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Setting Up for Success

Looking Through a Trauma Informed Lens Part 4

Stress and trauma can significantly impact the emotional wellbeing of a child and how they interact with their environment and others. It is important to recognize trauma because experiencing long-lasting stressful situations may impact a child’s development.  The child’s brain instead of growing, learning and evolving as it should, may focus on survival instead, on simply staying alive and meeting basic needs. 

Children who have experienced stress and trauma for prolonged periods of time may have difficulty regulating their bodies and emotions. As adults, we can help a child learn important skills through nurturing, responsive relationships. By adapting our environments, approaches, and planned activities using a trauma-informed lens, we can help support children to form positive relationships and have a greater sense of safety and security. This will help children to become more successful throughout the day and promote opportunities for learning. 

When is a good time to teach calming skills?

It is important to teach new skills at times when you and the child are calm and regulated. Teaching moments can happen many times through the day when the thinking brain is activated and thriving. Children are in a better position to learn calming skills when they are calm. Allow time for children to practice a variety of calming strategies and determine what skills they prefer to use. Once familiar with what to do, you can help them to use the skills during times of distress.

Teaching children about their brain and how it works

Talk with children about how the brain works, particularly about how feelings impact the way we respond to situations.  Have conversations about being scared or overwhelmed and practice ways to approach challenging situations. Include teachings about the different functions of the brain, such as the survival brain, emotional brain and thinking brain and what happens to our ability to act, feel, and think. When talking about these different modes, it is important to note that the brain is doing its job and working properly, even when in survival mode. For example, you could say, 

“Your survival brain is just working overtime to keep you safe, so together we can teach your brain not to be scared when it doesn’t have to be.” 

This can help children understand what is going on inside them and ways to gain back some control over their experiences.

Activities to support learning:

  • Draw your brain when… happy, sad, mad,
  • Have a code or signal they can use if they feel they are slipping into survival brain that cues you in that they need support
  • Teach children “Flip your Lid” hand signals to give a visual representation about which part of the brain is in charge

Thinking Brain     Emotional Brain and Survival Brain

Teach children about feelings

Children who have experienced stress and trauma may seem emotionally and developmentally younger than their age. They may have feelings that others have not explored with them and, even in older children may not know how to identify their emotions. Teach children what these feelings are, how to label and express them, and how to understand and read emotional cues from others.

Teach Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of being present and fully engaged in the moment, free from distractions, judgment, and aware of our thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness helps us become more aware of input from the environment and how our body feels.

Practicing mindfulness with children can provide them with the strategies to help slow down, focus, and calm themselves. Through mindfulness, children may develop greater awareness of their emotions, body, and sensory self. Mindfulness can be a powerful tool in helping manage stress, anxiety, impulsivity, and can help improve listening and respect for self and others. Mindfulness activities, when practiced together, can create a calming environment and strengthen relationships.

Here are five mindfulness practices to try.

Being Present and Grounded

Children who have experienced stress and trauma are caught between remembering past hardship and worrying about the future.  Notice and talk with them about positive experiences they are having in the present and things of interest or beauty around them. This simple technique may help to ground them in the here and now along with you.

Ask the child to name the following:

  • 5 things that you can SEE 
  • 4 things that you can FEEL/TOUCH 
  • 3 things that you can HEAR
  • 2 things that you can SMELL 
  • 1 thing that you can TASTE

Focused Breathing

Focused breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which releases chemicals that calm the brain and body. Teaching children focused breathing will help physically calm the body down and help shift awareness away from worries to the action of breathing in and out. 

Focused Attention

Learning how to have focused or sustained attention by training the brain to pay attention to a child’s current experience instead of slipping into anxious thoughts. 

Movement, Yoga, and Stretching

For children who have experienced long-lasting stress and trauma, their bodies may be in a state of irritability due to the stress chemicals that are constantly released. This may impact their awareness of their body and feelings of physical safety.  Movement, when incorporated throughout the day, helps increase children’s ability to recognize and tolerate physical sensations. Engaging in relaxing movement, like yoga or stretching, also helps children learn about how the body feels when calm.


Guided meditation is helpful when learning calming techniques, such as body scanning and muscle relaxation. Together, you can listen and follow verbal instructions or video to guide you through relaxing.  Progressive muscle relaxation provides a direct focus on parts of the body.  Once a child becomes familiar with how their body feels when tense versus relaxed, you can take the learning one step further by talking about feelings that go along with being tense or relaxed. 

