“Mommy, can you carry these sticks?”
I turned back, slightly irked, at my three-year-old son who figured that, in spite of carrying a picnic blanket, lunch bag, purse and his 15-pound brother, I should make room for the branches he discovered on our walk in the woods. I understand why he asked. Prior to his baby brother arriving the month before, I had always helped him carry his treasures.
I knew what I was about to say would not go over well, but I couldn’t carry another thing.
“Sorry, sweetheart, I don’t have any more hands.”
I may as well have lit a stick of dynamite. What followed was the worst meltdown in my son’s now-five years of life. Screaming. Yelling. Throwing. Kicking. Baring his teeth at me. It lasted more than 20 minutes. I was flabbergasted and felt helpless.
This may have been the biggest, most explosive outburst of the year but there were many more to come. In fact, when I reflect on my second maternity leave, it is punctuated as much with the developmental growth of my oldest son as it is his baby brother. I feel like I invested the year in helping our preschooler learn to self-regulate. Fortunately, I had back up: four mornings a week, his teachers were doing the exact same thing.
It’s called FOCUS on Self-Regulation. Teachers guide students through a sequence that calms their bodies and teaches them to manage big emotions. Shamala Manilall created the program after noticing children of all ages were coming to class unprepared to learn.
Laurel Gregory: What is FOCUS?
Shamala Manillal: We started the development about five years ago when there was a change in curriculum and we saw the need for children to be ready to learn. A lot of children were coming in with a lot of anxiety, just a little overactive, not able to settle because the environment is new, activities are new, they have got to learn to socialize with their friends and they just were not ready. We were seeing that across the grades, actually, so we developed from our knowledge about what helps the body calm. To be calm, but alert…
We decided we wanted to develop a strategy that incorporated the whole body, so your brain and your body was active and getting ready to learn.
Just like sleep and nutrition and water that we need on a daily basis, active movement and breathing and mindfulness is also something that we need on a daily basis.
LG: What was going on in classrooms that made you think – “We need this”?
SM: Often when we go into the classrooms and we are working with children who have challenges, or just kids who are learning something new, it takes a long time to get them settled. It takes a long time to get them engaged in the activity. We were seeing a lot of anxious kids not wanting to participate.
It felt like there was a step missing and the step was that these kids are not regulated. They are not ready.
Sometimes kids come in and they are hungry; they haven’t had their breakfast for some reason. They were rushing or they just didn’t want to have it. Or some kids come in and they have the wrong shirt on and it’s irritating them and those sensations build up and eventually they react to it. They react in a way that they can’t articulate what they are feeling but the behaviour manifests as something inappropriate or it comes out as anger, irritation, or not wanting to do things or withdraw.
We looked at what it is that will help the body calm down so it will give that child a little bit of space to think about what they are feeling, and then what the emotion is that goes with that, and then be able to articulate to the teacher, “My body is not ready.” The teacher then decides, “Well, I’m going to ask a couple of questions and see where you are at, see how I can help you,” and the way to do that is to do the FOCUS sequence.
LG: Talk about the role of each step in that sequence.
SM: There are four steps in the FOCUS sequence. The first one is Move. So, Move is physical activity and we know that physical activity does wonders for the body. I mean, the moment you start moving, everything in your body is going. You increase the oxygen intake to your brain, the rest of your organs and it’s just nourishing your whole body… Because of the oxygen flow to your brain, you’re alert. But it also activates the whole brain, not just the motor part of the brain… so when you are moving, you are more ready to absorb new information.
We also included Hold…We didn’t want the kids to become hyper alert. We wanted them to move, have sufficient oxygen and the blood flowing and the breathing increase and then we wanted the nervous system to be organized and calm. That comes through Hold. The Hold activities are anything where you are holding your body against resistance. So the table pose… they are doing this against gravity and you are immediately increasing the resistance. There’s a lot of feedback for your muscles and your joints and it calms the nervous system down the same way a massage would.
The third step is Breathe. We consciously and purposefully added Breathe because it stimulates the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. There’s a little bit of alert and then calm, alert and then calm as you breathe so it keeps your whole body nice and balanced.
Breathing is important. It has to be deep, big breaths. Not thoracic breathing because that can increase your anxiety but nice deep breaths…
We also included props because it was developed for young children, so blowing out the candles, trying to blow up a balloon, so that gives them something to focus on.
Finally, the last step is called Pause and it’s the same as mindfulness. It’s just quieting your body, bringing it back to the present moment, thinking about the here and now. It also helps kids decrease those thoughts that are spiraling out of control because the more they stress about an exam or a test, the more they start to think about negative things. So we just want to use mindfulness to bring your body back to this moment in time.
The whole sequence together can take about five minutes. It’s quick, it’s easy, it can be done anywhere. It can be done in a small space, in a big space, in a small group, big group, individually as needed. It just helps you to increase that space between making a rash decision and thinking about what your choices are.
LG: It sounds like something grown-ups could benefit from.
SM: Oh, for sure. Grown-ups do benefit. We do it at all of our meetings.
Now five years old, my son doesn’t have meltdowns any more. He still gets mad, clenches his fists or occasionally swipes at me when he’s frustrated but he is able to calm himself down quickly. I’m not sure how much of this has to do with his development, FOCUS, or our parenting. I would imagine it’s a mix of all three.
The most surprising outcome from our year off together wasn’t his growth in self-regulation though, it was my own. By fixating on his need to self-regulate, my own shortcomings came into focus. I saw the complete hypocrisy of raising my voice and clenching my fists while telling him to calm himself down. I saw other habits, well-worn over years of unconscious emotional reaction, for what they were. Getting jacked up after being cut off in traffic or reaching for a glass of wine after a stressful day were, in essence, no different than my son dealing with his emotions with a meltdown.
My son and I have evolved immensely. If I could go back in time to our walk in the woods last fall, I would still tell him I didn’t have the hands to carry his sticks. But with the knowledge I have now, I would be far better equipped to help him carry all the emotions to come.