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  • Writer's pictureDeirdre Azzopardi

Twelve Simple Ways to Regulate the Nervous System for Special Education Professionals

Over this school year, I introduced twelve different mini mindfulness practices tailor made for the busy, stressed special education professional. When I began posting these ideas I did not know that this year would be my most stressful year to date. Across the United States, special education has faced staff shortages and at the same time we are getting more referrals as a fall out from Covid. I have been at my busiest while the schools have the least amount of support.

Neuroception, a term from polyvagal theory, is described as the nervous system’s threat detector. According to the theory all of us constantly, unconsciously. scan the environment to determine our level of safety. With the uncertainty around Covid seemingly never-ending, do most of us feel safe? Is a stressed teacher/ therapist a safe person around a vulnerable child? I think we all know the answers to these questions. The formula is simple: stressed adults = stressed children and we know that stressed children are not available for learning. Taking care of our nervous systems and understanding our stress is then not just important for our health but vital if we want to positively impact the children we serve.

Here is a roundup of the 12 practices that I put out onto my Facebook group and Instagram handle. We truly only need a few mindfulness moments each day that we PRACTICE to create a nervous system reboot toolbox that helps us to be the people we want to be for ourselves and for children:

1. Turn off the car radio for 5 minutes before arriving at work

Mindfulness does not have to mean meditation. Instead, it can just mean taking time to attend to one part of our experience. This simple, silent reprieve was my salvation in between dropping off my young children and beginning my work day for many years. Taking the time to start the day in silence, before walking into a noisy school, is so simple and grounding.

2. Savor one hot drink per day

Most of us have at least one hot drink every day and we tend to drink it while being distracted about things that may stress us. I know we are busy professionals but can we take a few minutes to really savor our drink without distraction. We all want children to learn to attend better but we have to learn to do that for ourselves. This is an easeful way to add joy to our busy day.

3. In a moment of transition, rub your hands together, make them into cups and put them over your eyes. Take 3 deep breaths

Just closing out the visual stimulation for a moment can be an instant nervous system reset. I often teach this practice to children because not all children like closing their eyes for mindfulness. Deep breaths also send the message to our nervous system that it is time to downregulate.

4. Make it a point to take a movement break, with your students, at least once per day.

Just a little bit of exercise shakes us out of our thinking minds and into our bodies. I love to do this with children and then open up a discussion on how we feel when we move and why this might be important.

5. Do a standing forward fold (ragdoll pose) with a big sigh.

Both forward folds and sighing help to downshift our nervous system. While doing this simple movement I love to state “Let’s take all of our stress and dump it onto the floor.” This is a wonderful practice for us but also the perfect activity to do with our students. Most of us need to lower the volume on our nervous systems and it just feels so good.

6. Take a breath and put your hand on your heart right before seeing a student who triggers you

All therapy and teaching is about relationships. We are human beings who have very human reactions. Often when a child has behavioral difficulty the onus is put on the child to change, but we also come into these interactions with all of our own "stuff"- our history, our biases, and our thoughts. If we can remind ourselves that this child is doing their best, we can find compassion for them and ourselves. We will then start our time together from a more grounded, loving place.

7. Let go of the gripping in your hips and shoulders by consciously softening while doing paperwork

For many of us paperwork, such as writing evaluations or completing IEPs, is stressful. We can take a moment to soften while completing paperwork so we don't add unnecessary tension to the experience. Right now, if you are reading this, consciously soften your shoulders and hips by sending breath to the knots. Visualize the muscles, and even the bones, opening and relaxing.

8. Allow yourself a moment to feel gratitude. For me, it is gratitude for my students. They light up my days with pure joy and presence.

There has been much written about the benefits of gratitude but sometimes we go through the motions and don't take a moment to soak in the positive feelings that come from gratitude practices. Special education is challenging! It is way too easy to get caught up in the difficulty but the antidote to the stress is all around us in schools. KIDS! They are joy personified, and if we get still we can just catch the wave of that joy.

9. Today when you arrive at work, close your eyes and just notice your feet connecting to the floor. Stay with that feeling for 5 conscious breaths.

What does it mean to have body awareness? Therapists throw around this term often. While we may use sensory integration techniques to help a child to have a better sense of their body, we rarely think about mindfulness. Connecting to the body through mindfulness is an evidenced based way of lighting up the parts of the brain responsible for body awareness. Doesn't it just make sense? When we use mindfulness to consciously feel a part of our body, we often notice that there is an immediate relaxation response. Imagine the peace we seek is right there in our feet?

10. When you arrive at work, send good wishes to the first five people you see (without saying a word).

Mindfulness practices need an anchor. Often people use the breath or a part of the body to anchor their attention. We can also connect to heartfulness or compassion. We can literally say a quick sentence in our mind when we see people like "I wish you happiness" It is such a nice way to start the day. We can even send these wishes to people that may trigger us as a way to improve our relationships and open up our hearts to forgiveness.

11. Before you get to work, take a moment to stand in perfect alignment, keep your heart open and tell yourself that “I have got this.”

Amy Cuddy became famous a few years ago when she introduced the idea of power posing but yogis have known the idea of standing in our power for a long time. Our bodies and our minds are always talking so our posture matters to our overall sense of well being and health. Our current culture (with us stooped over our phone) has our heads forward, and our shoulders and upper backs rounded. Our spine connects to our hips so this puts our whole pelvis out of alignment. When we take a moment to stand tall (especially taking that bowling ball of a head back in space) we often feel this immediate confidence and sense of self. We tend to breathe easier. Adding a mantra, like “I have got this!” just amplifies this feeling.

12. Practice STOP

S= Stop

T= Take a breath

O= Observe - notice what is happening

P= Proceed with kindness

Mindfulness does not have to be complicated. We just have to remember to do it. I have given this graphic out to countless people. It is an easy reminder that we have the right to take a moment to ground ourselves in presence and that steering towards kindness, in all things, just makes life more joyful. Display it where children can see it so you can practice together.

I have intentionally made these practices simple. My courses are also meant to be easeful. Aren’t we all done with struggling ? Please check out the Mindfulness Transformation for School Based Therapists if you want to add mindfulness to your work and to your life. It is 3.7 hours of AOTA approved content. When I added mindfulness to my work everything became more meaningful and joyful. Please reach out with any questions and I hope that you find moments of peace this day and every day.

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