Sensorial Activities and Environment

Everyone has their own unique response to sensory stimuli.  Sometimes children may have trouble organizing and responding to information from the senses, which can lead to sensory processing challenges. Keep in mind that what is tolerable to us may not be for a child with sensory processing difficulties. We can help by understanding how a child who is experiencing stress and trauma is responding to sensory stimuli and we can adapt our environment to help reduce stimulation. Start by scanning through all five senses and ask yourself, “Does this environment produce a calming feeling?” 

The following are a few suggestions to help keep sensory stimulation at moderate levels:

  • Dim the lights, use lamps or natural sunlight as much as possible
  • Keep noise to a moderate level, including background sounds such as a loud ticking clock
  • Maintain a regular speaking voice in both volume and tone
  • Use unscented cleaning products
  • Provide opportunities and space for both movement and stillness throughout the day
  • Reduce active play or anything that is too stimulating during times of high anxiety or when the children are overly boisterous and need help to calm down
  • Create an area where children can go who need a calm space
  • Provide a variety of tactile sensory activities throughout the day, changing the materials and temperatures (e.g., ice versus warm water)
  • Include activities that involve “heavy push – pull work” to activate the larger muscles of the arms and legs, such as pulling a wagon or squeezing a stress ball
  • Plan group cooking activities or do aromatherapy (if scent is allowed in your facility)
  • Provide different textures and tastes as part of your snack and lunch menu and draw attention to the different sensations while tasting. Reinforce tastes that are soothing.
  • Music has the potential to be overstimulating to a child when calming down is more beneficial.  Use instrumental music or natural sounds, such as falling rain to help calm. 
  • Try adding binaural beats to the room, particularly at sleep/quiet time. Binaural beats are two tones with slightly different frequencies, that the brain perceives as one, activating both hemispheres of the brain to produce a calming effect.

Books and Stories

Books and storytelling are indirect ways of having a conversation about difficult situations and solutions.  When reading stories that have conflict to resolve, ask additional questions, such as, “How is the character feeling?”, “What do you think they could do to solve the problem?” and, “What are some other options?”  These types of questions help children see the perspective of others and problem solve situations. 

Individual Positive Affirmations

Children who have endured stress often have a poor self-image.  Teaching children to recognize positive things about themselves and others can be powerful.  Positive affirmations that are repeated, can replace negative self-talk and instills hopefulness.  Have a stack of cards with affirmations for children – enough for each child.  When they enter the room, have them choose one and either read it themselves or have you read it to them.  In any of your interactions and at any transition time between the daily activities ask them to repeat their affirmation for the day. This will give them many opportunities to be affirmed with a positive statement about themselves.  Have the children create their own to share with each other or to use in the program. 

Teach about how to recognize happiness and kindness 

Understanding happiness and kindness may be difficult for some, as most children who struggle with stress and trauma are not asked about their happiness – their behaviour is typically the focus. Ask children as part of group time “What was one thing that made you happy today?” or “One moment that made you smile?” Asking a child what was the best part of their day allows the child to see positives, and provides them an opportunity to have the adults in their life celebrate those experiences. 


Setting up for success can be difficult, but with time and practice it can get easier. Children experiencing stress and trauma may try to avoid new or complex activities because of discomfort and fear of the unknown.  Talk about the discomfort and how it feels. Be actively involved in the activities along with them, not just leading or providing materials. By doing this you will be showing them that the activities do not have to be scary or uncomfortable. Children have a window of tolerance before something becomes too uncomfortable and “scary” to continue.  Notice where that threshold is for a child. Start with one yoga pose, taking one breath, doing one stretch, 10 seconds of meditation.  Start where they are at, and grow from that.

Written by Amanda Boyd, BA, CYC, CTP; Behaviour Consultant, Lumenus Community Services, Every Child Belongs


Gonzalez A.(Last reviewed September 30, 2019). What are Binaural Beats, and how do they work? Retrieved July 2, 2020 from,

Harrison, H. (2017). How to Teach Kids about the Brain: Laying Strong Foundations for Emotional Intelligence, Retrieved on April 30, 2021 from Brain Matters:

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