Out On A Limb: Practicing Mind-Body Integration

Andrea stepped up and reminded the parents gathered for the membership meeting to breathe. She also told me to let them breathe, but I couldn’t, just wouldn’t stop, I kept going…something very important had happened earlier during the school day and I needed to share it. It was so relevant to the evening’s topic, “Mind-Body Integration” (see note below). The problem was I had not fully processed it, or more specifically, had not worked it through with the children, so it was just coming out scary rather than instructional.

So I kept going, poking my hand through the shredded hole in the little polka dot sweatshirt I was holding as a visual aid, “This sweatshirt was the only thing holding her up as she dangled upside down over the creek from a creaking branch! A bush really! Look!”

Full disclosure. I didn’t even see her dangling caught up by her clothes, but I knew she was holding on with the tenacity and fierce determination that everyone knows her for — a co-oper is the one who untangled her. She wouldn’t fall as long as the branch held, that’s how it is with her. Yet, I had only moments before talked with her about being afraid and “listening/watching for the now” as she explored climbing options along the creek. But then I had shifted position along the creek to talk with some other children. The adult team is constantly shifting positions on these trips, we have achieved a working relationship that is very effective in giving the children both the room to explore while still monitoring their adventures.

Before I moved away, I worked through a collaborative risk assessment with her, talking about her clothes, the branches, the position of the trees along the bank. We talked about how it rained the day before so the mud and creek edges shift and move. We also listened for the sounds a cracking branch makes and explored how to test foot and hand holds. She, and a friend who is also an expert climber, were assured in their skills and choices. Proceed.

But why that part of the day was so important to share with the parents is that only an hour before this same girl was sobbing during our pre-forest trip meeting from fear of getting lost in the forest.

We were only talking about navigation, setting up the direction sticks, talking about water flow, and “how you can’t get lost” (see post <here>). She heard “lost” and lost it. This is not the first time that an idea has scared her, so we are familiar with this reaction during story time and sometimes during imaginary play scenarios, but it still sneaks up on us when it happens. We talked about coming back to the now. Now we are in circle and what is your plan if you do get lost? And really, the reason we go out into the forest with this class is to bring them into the now, physically, mentally, and spiritually (whole child). Her fear of being lost had taken over. It blocked her ability to get to the “nowness” and gaining context and adding to her resiliency tool box. She was able to settle and move forward with a short-term plan…to hold someone’s hand on the walk to the forest. We all knew that once she saw the creek and the trees, she would shift to a new “now.”

But see, her new “now” of climbing took over. The excitement and her confidence in her abilities clouded her risk assessment. She was not actually fully in the now even in the forest just as she was not in the now during our meeting. Otherwise, with a reasonable risk assessment, she would have stopped herself from climbing out onto these particular branches.

Testing a branch for climbing.

Testing a branch for climbing.

Another child in this class made an observation a few weeks ago. She said, “When I was two and my mother told me, ‘Stay in the yard,’ my brain heard ‘Leave the yard.’” I told the parents this story during our training meeting because it is also connected. Plus her ability to recognize this pattern was a clear signal of all the work we have accomplished with this cohort. Our goal in getting them out into the forest was to actively engage them in risk benefit and at the same time, shape dramatic play arcs and associated story in order to create active participants in their own lives and ability to gain access to emotional and physical regulation. This particular class needed this…they needed our A-game (research-based, proactive, and all encompassing). This “what was said and what was heard” proved that we had gained a foothold on firm ground. We would not fall! But then the branch was bouncy, see?

What was missing from my shock and awe presentation was the input of the children about this particular event. There was going to be more to the story and I was simply using the moment to say, “Pay attention! There is more! This is important!”

This is what we did next  and by sharing it here, I hope the breathing can resume and we will rest assured that the scary moment was the teachable moment we look for!

