SEL Spotlight

5 Body-Based Strategies for Responding to Trauma

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There’s a growing base of data around the prevalence of trauma in students’ lives and the many ways that educators can become “trauma-informed.” It’s important to not overlook the power of movement and body awareness strategies for responding to trauma and developing a trauma-sensitive classroom culture. 

EduMotion partners with a number of movement therapists and, with that input, has prepared this list of 5 body-based interventions, including tips for using them in virtual interactions. Keep in mind that these are simply tools for your toolbox – every student and situation is unique and ensuring student safety should be the number one concern before any therapeutic intervention is attempted.

These strategies are not limited to helping with trauma, they also can alleviate everyday stress and anxiety that nearly everyone faces at one time or another. Additionally, these approaches work in both one-on-one and group settings and offer stress relief for all involved. Best of all, many of these strategies are built-in components of dance and movement-based programs such as SEL Journeys.

#1  Grounding & Anchoring

Grounding and anchoring strategies typically engage one or more of the senses to help us slow down stress response and focus on the here and now. Breathing exercises that include some kind of additional physical engagement, for example raising your arms as you inhale and lowering as you exhale, are a common starting place for grounding. Anchoring exercises go a step further to include a specific action or cue that allows you to focus on the here and now. Repeating a positive mantra, such as “I am calm” while engaging in a soothing action such as rocking or brushing one’s arms and legs can offer a sense of grounding and engage both mind and body in the present.

VIRTUAL TIP: Make sure you have some space and can move a bit back from your camera to model the physical activity.

#2 Synchronous Movement (co/shared regulation)

Co-regulation happens when two or more people achieve a close sense of connection by becoming attuned to each other’s physical cues, such as posture, facial gestures, eye signals, tone of voice, and breathing rate. In a movement context such as dance or exercise, a group moving together synchronously with intentional awareness of one another can provide great therapeutic benefits for all involved. Adding an element of rhythm or music to synchronous movement provides the additional benefit of lowering cortisol (stress response hormone).

VIRTUAL TIP: Encourage (but don’t force) participants to keep cameras on so they can experience the positive benefits of moving in unison with others. 

#3 Mirroring

A good starting place to achieve shared regulation is through mirroring exercises. In a group setting, this can be as simple as inviting students to follow along to a single leader while trying to match physical movement as well as flow, rhythm, breath, etc. Eventually, working in pairs can help individuals build self-awareness as they notice what their partner “mirrors” to them. Partner work also helps in developing empathy as participants pay close attention to the physical cues of another and try to reflect that back.

VIRTUAL TIP: If working as a group, direct student attention to you as the leader and engage them in mirroring, bringing attention to small details like posture, facial expression, etc. If you are able to have students go in breakout rooms to work in small groups or pairs, make sure they take turns being the leader of the movement, and practice mirroring each other.

#4 Bi-Lateral Movement

Movement that intentionally uses both sides of the body helps to stimulate all parts of the brain and can help neutralize the “freeze” stress response. As endorphins are released through movement, the brain can become “unstuck”. Cross-lateral movements, such as moving an arm or leg across the body’s “mid-line”, can also stimulate creative thinking and focus.

VIRTUAL TIP: Make sure you have some space and can move a bit back from your camera to model the physical activity.

#5 Relaxation & Mindfulness

The benefits of yoga and meditation that focuses on body and breath awareness are well-documented. While a full and consistent practice of these techniques is ideal, the benefits can be experienced in small, quick doses with the following strategies:

  • Intentionally tense and release muscles for a repetition of 10 times
  • Press palms together and count to 10 – repeat as needed
  • Press down on top of head and count to 10 – repeat as needed
  • Give yourself a big, tight hug and count to 30

VIRTUAL TIP: Make sure you have some space and can move a bit back from your camera to model the physical activity.

Trauma-Informed Education

As you consider including the above strategies in your toolbox for responding to student stress, remember that trauma is any experience that leaves a person feeling helpless, hopeless, or fearing for their safety. The experience can be real or perceived and can occur as a one-time exposure or chronic state of life.

Trauma-informed education includes examining the influence and impact on students of factors such as racism (explicit, implicit, and systemic) as well as poverty, peer victimization, community violence, and bullying. Therapeutic approaches are never one-size-fits-all, however, being aware of how the body holds trauma, and potential ways that movement can provide a means of releasing it, can provide educators with new ways of offering support to students.


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Margot Toppen

Margot Toppen

Margot Toppen is a visionary educator who works at the intersection of SEL, arts, and physical education.

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