Continuing Scholars Award Profile

Trauma, Body and the Brain: Restoring the Capacity for Rhythm and Play

(also read the excerpt about this grant in the December 2015 Superintendent’s Newsletter)

Burke_Breathing flowers4a  Burke_Breathing flowers_a

November 2015

Recognizing that “mindfulness” was not being taught as comprehensively as it could be, Dallin Elementary School social worker, Meagan Burke, applied for and was awarded an AEF Continuing Scholars Grant to attend a week-long workshop called Trauma, Body and the Brain: Restoring the Capacity for Rhythm and Play. The summer workshop was moderated by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, a psychiatrist who runs a trauma center in Brookline, MA, but was held at the Kripalu Yoga Center in Lenox, MA, which was a perfect fit for Ms. Burke who is a part-time yoga instructor herself.

For too long, the focus for helping victims of trauma has been on healing the mind alone, without paying attention to the body; Dr. Van Der Kolk teaches that in order to heal, we must have rhythm and play in our lives. Ms. Burke learned that it is essential that we engage with others – through play, drama, sports – not only to recover from trauma but also to develop skills for coping with daily stress. In other words, it is not just traumatized children who will benefit from Ms. Burke’s participation in the workshop. In fact, Ms. Burke’s goals to impact all Dallin students, K-5, include:

  • more explicitly teaching the concept of mindfulness in all classes
  • creating opportunities, especially for marginalized students, to become part of a community
  • encouraging the idea that play and joyfulness are central to feeling grounded and connected

Already this fall, Ms. Burke collaborated with Dallin art teacher, Stacie Greenland, to teach all students a “flower breathing” lesson during art class.  Ms. Burke wanted to include all of Dallin’s clinicians so Karen Ruccio, school psychologist, and Debbie Murray, social worker, also participated in the lessons.  Students made a tissue flower and engaged in discussions with Ms. Burke about what sets off our parasympathetic nervous system responses and how we can “trick” our brains to be calm through breathing techniques.  Moreover, Ms. Burke spoke with the older students about how our cognitive capacity is compromised when we are flooded with strong emotions, like anger or sadness.  In other words, when we are upset we cannot make our best, smartest choices.  She taught the students that calming yourself is the best first step when something is upsetting.

Ms. Burke and Ms. Greenland’s collaborative “breathing flowers” lesson will be highlighted in an upcoming issue of the Open Circle Magazine.

The workshop made Ms. Burke excited to reinvigorate Dallin with the idea that community and joyfulness are central to student success.  She knows that a vibrant, connected community can buoy children and help with recovery from depression and trauma.  One way to build a strong community with kids is to play together.  Ms. Burke is leading two small groups of students in Project Adventure-type activities to teach communication and teamwork.  Additionally, Ms. Burke is planning to teach some yoga classes to all students during PE.  Ms. Burke believes that our busy, deadline-driven culture can make us – adults and kids — lose perspective on the value of laughter.  By using what she learned at the workshop she plans to encourage more play and joyfulness in the school environment and to impact student-teacher connections and student engagement in school.

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