Supporting language development in kindergarten

Language support class at kindergarten. We are in a well-lit room on the ground floor where the pre-school children usually meet. Up to five children who speak another language at home attend the language support sessions. The large hand puppet “Bodo” and the colourful bear, who is simply called “Bear”, are always part of these sessions.

Today, Kamran (name changed by the author) is the only child here, the other children are absent. The kindergarten teacher and Kamran agree that the two of us should go to the language room. There we sing the welcome song with Bodo and Kamran is allowed to have Bear all to himself. Then Kamran wants to go to the round table used for painting pictures. There are some thick coloured pencils and sheets of paper on the table, along with a worksheet. This depicts a small sheep to the left and a narrow curved path with lines leading to a small stable in the right-hand corner. This training sheet appeals to Kamran. He wants to see if he can draw a line from the sheep to the stable with a thick coloured pencil, while staying on the narrow path. He will be attending preschool soon. 

Alone with Kamran

Kamran reaches for the red pencil and grabs it. He only misses the lines of the path in a few places. He is happy and wants to try again using a different colour. This proves to be more difficult, but he manages to do it all the same. We start to talk about the sheep: why does the sheep want to go to the stable, would it prefer to run or to walk there slowly, what colour is the sheep and what colour is the stable, could the sheep take a completely different route to the stable instead? As we talk, we are involved in the story we are making up together and Kamran is starting to develop creative solutions to our questions. We also talk about how difficult it sometimes is to walk along a narrow path without being able to see where we are going.

As we chat, I observe not only Kamran's language skills, but – more importantly – his activity with regard to his nervous system: sometimes his energy expands, he is fully engaged in the act of storytelling, his skin becomes rosy as more blood runs through it, his eyes widen. Then the nervous system winds down again, he breathes more slowly, more deeply, his gaze softens. In moments like these, he says, for example, "I like sheep!" or "You know, I saw a sheep one day. That was nice." Throughout our conversation, the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems remains entirely within the Window of Tolerance; it alternates smoothly between excitement and relaxation. The longer we talk, the more words come to Kamran's mind, the more effortless and comprehensible his otherwise rather sparse, quiet speech becomes.

I had waited a long time for the opportunity to be alone with Kamran in the language class. It is a well-known fact that it is good to receive undivided attention. I was also convinced that his German language skills were not the only reason for his taciturnity in the larger kindergarten group, it might also have something to do with the mystery of what happened to his teeth. The kindergarten teachers knew that a dentist had pulled his two front teeth when he was a toddler, but they did not know the exact circumstances of this event.

Releasing pent-up energy in small steps

While we are talking about the worksheet for the preschool children, I try to find a way of asking the question that has been on my mind for a while: "What happened to your teeth?" In my SE training course I learned how to deal with shock trauma, to discharge pent-up shock energy in small steps, because according to Dr. Peter A. Levine, the trauma is in the nervous system and not in the event. Then I venture to ask: "What actually happened to your teeth? Did you have a fight with a sheep?" Kamran laughs and shakes his head. His sympathetic nervous system fires up and I can see the excitement in his face as his cheeks become quite rosy. I turn towards him. I am still sitting beside him but am now facing him more directly and am looking at him.

He glances from me to his sheet with the sheep and then says calmly, "I fell out of the window. When I was three." My eyes open wide, I am startled and speechless for a moment. "Wow, you fell out of the window!" I say with amazement in my voice. "That must have really hurt". "Yes, but there was a bush in the way. So it was ok", Kamran continues to relate calmly while drawing green fodder for the sheep on the sheet. "Wow," I say with astonishment. "And your teeth got hurt in the process..." He nods. "Were you all alone in the bush then?" - "Yes, but my dad came real quick." Kamran's eyes widen, his voice softens. After a short pause, I say, "That must have been great, that your dad came so quickly." "Yes!" he says, beaming, lifting his eyes from the sheep and looking at me. I savour this moment, try to mirror his joy and am aware that we are now in the respective resource - in the nervous system.

Kamran tells his story

As Kamran turns back to drawing his picture, I return to the story. "Now I'm curious! How did you fall out of the window? And where was the window? Was it high up?" Kamran turns bright red, his eyes are wide open, and he says, "It was on the first floor, my dad was at the window with me, but I fell out." ? "Onto the bush," I add, making a gesture of something falling. He nods. "And then your dad ran down and pulled you out of the bush? Wow, cool," I say. Kamran's breathing has changed significantly, he is breathing deeply, panting, as if he had been running fast. His face is bright red and he is perspiring. I sit facing him as the physical impulses run right through him.

