Rhythm, Regulation and ACEs

We have good news and bad news here in Shasta County. The bad news first: we have much higher ACE scores than the rest of our state. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are defined as stressful or traumatic events that can have lasting physical, mental and emotional effects over an individual’s lifespan.

ACEs are categorized into three main areas: Abuse, Neglect and Household Dysfunction. Organized within those categories, you’ll find ten ACEs: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, mother treated violently, substance misuse within household, household mental illness, parental separation or divorce, and incarcerated household member.

The good news is that we have an amazing number of resources in our county to help children and adults who have experienced the effects of ACEs on their lives. On Wednesday, April 19, First 5 Shasta will be hosting a free Town Hall Forum at the Holiday Inn in Redding. Our community is full of caring individuals and organizations that want to help people on the path toward healing.

More good news! There are concrete steps teachers, parents, caregivers, youth leaders and anyone working with children can do to help a child living with ACEs to become more regulated and healthy.

It turns out that both Mother Goose and Snoop Dog knew all along how rhythm and rhyme help a brain calm down! I teach students all over Shasta County about their “upstairs brain” and “downstairs brain” (Fostering Resilient Learners, Kristin Souers and Pete Hall). Our “downstairs brain” is our brain stem that manages all of our basic body functions such as breathing, swallowing, heart rate, blood pressure, consciousness, and whether we’re awake or sleepy. All of our senses come through our brain stem and it does an amazing job keeping us safe. When danger is present, it sends us into fight, flight or freeze mode.

The problem occurs when that fight, flight or freeze mode gets activated all the time. The brain stem becomes most dominant and doesn’t allow the “upstairs brain “(prefrontal cortex) to do any thinking or reasoning.

Back to Mother Goose and Snoop Dogg! Rhythm is one of the things that can calm the downstairs brain, help it regulate and allow the upstairs brain to function. With children, singing nursery rhymes, playing pat-a-cake or other finger plays, performing clapping patterns, and jumping rope to silly rhymes are all activities that tell their downstairs brain that everything is ok and to calm down. Why rhythm? We are rhythmic creatures; we listen to our mother’s heartbeat in-utero, rock in a rocking chair, swing in a swing, and our body responds to rhythmic patterns. The brain is a pattern seeker, so all these rhythmic activities are familiar to the brain and send a message of calmness.

Dr. Bruce Perry describes the core elements of positive developmental, educational and therapeutic experiences as being the healing for the traumatized brain. He categorizes these as the “6 R’s”:

Relational (safe)
Relative (developmentally matched)
Repetitive (patterned)
Rewarding (pleasurable)
Rhythmic (resonant with neural patterns)
Respectful (child, family, culture)

Yes, trauma affects children in horrific ways and, too often, we see children who reacting with the fight, flight or freeze mode engaged. Teaching children about how their brain works and what they can do to calm it down is one step towards health. Teachers, caregivers and adults interacting with children can create an environment with rhythmic activities, seek to understand and respect where a child has come from, and provide an engaging, “hands-on, minds-on” learning environment.

An excellent resource with pages of strategies is Dr. Barbara Sorrels’ Reaching and Teaching Children Exposed to Trauma. The last two chapters are devoted to practical helps to setting up any environment to be one that is successful to children with ACEs in their lives.

There is so much that informed adults can do to help children regulate their bodies and brains! Let’s all gather on Wednesday, April 19th to become part of the solution for Shasta County. Register for the Town Hall Forum at acestownhall.eventbrite.com.

About Stephanie Alexander

I am just one of those people who find young children charming, entertaining and fascinating! With my husband David, I’ve raised four successful children with whom we have loving, wonderful relationships. I’ve also been in the world of education for over 25 years in the roles of preschool teacher and director, kindergarten and transitional kindergarten teacher, and, currently, I’m serving transitional kindergarten-second grade students and teachers as an Instructional Service Coordinator with the Shasta County Office of Education. In 2015, I helped start the first Transitional Kindergarten/Kindergarten Professional Learning Community with 18 teachers participating from Shasta County. I'm excited about my latest job assignment: coaching teachers participating in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grant as part of the Reach Higher Shasta organization.
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