Amygdala Reset Station: Not Just for Kids

Today’s guest author is Amy Christison.

Amy Christison just finished her thirtieth year of teaching at Cresson Elementary School in Cripple Creek, Colorado. She currently teaches kindergarten through fifth-grade executive functioning skills, mindfulness, and neuroscience. She holds both a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Education and a Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in Leadership from Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado. Mrs. Christison completed the Applied Educational Neuroscience Certification program with Dr. Lori Desautels from Butler University. Starting in August, Mrs. Christison will be working as the Cripple Creek-Victor School District’s Trauma-Informed Neuroeducator. She is a firm believer in solid relationships and co-regulation being fundamental to healing trauma and reducing challenging behavior in schools. She understands that this all begins with educating adults about their nervous system.

I have seen many changes in education during my thirty years in the profession. In 1993, I was fortunate to find a job I loved in a small mountain town in central Colorado. Cripple Creek is one of the three towns in Colorado that have legal gaming. A town with gambling brings with it many challenges. We have high poverty, homelessness, transiency, and various addictions. The small community also has its strengths. We have an incredible network of people who want to make a difference. Our community resource center is closely tied to the school system and has been outstanding in offering food boxes and winter clothing to help with rent and utilities. Often it is through the Community of Caring/Aspen Mine Center that our school district can connect families with counselors.

Several years before the world was shaken by COVID, I started to see a progressive increase in challenging behaviors in my second-grade classroom. I knew something had to change. I did a lot of reading, searching, and experimenting to find solutions before it got out of hand. I came across information and training in mindfulness. I took several classes online through Mindful Schools. I was convinced that mindfulness practices taught to students could be a step in the right direction. I proposed teaching mindfulness at the elementary school to my principal and superintendent at the time. I told them this could be a part of a systemic change for our schools and our community. I was fortunate that they believed in me and allowed me to create a position where I could teach mindfulness to all classes K-5, work with small groups, and one on one to help students regulate. I was green, so very green, but I was eager to learn and believed in this work. At the time, there was very little information about using mindfulness in schools.

I collected data that showed that what I was doing was helping to lower the number of disruptive behaviors in our school.

I started to build my library of books for teachers as well as books for students. Then I began to add items that helped with calming. I gradually purchased, asked for donations, and wrote grants for materials. I set my classroom up with “centers” at which dysregulated students could find activities to help them get ready to return to class successfully. At the time, I did not have nearly the knowledge I have now, but I saw it working. I had a desk with a sign-in/sign-out page and an oxygen/pulse monitor. When students entered my room, they would check in, mark their heart rates, and choose an activity. When they felt better, they would retake the heart rate and head back to class. I was collecting valuable information. Most of the time, there was a decrease in the heart rate by the time the student left my room. 

I also tracked whether the student was sent to me by an adult to regulate or if the student had self-advocated to come to me for regulation. As the school year went on, there was an increase in the number of visits the students initiated and a decrease in the number of teacher-directed visits. This change told me that students were starting to understand when they were dysregulated and acknowledging they needed something to help them get back to a state of regulation. I have gained much knowledge since this. I have learned about the Polyvagal Theory and understand the nervous system with so much more clarity. I am now much more purposeful in how I run my room. Students can still request to come to me, and teachers can still recommend students come to me. I understand that each child and each situation is different. What might work to regulate one student may activate another. When a student comes to me, my first question is, “What do you need?” Sometimes the student already knows what sensory input they need and will go directly to the item or activity that works for them. Sometimes I offer a “menu.” I will ask, “Do you need to lay down, jump, spin, throw, or tear something?” Some of the most used items have been rocking chairs, weighted blankets, body socks, a mini trampoline, magnetic blocks, kinetic sand, play dough, coloring sheets with crayons, markers, or colored pencils, bubble wrap, blowing bubbles, “breathing balls” (Hoberman Spheres), mind jars (bottles filled with water and glitter), fidgets, and stress balls.

We discovered that a kindergarten student needed pressure to regulate. When he arrived in my room, I would ask if he wanted to be a burrito; he would usually say he did, and I would lay out a blanket. He laid on the blanket and let me roll him up tight. He would lay there for a few minutes in his burrito and then be ready to return to class. I had another student who liked to play “Steam Roller.” He would lie on the ground, and I would use a large exercise ball to roll over him. I would put some pressure as I rolled the ball on him. Sometimes he would ask me to push harder. He seemed much calmer after having this pressure placed upon him. He eventually discovered that he enjoyed some time wearing a body sock. Some students will respond to a hand massage, especially with scented lotion. I am always aware of sensitivity to perfumes and take caution if a student has sensitive skin.

My classroom space is also the meeting place for the YANAKC after-school program, which started a couple of years ago. A fourth-grade student approached me and mentioned that she always feels safe in my room. When I asked her what was happening, she said that some of her classmates were being bullied and wanted it to stop. She asked me if I would help her start a club. YANAKC stands for You Are Not Alone Kindness Club. She wanted everyone in the school to know they had a place to go to be safe and accepted. She indicated that my room made her feel that way, and that is where she wanted to hold the meetings.

I take great pride in my room being a safe place for all. Felt safety is the key to regulation and healing from trauma.

I have also created a space in my classroom for an Adult Amygdala Reset Station. This idea was inspired by my learnings from Dr. Lori Desautels’ book Connections over Compliance: Rewiring our Perceptions of Discipline. Dr. Desautels speaks about “Discipline on the front end,” which comes from adults understanding their nervous system and being able to self-regulate. Last summer, I created a questionnaire for staff. This form asked questions about what anchors them. Staff were asked what foods, drinks, sounds, flavors, people, places, times of day, temperatures, and experiences ground them. I then cordoned off a private space in my room for adults only.

I took into consideration the results from this survey while developing this area. I have a refrigerator that is stocked with beverages and snacks. I also have a rocking chair, a weighted blanket, a hand massager, a back and neck massager, cotton balls and essential oils, fidgets, kinetic sand, play dough, bubble wrap, joke books, positive affirmations, puzzle books, riddles, noise-canceling headphones, singing bowls, tuning forks, recorded meditations, coloring sheets with coloring tools, blank to-do lists, various music choices, and a large polyvagal chart. My one ask for adults is to check in and check out if they used the area. I again have an oxygen/pulse monitor. I ask them to record their pulse and their nervous system state on the Polyvagal chart when they arrive and leave, and I ask them to let me know what items they used to regulate. I have had interesting results. A relatively small percentage of staff used the station, but the people who did use it did so on a fairly regular basis. Most used the rocking chair, scented lotion, a weighted blanket, essential oils, and singing bowls. There is still work to do in helping staff understand that using the Amygdala Reset Station is not a sign of weakness but a strength to know when it is needed. I had a staff member who started mid-year and wasn’t familiar with the Amygdala Reset Station until one day when she was experiencing strong emotions. Another staff member suggested she come to my room. She spent about 10 minutes there, and as she left, she said, “I can’t believe how amazing this is! I feel so much better.” I asked her what she liked about it. She said she just rocked and cried and released some of the stress she had been feeling. She said, “Now that I know about this, I might be using it daily.” My heart was so full and happy at that moment!

Again, I am reminded of how incredibly fortunate I am after so many years. My current school board and administration trust me, believe in me, and encourage me to continue down this path and have given me a job at a district level so I can impact more students, staff, and families.

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