Cultivating Heart-Centered Connections: Using Mind-Body Awareness Practices to Help Adults Create Safe Spaces for Marginalized Youth

Cultivating Heart-Centered Connections: Using Mind-Body Awareness Practices to Help Adults Create Safe Spaces for Marginalized Youth

Copyright: © 2023 |Pages: 23
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-6684-6898-2.ch009
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This chapter introduces the Heart-Centered Connections (HCC) Facilitator Training, which was developed as a non-degree certificate training offered through the LaFetra College of Education at the University of La Verne. In partnership with Peace4Kids, a local nonprofit, 15 adults who experienced ACEs and toxic stress or had lived experience in foster care participated in an intensive 6-month process. They learned to use mind-body awareness practices to explore how their work as helping professionals has been influenced by their own personal history of trauma or toxic stress. Through participating in the training, these trauma-resilient advocates were prepared to return to their communities to support educators and other child-serving professionals to embody heart-centered practices in their work with children from marginalized populations. The author outlines the core components of the training model and uses qualitative data to offer recommendations for offering similar polyvagal-informed training to all adults who work with children whose lives have been impacted by trauma.
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Chaz was 16 months old when my family and I adopted him from foster care. As an African American child born with prenatal drug exposure, fetal alcohol syndrome, and a subsequent special education diagnosis of emotional disturbance, he was seemingly predestined for a challenging life. Like many children in the system, the compounding effects of multiple foster care placements, mental health diagnoses, learning disabilities, and racial stereotyping led to significant marginalization and social isolation in my son’s early years. Most teachers, coaches, or other childcare workers lacked the skills, training, or awareness required to support the explosive behaviors that Chaz displayed. In most cases, the adults did not have the proper tools or knowledge to support a child whose nervous system has been impacted by early trauma.

From preschool through his early high school years, Chaz never had the opportunity to attend summer camp, join sports teams, attend Sunday school at church, or take art classes at the community park due to the lack of capable adults who could provide support for his unpredictable outbursts. As he grew, Chaz required support from a multitude of child-serving professionals and therapeutic interventions. I noticed significant fluctuations in his behavior, mood, and productivity depending on who was working with him. He struggled with adults who lacked patience and were extremely authoritarian. Those who were consistent, emotionally grounded, and committed to his success encouraged him to thrive. Chaz would arrive home in a different state depending on which adult was in charge that day in his special education program. My desire to support Chaz and understand the role that the child-serving professional plays in helping children thrive despite trauma led me to immersing myself in the world of interpersonal neurobiology and trauma-informed education. What I have learned through research and experience is that every child-serving professional holds the responsibility and power to create the conditions in which youth can thrive in the world, especially those whose young lives have been impacted by trauma, abuse, or neglect. I define a child-serving professional as any adult who connects with youth. This list includes, but is not limited to, cafeteria workers, daycare directors, therapists, crossing guards, nannies, nurses, coaches, and parents.

Today, I serve as a clinical professor of teacher education who specializes in inclusive education, educational neurobiology, mindfulness, and adult social-emotional learning at the University of La Verne. In my work, I deeply understand and outline the vital role of cultivating heart-centered connections with youth, which I define as relationships rooted in resilience, the lending of the adult’s settled nervous system to support behavior regulation, and the illumination of the heart’s qualities (hope, love, empathy, and compassionate right action). Over the past 15 years, I have developed the Heart Centered Connections (HCC) program in which I facilitate retreats and trainings for child-serving professionals around the world. HCC is a research-informed program that teaches adults how to cultivate nourishing relationships with children who, like Chaz, belong to historically marginalized groups or have experienced early childhood adversity.

In contrast to other programs that offer direct strategies for helping youth find regulation, the HCC program asks child-serving professionals to explore how we, through dedication to understanding and supporting our own nervous system, can create relationships in which marginalized youth feel the safety and belonging needed for them to heal their bodies, open their hearts, and access their brains for learning. This chapter outlines the foundational components of the HCC training program. The intent is to inspire leaders in the field of trauma-informed education or therapy to expand their knowledge base and range of practices. Training child-serving professionals to tune into their own bodies through practicing somatic awareness, mindfulness, and breathwork leads to expanding their capacity to serve our most vulnerable youth optimally. Child-serving professionals who have completed the HCC training and learned to cultivate heart-centered connections are revolutionizing education, social work, and healthcare systems by providing an accessible, affordable complement to traditional mental and physical health supports that children currently receive. This, in turn, democratizes opportunities for healing and social integration. The foundation of the HCC program begins with expanding our understanding of childhood trauma and the impact that it has on adult-child relationships in the classroom and beyond.

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