal or external- manifests in a variety of ways; self-regulatory challenges, motor delays, organizational issues (both of ourselves and our belongings) AND plays directly upon our ability to connect with others.
In discussing awareness we turned the focus on self-to-self connections. When we connect, we relate to and interact with others in a meaningful way. But what happens when our awareness is low or our systems are experiencing disorder? How does this impact our ability to connect in meaningful ways?
Recently, I was leading a training for about 50 school based professionals. It was a group I’ve grown to know quite well, in a familiar setting. But, it was one of those days. I had a lot going on outside of work and had gotten very little sleep the night before I’d had no time for my own morning yoga practice and arrived with moments to spare after struggling to find parking. Not an ideal way to start the day… I was already feeling disorganized and somewhat overwhelmed.
When I walked into the auditorium I remembered that we were sharing the space for our first half hour. It was filled with enthusiastic (read: noisy) middle school students excited to greet their friends and start their day. Someone said hello and asked how I was, and it was all I could do not to burst into tears. I was over-tired, grumpy and couldn’t access my normal space to start setting up. I was feeling disorganized and disconnected. I took a few deep breaths and tried to anchor myself in the moment. In all honesty, when the first few participants approached me to ask questions or check in, it took a lot for me to stay pleasant and professional and to help them meet their needs.
The challenges of the morning had used up my coping chemicals. The time crunch meant I hadn’t had my normal opportunities to refill that cup or build my self-awareness before launching into my day. And the environment was loud, and different from what I was used to. Even as an adult, with a fairly strong self-care practice, it was a challenge for me to connect with my colleagues that morning because I was not really connected with myself.
Now don’t worry, we start every one of these trainings with a Get Ready practice and some consistent self-care routines. I filled up my coping chemicals, connected to my brain and body and within a short period of time was feeling more self-aware and more organized. But the experience was really relevant to what we’re talking about this month.
Often we know that our students have motor immaturities, sensory processing challenges or struggle with self-regulation, but we don’t necessarily look at how these challenges relate to the big picture. When students give us clues that their body schema is immature or incomplete, we know that it may impact how they hold their bodies in space, or how they complete motor tasks like walking up stairs, holding a pencil or tracking a speaker. But if I’m not sure about where my own body is in space, if my sensory receptors are over or under-sensitive, it will be extremely difficult for me to build self-awareness. And how can we connect with others if we aren’t first connected with ourselves?
We know that students on the autism spectrum are often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information they take in from the world around them, and we know that they often struggle with social skills, but consider how the two are interrelated. For these students, even the most thoughtful environment can be chaotic and dis-regulating. If I can’t make sense of my place in the environment it’s going to be almost impossible for me to make sense of how I relate to, or connect with other people in that environment. Furthermore, an overwhelming environment is a major stressor for any type of students. When students are in stress response mode, the focus is on self-preservation, not relationship building.
So as we move forward in our work with both ourselves and our students, we must first consider how we build upon this sense of self, before we expect to connect and engage in meaningful ways. The Get Ready sequences are, of course, one way we can build self-awareness and prepare to connect to others. The sequences are actually designed with exactly that process in mind. The way we use the yoga poses in our earliest sequences mimics some of the developmental movements that are associated with infancy and toddlerhood- when we are first establishing our sense of self, and refining our body awareness. As we progress through the sequences, the way we move become more sophisticated and refined, and we begin to open up, moving in ways that can help us connect beyond ourselves.
If you don’t have access to the sequences yet… what are you waiting for?!
But really, here are some other ways we can help students to build the self-awareness that is essential to their ability to truly connect:
Begin with activities that offer consistent sensory-motor input, and perhaps make use of the outside environment to influence internal organization. For example; walking or marching around the perimeter of the room, at a slow pace, with rhythmic music playing.
Engage students in consistent routines that get their bodies moving and muscles firing; having students deliver books/mail to other classrooms, pushing or pulling carts in the hallway, or helping to move desks and chairs around the classroom.
Build time in the day for students to move and activate their brain-body connections. Consider stretching or dancing between activities, or self-massage breaks.
These activities should help students to build coping chemicals and begin to support more mature brain-body connections. There are additional resources in the Member Only section of the website, and if you're looking for specific information, we encourage you to use our Q&A area.