After his system has calmed down a bit, I ask him "Would you like a glass of water?" He nods. I always have a bottle of water and cups in the room and I pour a small amount into a cup. "is that enough?", I ask. "More," he says. "I pour a little more. "Enough?" – "No, more!" "Until the cup is full?" I ask in exaggerated amazement. "Yes!" he says in a strong voice and then takes the cup and drinks. "Take it easy," I say. "You've got plenty of time." He drinks slowly until the whole cup is empty. The blush is now completely gone from his face, he is breathing more slowly and his gaze softens. We look at his paper, he has not only painted fresh food for the sheep, but there is also a big garden fence around the whole picture. There is also a second path to the barn and there are more sheep next to the barn. "What a great picture!", I say. "Is it finished?" He nods. Kamran now wants to go upstairs to his group. I take him upstairs and he runs to greet his peers.

"Kamran is talking!"

When I come back five days later, the kindergarten teacher runs to greet me and cries, beaming with joy: "Kamran is talking! He's completely changed!"  I am both surprised and amazed. Something inside of him has obviously been brought into equilibrium.

There are only two children in the language class that day, Kamran and a little girl. After the welcome song, the girl wants to go to the gym, to play on the wall bars. I hesitate and look at Kamran, but he agrees. So I get a thick gymnastic mat and place it under the wall bars. The girl immediately begins to climb up the bars nimbly and jumps from the very top onto the mat, whooping with joy. She lands on the mat elegantly, standing upright and then dances around the room. Kamran says, "I want to climb too!" I ask, "Are you sure, Kamran?" He nods. I sit down on the bench next to the mat and watch him. He climbs up three or four steps, turns around, looks at me, then looks down. Then he gathers up all his courage and jumps onto the thick mat. He falls onto his side a bit clumsily, so I am rather startled, since it was a fall and it was only a week ago that we talked about his falling out of the window. But Kamran picks himself up, shakes himself a little, a big smile on his face.

"Again!" he says, and then he climbs a little higher. After the second jump, he climbs to the very top of the wall bars under the ceiling and looks at the whole room from above. The little girl waits at the bottom for him to jump. But Kamran climbs back down a few steps and says, "It's better from here" and jumps. He remains on the soft mat, apparently enjoying it, while the girl climbs up the bars again. Then he stands up, reaches for the colourful bear and takes it for a bobbie-car ride. "Great job," I praise him. "You jumped all the way from up there!" and point to the wall bars where the girl is now standing, ready to jump. "That was really cool!" Kamran says and I am relieved that the jumping session was successful.

Angela Adhikari, language coach, trauma therapist, teacher for German, religion and ethics

A plea for the use of Somatic Experiencing methods in schools

by Angela Adhikari, teacher, language coach, Somatic Experiencing (SE) user

I would like to invite you to pause for a brief moment, and observe how your breathing pattern changes. What happens in your body when you read the following sentences? What images, what feelings arise in you? Do you make a grimace, does your stomach contract or your eyes open wide?

Situations in schools:

Children hiding and crouching under the table in a primary school.

5th graders who get excessively angry at the slightest provocation.

Teenagers who are bullied at high school.

Pupils at lower-level secondary school who feel left behind.

Teachers who do an outstanding job every day during the Corona pandemic.

Pupils, teachers and principals who organise or give lessons during the pandemic.

In all these cases, our autonomic nervous system is involved, no matter whether we are reading about the situation or actually experiencing it.

The autonomic nervous system describes a curve within the Window of Tolerance: each state of excitement is followed by a state of relaxation, ideally both states balance each other out, and are in equilibrium. Sometimes I get angry ("Why is a high school pupil being bullied? That's not OK!"), sometimes I feel sad ("No one should have to be in the situation of constantly feeling left behind"). If my nervous system is able to regulate itself, I am able to act self-efficiently, consciously  relate to others and see a meaning in my actions. I am within the Window of Tolerance.

