Therapeutic practice in the classroom

We all know the student, the one whose stress response goes from zero to 100 at seemingly small triggers; whose defiant moments test the teacher’s hourly resolve; and whose initial resistance towards a classroom task can lead to the tanking of an entire school day.

A child’s response to classroom learning can be fraught with adversity while continuously activating the stress response—their own and those around them. An individual student’s trauma history can dramatically influence classroom group behaviours, given the considerable relational and regulatory deficits that can occur because of trauma’s effects on unmet developmental needs and on compromised systems of family and community.

Trauma-informed teaching models have consistently positioned relationships as the conduit of learning; and self-regulation as a key skill to meet deficit areas of emotional and physical development (Wolpow et al., 2009). Developed from trauma-informed classroom practices which focus on building relational capacities and self-regulatory strength, trauma-informed teachers often felt they needed more in their toolkit to create a strong culture of wellbeing within their classrooms.

However, it is apparent that many of these trauma-informed approaches were not taking into account wellbeing interventions and advances made from the paradigms of positive psychology and the positive schools movement (Seligman et al., 2009; Waters, 2011). Yet, when teachers tried to teach interventions from positive psychology such as resilient explanatory styles (Gillham et al., 1990), gratitude practices (Howells, 2012), or a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006), many teachers voiced concerns that the most vulnerable, dysregulated, or struggling students could not effectively engage in ‘above-the-neck’ cognitively-based strategies. Due to these struggles, teachers felt that these lessons were not appropriate for struggling, trauma-affected students.

Berry Street is a Victorian child and welfare organisation that has established a multi-campus independent school in Noble Park, Morwell and Shepparton. The school currently enrolls approximately 130 students within the ages of 12 and 16 and has experienced success in re-engaging the most disadvantaged young people in residential and foster care in mainstream education.

It is now sharing the Berry Street Education Model with government, independent and mainstream and specialist schools. This model provides approaches and daily strategies for teachers by integrating therapeutic practice within the classroom as an important setting of healing and growth for the 40 per cent of young people in schools who have experienced or witnessed traumatic stressors (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2014).

Teachers must be ready to understand their classroom as a therapeutic milieu. Knowing that some students experience daily adversity far beyond what they are equipped to handle, Berry Street has found that teachers feel most equipped to meet these students’ needs when they actively address trauma’s impacts on learning, and they design their classroom incorporating durable understandings of wellbeing.

The Berry Street model insists that struggling students must have the opportunity to build their psychological resources through potentially powerful positive education interventions—but in order to do that, educators need to scaffold other social and emotional skills sequentially and simultaneously.

This framework assists classroom teachers and school-based practitioners in meeting the specific behavioural, cognitive, and relational needs of young people in their pursuit of education accomplishment. This is done by synergistically focussing on both healing regulatory and relational capacities and growth in positive psychology’s concerns of positive experiences and emotion, enduring traits, and positive communities.

The body and the Rhythmic Classroom

We know that the body’s repeated responses to traumatic stressors significantly compromises the stress response, resets the ‘baseline’ of regulatory functions to trigger higher states of arousal, and leads students to become highly dysregulated in classroom environments. Learning can be stressful. Learning is risk-taking in front of one’s peers, which adds to embarrassment when students are unsure about their own competencies and knowledge. This repeated stress activation takes a considerable toll on a child’s resources for learning.

In the Rhythmic Classroom, the model focuses on building a strong regulated body—ensuring that teachers incorporate knowledge of trauma’s significant impacts on the body and the body’s regulatory abilities (Perry, 2009).

Focus areas include building physical and emotional regulatory abilities, considering patterned, rhythmic, and somatosensory activities, and incorporating mindfulness (Burke, 2010). At Berry Street, we advocate and teach these classroom interventions:

  • Bringing rhythm into many aspects of the classroom, including rhythmic activities like drumming, music, therapeutic martial arts, physical movement interludes, and short exercise bursts;
  • ‘Brain breaks’ and ‘brain kits’ for dysregulated students can include corners of the classroom for physical movement, games of fine- or large-motor skill, cardio activities, or stationary equipment (bike, treadmill);
  • Allowing students to choose rhythmic furniture like rocking-chairs, hammocks, or swings for reading and/or regulating;
  • Designing school routines with a rhythmic sense to the lesson, day, week, and school year, including celebrations, open days, and other events to call attention to natural rhythms of the school year;
  • Working with occupational therapists to assist our students with somatosensory integration supports such as ergonomic seating, fidget toys, or writing tools;
  • Embedding circle routines and morning meetings with a sense of rhythm, positive emotion, fun, character strengths and relational attunement;
  • Integrating heart rate activities and heart rate monitors in both personal development, maths, and science lessons;
  • Practicing mindfulness strategies, including bite-sized meditations, yoga, and breathing for self-regulation.

By incorporating somatosensory activities in a relationally mediated way, students will have more opportunities to experience a regulated body (Perry, 2009).

We know that teachers must have a large support system in order to work with struggling children and they must use every opportunity to shift adverse classroom scenarios into ‘thinking’ moments for students. Often, it only takes a bit of rhythmic movement to shift attention and affect toward stronger cognitively-mediated decision making and task engagement.

Berry Street’s fervent hope is to support the students who need the most care and the strongest relationships to succeed. These students challenge school support and, often, they do not return the positive feedback loop for teachers’ persistent efforts to engage.

We believe that wellbeing can be taught so that every student must have opportunities to build these positive psychological resources.


Burke, C. A. (2010). Mindfulness-based approaches with children and adolescents: A preliminary review of current research in an emergent field. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19, 133-144.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballatine Books.

Gillham, J.E., Reivich, K.J., Jaycox, L.H., Seligman, M.E.P., & Silver, T. (1990). The Penn Resiliency Program. University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Howells, K. (2012). Gratitude in Education: A radical view. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTS), (2014). Facts and Figures, Rates of Exposure to Traumatic Events. Los Angeles, CA & Durham

Perry, B.D. (2009). Examining Child Maltreatment through a Neurodevelopmental Lens: Clinical Applications of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics, Journal of Loss and Trauma, 14, 240-255. DOI: 10.1080/15325020903004350

Seligman, M.E.P., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35, 293-311.

Waters, L. (2011). A review of school-based positive psychology interventions. The Australian Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 28(2), 75-90.

Wolpow, R., Johnson, M., Hertel, R., & Kincaid, S. (2009). The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, resiliency, and academic success. Olympia: Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction Compassionate Schools.

This is a reader contribution. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Teacher and its publisher.

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