Five months ago, I was an educator and administrator in the public school setting, where mindfulness and self-regulation were goals of the school. However, in the public school setting, mindfulness could only be taught once a week. I have been training with Mindful Schools since 2012. They offer courses for educators to first establish a personal mindfulness practice and then integrate mindfulness into their work with youth. I am currently in the process of completing their Year-Long Certification Program. In July, I returned to working directly with students in a residential treatment setting (aka therapeutic boarding school) for non-traditional learners, most clients are diagnosed with with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnoses and co-occurring disorders.
Before opening the doors to Black Mountain Academy (NC), the founding treatment team could not have been more enthusiastic to introduce mindfulness into our daily academic and house routines as we developed the vision for the upcoming program. I began researching for articles or research on using mindfulness as a tool with teens with high functioning Autism or Asperger’s. Sadly, there was not much research out there.
As a team, we created ‘Mindful Living’ for the students of Black Mountain and enshrined what that in our Core Value of the program. In a residential treatment setting (a 24/7 controlled environment) the skill of mindfulness is formally taught on a daily basis; this means whenever a client is triggered the treatment team can assist the client in the skill of mindfulness. This could be in the classroom, during chores, or while in the community. It is incredible.
In my previous blog post, I discussed some general benefits of mindfulness, including reduction in stress, increased ability to self-regulate, increased impulse control, and increased ability to focus. There are other benefits as well. I spend my days with students who have a Spectrum diagnosis with certain indicators, certainly - but cognitively, I spend my days with children who constantly experience an extreme sense of overwhelm. These adolescents often carry anxiety, depression, and varying co-occurring disorders that have disrupted their educational path, family system and ability to move forward in their lives without more support. Mindfulness can be a direct antidote to the overwhelm they so often feel.
Why is Mindfulness important in a school or treatment settings?
- The students also often carry trauma from previous school experiences, where adults have struggled to maintain “class management” without group or program-wide support. Students want to avoid what has previously felt unsafe.
- ASD clients experience a lack of connection at times throughout their educational experience, and we know students with ASD require connection and assurance within a regulated and caring environment in order to access the curriculum and to feel confident as learners. They bring the effects of that lived trauma into my classroom. Teachers see a lot of fight/flight/freeze responses, and we are able to work to help heal it using mindfulness techniques alongside other treatment approaches.
School trauma is not unique to Autism, nor is overwhelm, impulsivity, a lack of sensory awareness, or an inability to associate emotions with actions, but we know that these are characteristics of individuals’ ASD. And again, mindfulness also helps with all of these things.
Why is Mindfulness helpful to students on the Autism spectrum?
There are two area specifically that teaching mindfulness has supported. The first is sensory stimulation, since it is constant. Students with autism can experience noises as amplified, air too hot or too cold, or sensations on the skin so uncomfortable that everything else must halt until the aversion corrected. When mindfulness is practiced in a controlled setting, teachers and students purposefully pause and create space to attend to what we notice. In a moment of mindfulness, when all other momentum ceases, together the students notice, and students can give voice to, the internal or external stimuli that makes it difficult for them to be at peace in their minds or bodies. When this happens, a responsive dialogue between students and teacher or staff can and does take place to help the students to make connections and anchor in their new self-awareness. Mindfulness teaches ASD students to insert a pause into their experience. This pause enhances awareness, and then empowers the students with a way to manage their experience. The sensory stimulation does not necessarily go away, but students learn tools to manage it and assist with impulse control. When students find success with mindfulness, they are creating new neural pathways to experiences that assist in rewiring the brain.
The second area where mindfulness can assist is in the range of emotions and affiliated bodily afflictions without necessarily having an awareness of which emotion may be creating which bodily discomfort or sensation. In mindfulness, the student is practicing slowly and purposefully examine how different emotions arise in our bodies. For example, when feeling anger our fists may instinctively clench, when feeling shame we may unconsciously tuck our body into a ball or look away, when feeling excited we may move with jerky movements, and when feeling worried our stomach may become ill. Often, the students in the classroom are riding the waves of these experiences, or reacting to them, without a real awareness of the somatic experiences as they happen. With a mindfulness practice, students with autism begin to develop a habit, practice, and language for noticing what is happening in a non-shaming, non-judgmental way. Students are taught to observe, and in doing so, students are empowered with a new language and a new self-awareness.
Black Mountain Academy’s treatment team is already seeing progress with students using mindfulness daily in the classroom and in the milieu. Treatment programs have several advantages over public school settings, especially when working with teens who are struggling, a 24/7 environment that allows to meet the students where they are and personalize treatment plans. On top of that, the student at Black Mountain Academy are higher functioning on the autism spectrum. Therefore, focusing the clients on self-awareness and self-advocacy for coping and stress management is part of the culture of the treatment program and a consistent focus ofthe individual, group, and family therapy students receive through the treatment program. Mindfulness becomes one more skill, in a holistic, therapeutic environment, to bolster students’ overall success.
About the author: Sarah Shoemaker, M.Ed. has spent her career as an educator and school administrator in academic non-profit, public, and residential treatment settings. Sarah earned a post-Master’s certificate in School Administration from Western Carolina University (NC) after first earning a Master’s degree in Special Education from Temple University (PA). Currently, she is completing the Mindful Schools Year-Long Certification Program for educators. Throughout various settings, she’s maintained focus and curiosity as to how social and emotional concerns impact students’ academic success as well as how to support the whole child: body, mind, and spirit. Sarah is currently Academic Director at Black Mountain Academy (NC), a residential treatment model for innovative clinical and academic practices for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.