Window of Tolerance

Pupils with a trauma have a damaged autonomic nervous system. Anger often turns into recurring rage, sadness into chronic helplessness and numbness. The limits in the Window of Tolerance (Daniel Siegel) have been breached, the nervous system "jumps out" of the upper limit, the person goes "out of control", is in a state of hyperarousal. If this hyperarousal does not find a vent, the wave of excitement collapses, it freezes and the lower limit of the Window of Tolerance is exceeded. The child crawls under the table as a last retreat, becomes "invisible", speechless. The high level of excitement “becomes dormant” beneath the numbness.

If Somatic Experiencing (SE) were allowed to become common knowledge among teachers, they would be able to recognise these wounds in the nervous system. Pupils with a trauma, i. e. reactions trapped in the nervous system, can experience school as a secure and safe place if the teaching staff is aware of how the autonomic nervous system works.

Dissociation in the classroom

A boy who plays too many video games, sometimes until late in the night, runs the risk of beaming himself out of the healthy body awareness sphere. The next morning, in the classroom, the stimuli are no longer strong enough, so he “switches off”, experiences dissociation. When he gazes out of the window, his body attempts to return to a state of self-regulation. This process is abruptly interrupted when the teacher demands his immediate attention, and even threatens to punish him. An SE approach would be to ask: "John, you are looking out of the window right now. Can you name three things you can see out there." And to ask the class as a whole: "Who can name three things in our room?" The question will return the pupils back into the here and now, giving them new orientation so that they can concentrate on the lesson better.

In order to bring pupils and oneself, as a teacher, back into the here and now and away from possible dissociation at the end of a long school day, the butterfly exercise described by SE therapist Kathi Bohnet in her book "The journey of Bailey Butterfly” can also be used to regulate the nervous system.

Strengthening the nervous system

SE elements can also be helpful in dealing with dyslexia. The principle is to strengthen the nervous system of children and adolescents by means of co-regulation and by applying the knowledge gained in the field of biological somatic processes. Letters drop back into their proper place and words become legible. Somatic Experiencing methods help teachers to professionally handle difficult situations that often occur at schools, irrespective of whether these are of a cognitive or an emotional nature. Teachers with SE experience are aware of the processes in the nervous system and how these manifest themselves in everyday school life.

Dysregulated systems can be brought back into balance by body awareness and active involvement of the sensatory level (the brain stem). A pupil who is particularly fidgety, forgets homework and dates, distracts other pupils or constantly interrupts the teacher can discard this behaviour more quickly and sustainably if he or she is allowed to achieve a regulated nervous system condition. A teacher with SE training would be able to practice so-called co-regulation and provide the freedom the pupil needs for his or her nervous system to regulate itself again – ideally without taking harm. In this way, new neurological pathways can be established.

Never shame pupils

From a biological point of view, access to the millennia-old brain stem is not achieved by talking. As a teacher, I can repeatedly tell a pupil not to rock his chair to and fro. But he will still do it over and over again. A cognitive command, threatening to punish him or even actual punishment will not have the desired effect but will shame him. He will continue to rock his chair (perhaps in another lesson, with a different teacher). SE offers a different approach to the problem. SE methods do not aim at shaming or exposing students, since the teacher is well aware of possible dysregulating effects on the nervous system.

Here is a short insight into a classroom scenario involving a teacher with SE knowledge: Pupil H is rocking his chair again. He is sitting close to the radiator and it might be very dangerous if he were to fall over backwards. Ms. A, the teacher, approaches H and asks: "Do you enjoy rocking on your chair?"  H nods. "I’m curious: do you enjoy the movement or what's so great about it?" She makes a slow rocking motion with her hand. "I don't know."  "You don’t know?" she asks. The question is followed by a moment of silence. The pupil breaks off eye contact with the teacher, stares into space and shakes his head. Then he takes a deep breath and continues rocking on his chair.

In a calm, benevolent tone which helps to keep up contact, Ms. A says, "Now you're rocking your chair again! Do you know how dangerous that is?"  "I don’t care. I just do it," he says, still not looking at her. - "Hmm," Ms. A says, "I have an idea. I'll bring one of those cosy cushions next week for you to sit on. And I think it will be so comfortable that you won't rock your chair any more. You can’t rock your chair with this cushion, it has extra-soft foam in it, and it's so comfortable. You definitely have to try it!" The pupil looks up curiously, Ms. A's and H's eyes meet, he pulls his chair up to the desk, and then says: "Ok."  "I think it will be a good idea," Ms. A says, still looking at H kindly, thus giving him assurance.

