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Why Mindfulness And Trauma-Informed Teaching Don't Always Go Together

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Mindfulness is a fast growing trend both in the world generally and in schools. Teachers are turning to the practice as a simple way to restore calm to the classroom, help students find some quiet space, and build self-regulation skills. Some teachers say their personal mindfulness practice has helped them respond more calmly to students and helps them keep perspective. But it’s also important to realize that some of the ways mindfulness is practiced -- sitting still, eyes closed, in silence -- can also be triggers for students who have experienced trauma.

“This isn’t about calming down,” said Sam Himelstein, a clinical psychologist, trainer and author who has spent most of his career working with incarcerated youth. “Calming down is great and it is a skill that youth can get better at. But if we’re talking about mindfulness, at its core, we are just talking about being present with whatever it is.”

Himelstein has worked with teachers who get upset when students don’t want to engage in mindfulness a certain way -- perhaps they don’t want to close their eyes or won’t sit the recommended way. But none of those things are truly about mindfulness, Himelstein said. Forcing students to engage with the practice in prescribed ways may do more harm than good, especially if the student has experienced trauma.

“You never want to force people to close their eyes,” he said. That alone can cause trauma for some kids. “The goal is not to turn people into meditation monks. It’s just about learning to turn inwards and practice self-awareness.”

Himelstein has a lot of empathy for the young people he works with because he was an angry kid. He got into trouble in his early teenage years for drugs, and was sent to juvenile hall seven times. He also spent a lot of time in group homes once released, and it was there that a skilled mentor put him in a leadership position and sparked a desire in Himelstein to do counseling.


Himelstein was lucky that he got into trouble during middle school and was able to get back on track for high school. He was also lucky to be born into an affluent, white, two-parent home in Berkeley, California. His time in juvenile hall showed him what other kids his age were up against.

“A lot of the kids I work with it’s a real uphill battle when they come into the system at [ages] 15 to 16 because they just have so many high school credits to catch up on that it becomes overwhelming,” Himelstein said. “It’s so easy for them to get in the mindset that 'school isn’t for me' and turn that into a core belief.”

When Himelstein explains mindfulness to young people he likes to use a metaphor coined by Larry Rosenberg the dog-mind versus the lion-mind. If a human waves a bone in front of a dog, the dog will track that bone and chase it when it’s thrown. But wave a bone in front of a lion’s face and that lion might eat the human behind the bone.

“The dog can’t see beyond the bone. If I control the bone, I control the dog’s reality,” Himelstein said. But the lion sees a broader picture. He sees the human behind the bone. “That ability to see the larger picture gives the lion more autonomy, more choices.”

Himelstein then directs students to think of the bone as anger or anxiety. Reacting with the mind of a lion allows a person to say, “I’m angry right now,” and that little bit of metacognitive space between the person and the thought allows them to choose how to respond.

“It’s much easier said than done, but that’s what mindfulness is,” Himelstein said. “It’s noticing what’s happening in the present moment with a non-reactive mind.” When he’s presenting to youths, he asks them: Who’s the king of the jungle? The lion. And who doesn’t want to be the king of their inner jungle?

Himelstein has found that teens gravitate to this metaphor because it makes the concept less abstract. They can see how mindfulness will be useful to them and how it could give them an edge. Additionally, the metaphor becomes a language thread Himelstein can return to over and over again. “Lion-mind” is a shorthand for that ability to choose a reaction.


“A trauma-informed lens is, ‘this behavior may be a result of some sort of trauma.’ Or even better, ‘this may be a way for them to protect themselves,’ ” Himelstein said. There are some common issues he sees when trauma interacts with mindfulness.

  • Students don’t take the activity seriously
  • Students are triggered by silence because it feels like a storm is brewing, so they don’t want to be quiet
  • Students feel too many requests are made of them without the requisite trust being built up
  • Students exhibit avoidance behavior

Himelstein says building an authentic relationship is key to accessing the trust required to make mindfulness effective. For some kids, chaos is part of trauma so when adults are unpredictable they can’t be trusted. That’s why being a “predictable adult” is a good way to be authentic with kids.

Himelstein also offers these guidelines for teachers using mindfulness:

  • Don’t force it
  • Don’t focus on the logistics like sitting with eyes closed
  • Somatic awareness, like counting breaths, could be a good place to start. “There’s different types of awareness. Sometimes we’re really aware of what’s going on in the mind and sometimes we’re more aware of what’s going on in the body,” Himelstein said.
  • Think about the child’s window of tolerance and whether he is already triggered or not. “It’s good to strike when the iron is cold in a lot of these cases,” Himelstein said.
  • Build relationships

When Himelstein works with teachers, he’s conscientious of how different the classroom setting is from a therapeutic one. While teachers aren’t trained therapists, students gravitate towards a trusted teacher and want to share with them. On top of that, teachers are keenly aware of their duty to cover required content.

“They do have the hardest job out of all the direct service folks because they have all this stuff the’ve got to get through,” Himelstein said.

He likes to affirm with teachers right off-the-bat that the public school setting with 30-40 kids in a classroom is already not trauma-informed. It’s a very difficult context in which to build relationships, and the architecture, policies and procedures that can make schools feel institutional only make it harder. That’s why often Himelstein sees mindfulness first-and-foremost as a self-care technique for teachers. If teachers can successfully use their mindfulness practice to create metacognitive distance, they can take their ego out of interactions with kids.

“Classroom management skills that are based in trauma informed principles, which means learning how to redirect, learning how to confront people with a non-aggressive pose, not taking it personally, all of that overlaps to help form a relationship,” Himelstein said.

If teachers can see the trauma-informed approach as a way to better build relationships, he thinks it may feel less daunting. Once those relationships are formed and students trust their teachers, it’s more likely that mindfulness will be an effective tool for them.

Many teachers already see relationship building as a core part of their effectiveness, but one practice Himelstein recommends may be less intuitive in the rush to deliver information to students: active listening. “That’s a super simple concept, but it goes a long way, especially in an educational setting because kids are used to not just being presented to, but talked down to,” Himelstein said.


Cultivating a trauma-informed classroom is much harder when educators themselves are burnt out. Building relationships, not reacting defensively to student behavior and taking time to listen to students can feel nearly impossible if the adult is barely making it through the day. Classrooms can be stressful places for teachers and even someone who has been practicing mindfulness for a long time may have difficulty calling upon that knowledge when triggered -- just like kids.

That’s why a core part of a trauma-informed classroom is a healthy teacher. There are several categories of self-care, according to Himelstein:

  1. Regular cultivation of relaxation response (3Rs): things like watching TV, going into nature, getting a massage.
  2. Effortful training: These are things like more sustained meditation or exercise where the payoff comes over a longer time period.
  3. Creativity: something that gives purpose and adds vibrancy to life. Writing, reading, painting or other passions are examples.
  4. Advocacy: everything from learning to say “No” (set boundaries), to working at a higher level to impact policy or structural change.

Ultimately, Himelstein wants teachers to be aware of how students who have experienced trauma might be experiencing mindfulness in the classroom so they can respond in more empathetic ways. And, recognizing that sometimes teaching is traumatic and the practice may be more for the adults than the kids.


“You’re casting a wide net,” Himelstein said. “This is how it should be anyway. This is called trauma informed care because it’s often not done this way and when it’s not done it triggers people more. This should just be what engaged teaching is called.”

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