Tips for Pediatric Therapists: Social-Emotional Learning Helps with Stress

Updated: Sep 13, 2019


Bridging the Wellness Gap: Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Mindfulness can help OT/PT pediatric therapists reduce stress and meet goals


In a few days most school based therapists, teachers and counselors will return to school or work and face an onslaught of IEP goals, uninvolved or demanding families, heavy caseloads, stressful testing requirements, and some very loving, needy, unfocused children with difficult behaviors. The job can be joyful, exhilarating, and incredibly stressful. Everyone, teachers, therapists, kids and families feel this stress. Therapists ask ourselves at times, is the level of stress worth it? Maybe the question instead to ask is; how can I manage my own stress better and keep focused on my goals to help kids have better self-regulation? How can I demonstrate to teachers, families and children, interventions for reducing stress, trauma, and maintain wellness for themselves and others?


I attended The Mindfulness in Education conference this summer, and would like to share how a few aspects of the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) model, and mindfulness can help therapists answer these questions.   I also feel sensory processing strategies and a trauma –informed approach can also contribute together to enhance self-regulation for students and empower therapists towards wellness. Below, I will draw on a few concepts to demonstrate this.


As we support children’s classroom skills, we will be treating children with far more severe issues: physical, sexual or emotional abuse, poverty, hunger, homelessness, racism, fear of police excessive force, language barriers, violence, and trauma. If we broaden our perspectives culturally and socially to bring compassion, mindfulness and wellness to others and ourselves we will transform stress for everyone.


An example of this transformation occurred with a bright 5-year-old boy I worked with who was preoccupied with mother’s iPhone, who threw multiple tantrums all day. The most impact resulted from suggesting the parents reduce the amount of TV, video and phone gaming. I introduced the child and mother to yoga and the “Me Moves” DVD (made for autism, a series of colorful lines of movement that blend into pictures of people moving). He became fascinated with yoga reducing the screaming for his mother’s phone. Yoga brought him into the parasympathetic nervous system and he was fully engaged. I enjoyed having a successful session.


I saw how having a trauma informed approach helped this child and mother. I would instruct him to take deep breaths when he would start amping up wanting the phone. I offered him several choices instead. When whining for help during dressing, I would suggest he take breaths and gave him verbal cues and choices so he could be successful. Teaching the breathing to help anxiety was a self-awareness skill and self-regulating. Demonstrating breathing to the mother would help the child’s future. I encouraged the mother to teach her son’s classroom teacher how to regulate the child with breathing to help him to get along better with others. This level of self- awareness continues to ripple out to everyone.


Therapists trained in somatic work have the skill set to help children who are disassociated from their bodies due to trauma and sensory issues. We employ “use of self “as a treatment modality. The relationship that the therapist has with his or her own body/mind becomes a vehicle for transformation. We share a space for acceptance, openness, and exploration with the child to build a new relationship with their body/ mind. When “use of self” includes trauma-informed movement, sensory, mindfulness, yoga, SEL’s emphasis on listening and sharing I messages, we truly have a vehicle for transformation.


At the conference on Mindfulness in Education, Linda Lantieri The Director of “The Inner Resilience Program” shared an example of how mindfulness and SEL tools helped teachers prevent burnout. There are many OT “values” that can complement SEL/ mindfulness. SEL has the peace corner where a child goes if he is struggling with anger or aggressive actions in class and needs to take a break. Another child comes and sits and talks about the feelings the child has and helps the child process what is happening with active listening and communicating with I messages. OT’s can also add to the peace corner with sensory activities, fidgets, theraband, restorative yoga pose or a ball to lay over, while processing the feelings and adding in somatic awareness/ interoception (where is my reaction in my body.)

In my book “Mindfulness and Yoga Skills: 115 Activities for Trauma, Self Regulation, Special Needs and Anxiety” I share about “Embodied Communication”.


I share how to ground through the feet in Mountain Pose, making a head to tail connection, somatically tuning with breathing.   By releasing through the throat, eyes, and abdomen, we are able to find compassionate expression instead of clinging to a reactive one. What if we use this process ourselves and taught this process to children so that they could avoid a trigger, make a better choice, reset before escalating and lashing out and acquiring consequences of detention or worse, prison.


Here are values on a grid combining the best of both models. On the left of the chart are concepts of SEL and in the middle are Sensory/OT values. The far right has Trauma Informed Mindfulness and Yoga tools from my book “Mindfulness and Yoga Skills”.. Using all of these tools, we can prevent our personal stress level from escalating and work with teachers to help children with self- regulation. We all win.

To apply this right to your caseload and bring in mindfulness, try these activities here

1.) Trace and copy more socially aware and more compassionate statements such as

“ May all being be happy “ “May all being be safe”. Draw a circle and copy these words around the rim of the circle repeating them. Allow a child to tell you where in their body they feel safe or don’t feel safe. Encourage a child to notice what they feel in their body. This can be paired with “how does my engine run” or what sensory strategies you like. Make a social story out of this, copy the words if handwriting is the goal.


2) Try a yoga movement for greater somatic input to work on attention and balance. Tune into the head and feet connection. Always allow clients to move by self pacing and respecting personal comfort zones.


4) Use the “camera lens” mindfulness activity to teach children to step back and look at a situation from a distance and with conscious awareness. Pretend you are looking at yourself from higher and higher in the sky until you are just a speck in the universe. Use geometric shapes to demonstrate the body, on the planet and connected to all living things. This helps to step back from our intense emotions.


5) When a child has a tantrum use language such as “ this behavior is not helpful “ rather than “ stop that ”. Make the distinction between I’m mad and I’m feeling mad. Ask if he needs to talk about what is upsetting him. Ask what he needs now, what his body needs (calming himself, going to the peace corner, doing a sensory or yoga intervention, going on the computer until he is ready to join the class activity.) Incorporate a sensory modality with an uplifting thought, that correlates, if the child needs calming, resting over a ball, a hand mudra, a fidget or tactile activity, or a yoga movement. Combine the peace corner discussion of feelings with what is happening in the body. Adding conflict resolution with a sensory component, physical yoga, and breathing gives the maximum impact.


As we explore SEL, and mindfulness tools it can help us to manage our own stress and ripple out to everyone around us.


Barbara Neiman is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist, Yoga and Mindfulness teacher, Body-Mind Centering Practitioner, and a National Presenter & Educator. She is the author of The Adopted Teen Workbook, My Calm Place Card Deck and Mindfulness and Yoga Skills for Children and Adolescents.   She offers courses and coaching online and in-person to schools and agencies around the country.

© 2019 by Barbara Neiman. Created by Wish Media.
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