Mary Fowler

The Power of 3: ATrauma-Informed Approach to Dial Down Reaction

Read the first and second posts in this series.

"The more mindful we are, the more choices we have and the less reactive we become." —Ellen Langer

In my workshops, I often invite participants to draw a large circle on the back of my handouts. They listen diligently to the instructions. When complete, I ask everyone to hold their papers up so I can "check their circles." They then place the paper on a flat surface. "Now," I say, "put your forehead in the middle of the circle. Raise it up. Lower it down. Repeat. Keep repeating." That's what I call "mindlessness."

Using a combination of intervention and prevention strategies known to dial down reaction and build resource capacity, we can indeed help students and ourselves improve the ability to accurately assess threat potential, improve appraisal skills, and build the resource capacity to increase resilience.

Quiet the Biology to Manage Physical Sensations and Emotional Reactions

If you've ever been held hostage by the feel of "OMG" or the "what if" worries, then you understand what it feels like when threat-induced tension takes over your body and mind. You feel awful. You can't think straight. You react first and maybe later you think of the "could haves" and "should haves."

Reaction provides more than the sense that there's something we can do when we don't know what else to do. It's also a discharge behavior that relieves unpleasant physical sensations and emotions, especially anxiety and fear. This information explains a lot of what was behind the "seens" in Section 8C. Behavioral reflection didn't come easily to them. When reviewing a situation with a student, there was always a justified reason to blame behavior on what so and so did to force "me to do what I did, which I didn't do" or else I'd hear the perennial, "You're always accusing me!" They much preferred the safety of what they knew—default reaction.

A growing body of research provides evidence that a daily practice of stress reduction techniques, such as breathing and mindfulness, prove effective in reducing anxiety and behavior problems, improving emotional regulation, and increasing academic performance and attendance (Bradley, 2007; Zylowska, 2006).

I didn't know about "breathing" when I taught Section 8C. Subsequently, I came to know through personal recovery from traumatic experiences and studying mounds of research that the quickest way to lower unpleasant emotional and physical arousal is to stop and breathe. I began teaching this technique to students and then to teachers to use themselves and to teach to their students.

"Stop and Breathe" soothes the body and quiets the mind. Conscious, slow breathing increases oxygen, disperses stress chemical build up, and restores biological balance. Counting the breaths as we breathe in and out also makes it impossible to think about whatever caused the unpleasant sensation. The space created in between the arousal and the reaction enhances the ability to appraise a threat in a calmer, more rational manner. We develop better "eyesight" with regard to the resources we have at our disposal.

The quieter the biology, the better able we are to assess our resources and engage in problem solving to make reason-enabled decisions about what to do or not do next.

Teach Stop and Breathe:

  • Teach a simple lesson about how stress affects the brain and body.
  • Explain to students in simple terms about when and why to use Stop and Breathe.
  • Practice the technique with the entire class until the students know how to do it without guidance.

Employ Four-Count Belly-Breathing: Put your feet flat on the floor and your hand over your navel. Gently close your eyes (or gaze at a spot in front of you). Slowly breathe into the abdominal cavity. Inhale to the count of four and then exhale to the count of four. With each inhale, imagine your belly as a balloon you are filling with air. With each exhale, imagine the balloon deflating. Belly-breathe for at least one minute or longer, if possible. If you are doing this strategy as stress prevention with your class, then breathe with them for at least five minutes at the beginning and end of the day. If this time is not possible, do a minute a day. Also consider giving extra credit to any students who practice at home. As with any skill, practice and use is habit forming!

Cue Individual Students to Stop and Breathe When You See Distress Signs: Use silent signals that catch the student's visual attention. Stress reaction and words don't play well together in the reaction sandbox. Using a "stop sign" hand signal triggers some students, especially those who have been physically hit or threatened a lot. Try cupping your hand at your navel as if gently gathering air and slowly move it toward your mouth.

There are other breathing techniques that work well, too. Alternate nostril breathing is one of my favorites. It's easy to do. Close both nostrils with the thumb and index finger. Release the left nostril. Breathe in slowly. Seal it again. Release the right nostril. Exhale the breath. Inhale through the right. Seal. Exhale through the left. Repeat for a minute or two.

Other techniques:

  • Count ceiling or floor tiles.
  • Listen to relaxing music and doodle or fiddle with a manipulative (squeeze ball).
  • Drink water, go for a walk, or gently rock in the seat.
  • Use self-talk and touch. Twirl a piece of hair or gently glide the hand over a wrist or finger. While touching, make positive self-soothing statements: I'm okay. I have people who help me. I know where to go for help. I am not alone. After a few weeks of pairing talk with touch on a frequent, consistent basis, the touch alone will soothe the mind.
  • Humor. There's nothing like a hearty laugh to brighten the day.

As this new school year begins, keep your antennae up for the threat potential in tasks and activities. Be mindful of your own threatening language. Dissect situations to reduce their threat potential.

Positive practices:

  • Engage students in a discussion of biology-quieting practices and ask them which ones they want to use. Train them to use Stop and Breathe as the new "default switch." Encourage students to use mindfulness practices: breathe, notice, observe without judgment, be still to be calm, and practice helpful thoughts.
  • With student input, design a positive cultural practice that will be a part of the daily ritual.
  • Ask students to help build a safe classroom and safe school. Using age-appropriate language, guide them to make a list of positive activities that promote emotional and social well-being. Put these into play by choosing one positive activity per week to promote and practice.

In the next post in this series, I'll continue with a strategy designed to empathize with students.



Bradley, R.T., et al. (2007). Reducing test anxiety and improving performance in America's schools: Summary of results from the Test Edge National Demonstration Study. Boulder Creek, CA: Institute of Heart Math.

Zylowska, L. et al. (2008). Mindfulness meditation training in adults and adolescents with ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 11, 737–746.

Mary Fowler provides professional development to help teachers improve classroom cultures and create productive learning environments. She specializes in training teachers to work with students who have social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties. Fowler is an author and recognized authority on ADHD and related difficulties.

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