She is giving his system time to integrate. He nods, looks at Ms. A, and his gaze softens. Ms. A nods back and continues with the lesson. In the next lesson, Ms. A brings him the promised seat cushion. Other pupils try to grab it, but Ms. A insists that only H is allowed to sit on it. And indeed, the experiment works. During the lesson, H is quiet. He does not really pay attention to the lesson but doesn’t rock his chair to and fro any more. In the following lesson, he actively participates in the lesson and says: "I can concentrate much better with this cushion". Ms. A has no choice but to get a second cushion: one for H to sit on and another for any other pupil who wants to try it out.

SE as a new stimulus for schools

If schools had SE as part of their profile and used a trauma-sensitive approach, both teachers and pupils would learn about how the regulation of their nervous system works, how to establish and maintain relationships, and how to experience self-efficacy: SE could provide schools with a new stimulus, resulting in successful cooperation and better learning results.

A start could be made by individual teachers receiving SE training. School administrators should release interested teachers from their teaching duties for the six modules of the three- year training course, as is already the case in some schools for children with special needs. In the 21st century, it should be self-evident that the latest findings of neuroscience which are helpful to the success of everyday school life should be incorporated into teaching methods. The trauma-sensitive skills of Somatic Experiencing should belong in this category, especially with a view to implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (17 SDGs), where Goal 4 is "Quality Education".

Involving all three main regions of the brain

Quality education in this century can no longer be purely cognitive-based, we must learn to engage all three main regions of the brain (the neocortex for thinking, the limbic system for emotions and the brain stem for sensing) to adequately address the changed conditions of children growing up today. If teachers were to use SE tools in their lessons, this would benefit both their own and their pupils’ health, since they would increasingly remain inside the Window of Tolerance and thus be able to find the way back into a regulated system together if traumatising events were to occur.
Last but not least, I would like to emphasise that the Somatic Experiencing (SE) method can significantly alleviate or, ideally, put an end to the effects of traumatising experiences (such as natural disasters, accidents, medical interventions, dental treatments, surgery, falls, violence (experienced or witnessed), war, abuse, death of loved ones, divorce). I therefore advocate the application of SE in schools. We owe this to ourselves and to the younger generation, especially in view of the psychological consequences of the Corona pandemic.

"Trauma is in the nervous system, not in the event", Dr. Peter A. Levine

Somatic Experiencing and young adults

The life of young adults is characterised by many transitions. On the one hand, they have to deal with leaving the family unit, saying goodbye to familiar structures and familiar surroundings: one is no longer protected by a circle of friends or the fellow members of a sports club. On the other hand, young people are busy exploring new things, venturing into new territory and being confronted by new and unfamiliar tasks. They meet a lot of new people and need to communicate a lot – a new, exciting life is beginning.

Being a young adult involves exploring personal limits and making an appropriate contribution to society. At the same time, it is important to find out who or what offers security and what actually feels secure.

Furthermore, young adults should be willing to try out and explore new things and should also be interested in learning about what is going on inside themselves.

They need to be interested in finding out – with or without the support of a therapist – how they can contribute to their own personal progress.

Indications for a therapy

But what are the indications that someone should seek treatment? Restlessness, sleep disorders, a lack of self-esteem, examination anxiety or anxiety in general can all be indications that therapy is advisable. Other signs include reclusive behaviour or difficulties in making and maintaining contacts. Pressure to perform, inability to meet demands and a tendency to perspire easily, along with the general feeling that something is not quite right are also signs indicating that help is needed.

How can Somatic Experiencing help?

SE helps us to understand how the autonomic nervous system reacts and realise more quickly that something is wrong. It enables individuals to handle their personal limits appropriately, so that a feeling of security can gradually evolve.

It offers young adults the opportunity to learn how to regulate themselves and take things step by step. It enables them to get to know themselves better so that they can set themselves clear limits and portion their strength and resources appropriately. It helps them discover places and times in which they can take a recreational break.

Somatic Experiencing enables young adults to relate to other people in the here and now. It helps them to establish resources and hobbies and participate in community life. Somatic Experiencing contributes to increasing resilience and improving the ability to withstand stress.

Somatic Experiencing does not deal with the actual event but takes a closer look at the personal experiences made in connection with the event.

Ulrike Worthmann-de Matos Marques, Feldenkrais, Somatic Experiencing, physiotherapist, social education worker, natural health practitioner for psychotherapy