I told the parents that earlier, after our climber was untangled and back on firm ground, I asked her if she was scared out there on a limb. She gave me a firm no even with a shrug of no big deal. Some of this is based on the fact that she knew she had back-up. This is the beauty of a co-op, we have lots of helping hands. She also had a good friend next to her, comforting her. She had that unshakable confidence in her own skills. OR maybe she was all tangled up in misfiring emotions, just as she had been earlier in the day. We had our walking papers and the groundwork laid since both events were witnessed by the children, I knew that we had the opportunity to share with the whole class. We would all benefit from this teachable moment.

This illustration from the book, Your Fantastic Elastic Brain gives us the visualization to begin the discussion. Since you cannot carry around a book, we provide a tactile equivalent for it by using our thumbs, pointing down hand up, to act as the vibrating amygdala while the fingers and hand represent the rest of the brain. The brain comforts and guides the vibrating emotional center and with this, we curl our fingers around the amygdala (thumb).

I began with a story of crossing a road. If there is something across the road from us — our friends, a new playground — our amygdala vibrates excitement. We want to run across the road. I move my thumb. The children do the same, they always do. They like this whole idea of brain-talk and the amygdala. Then because the rest of our brain, the cerebrum, thinks and guides, it curls around the amygdala and says, “Wait. Look both ways, walk across the road.” The children all curl their fingers around their thumbs, cradling it. They nod, yes, this will do it. We know that thing about crossing roads. They are in the now and in the abstract. This ability to connect these two things is what we are after.

Emotions provide connections with others and helps us provide context and meaning to our surroundings and our experiences. Young children will be the first to tell you that they never have temper tantrums, that they do not cry, or are scared. They do not often fully articulate happiness in a connected, forward-planning sense, but they experience all of these emotions in a full body way. We, as the adults in their lives, have witnessed the expression of all of these emotions. We are tasked with helping them shape the language, the identifiers, and most importantly, the acceptance and comfort in having a rich emotional range at their disposal, i.e. no feeling is a bad feeling, it is what you do with these emotions that matter and every single one is just as valuable as the last.

To help us illustrate this, I asked our two climbers to create “self-puppets” and during circle time meeting I introduced a third puppet, “Scared.” I told the story of how the Scared overwhelmed her ability to think her way through to form a plan for the very real and very reasonable fear of getting lost. See her peeking out around the overwhelming Scared in the photo below? But where was Scared when she was climbing the tree? Scared should certainly have been part of that story, but Excitement overwhelmed Scared and left our climber to take unnecessary risks.

And as you all already know, a teachable moment is a collection of moments. It goes on and on forever. That very afternoon, we had a way to revisit the multi-layering of amygdala overrule. I told the children to get ready to go outside and two children heard, “Go outside,” because the day was beautiful, sunny and warm, and there is really never enough time to be outside, so out they ran without checking in with adults, without collecting their gear, speeding with nowness of go. The next day, we talked about how our emotional range sings out to us and sometimes clouds the immediate. We have to slow down and actively practice situational awareness.

And so on and on and on. There is a lifetimes of nows to experience, but now they are connected in lovely chain of pasts and futures of more to come.

For the rest of the afternoon, different children would come and tell me what their amygdala were up to and how their brains were working. Context, cataloguing, and celebration of self and others. And that is just the beginning!

Note about membership meetings: As a parent cooperative we hold monthly, required-attendance membership meetings which include training sessions for the parents. This particular session was The Power of Connection: Using Ritual, Reflection, and Mind-Body Integration to Build Resilience in Children and Family Dynamics. One of our co-oping committee assignments is Parent Education. This parent works with staff to implement a parent curriculum that complements and furthers the philosophical underpinnings of the children’s programs.

This session was especially relevant as the families ready themselves for transitioning to kindergarten. As a rule, our children’s curriculum features opportunities (or rituals) that shape connections between self and others and this in turn cultivates emotional intelligence and regulation. This is a top priority. All of our activity and pursuits circle back to this. Incorporating the techniques we use at school into home and family practice is so very helpful as the children move off into the often high-pressure systems of “big kid school” where the focus shifts to other pursuits.

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