NOTE: The ideas presented in this blog post are inspired by the Neurosequential Model developed by Dr. Bruce Perry. If you want to learn more about the underlying neuroscience and theory, https://www.neurosequential.com/nme will connect you to resources related to implementing this model in the educational system.
Therapists usually think of rhythm in the context of therapy activities – nursery rhymes, song plays, and music & movement activities. However, I invite you to think of rhythm at a grander level – the natural rhythm of our own homeostasis. As hippy as that sounds, we are first introduced to rhythm in the womb via our mother’s heartbeat and routines. Rhythm is the first way we connect and find comfort. Outside of the womb, we are rocked when we are upset; we explore the world through by sucking, banging objects together, etc. Rhythm is our way of self-regulation, of maintaining homeostasis. Then we go to school.
In the classroom, we may have circle time and a set schedule. We may get a break from the classroom during recess, but, the rest of the time, rhythmic activities are limited. Classroom time includes demands on the cortical level as we coordinate language centers, working memory, etc. Unfortunately, accessing our cortex becomes more difficult as we enter dysregulation due to fatigue, stress, not getting our way, etc. When we are dysregulated, our activity is centered in the limbic system until we can regulate and return to homeostasis. Rhythmic approaches provide students with a regulatory framework that may increase the effectiveness of therapy by assuming dysregulation happens and embedding rhythm to return individuals to their natural homeostasis. Here are a few ways to integrate this approach:
Include motor breaks in every therapy session
Motor breaks include anything that uses the whole body in a rhythmic way (e.g. a dance party, a stretch break). Many of the students I work with do not transition back into therapy activities after taking a motor break, so I try to include a motor activity in every therapy session. I have students earn tokens to throw into a container or act out a story when working on narrative structure. Engaging the whole body, similar to the rocking of a baby, is rhythmic enough to help regulate students.
Modify the structure of your sessions based upon the time of day.
Most therapists have experienced a long, all-day training. After lunch, you probably experienced a slump for many reasons including information fatigue. After multiple hours of attention demands, your brain needs a break, and you will have an increased frequency of tuning out. With that in mind, consider using shorter work times during your post-lunch sessions. This may sound crazy, but only working 2-3 minutes may match up with your students’ desire to zone out during the session. Structuring your session to fit in with your students’ attention spans can help them reach their goals more effectively.
Find ways to regulate yourself.
Dysregulated adults cannot regulate other people. Therefore, we need to find ways to comfort ourselves in the sea of paperwork, upcoming deadlines, and therapy schedules. The quickest way to regulate is to tap into your circadian rhythm through a bedtime routine. Ideally, you go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time each morning. If that is unrealistic, start using consistent steps at bedtime to cue your body for bedtime. I also have tricks to use during the day when I’m feeling particularly on edge. Sometimes I “dance it out;” sometimes I use deep breathing exercises; sometimes a quick walk around my therapy room is enough to bring me out of a frazzled moment.
Author: Valerie McDaniel, MA, MT-BC, CF-SLP