Emotional Dysregulation

Mount Saint Vincent Home

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Mount Saint Vincent Home

In stunning Denver Colorado, surrounded by snow capped mountain ranges, I spent the week of 2nd to 6th June 2014, at Mount Saint Vincent Home. This was my second visit to Mount Saint Vincent in as many years and approaching the gateway on my first day, for the first time in weeks, I felt a sense of familiarity and connection.

Mount Saint Vincent Home is located  just a short bus ride from downtown Denver and is situated on a 16 acre property, offering a running track, football field, multiple playgrounds and a swimming pool.  Founded by the Sisters of Charity Leavenworth Kansas in 1883, Mount Saint Vincent had it’s origins as an orphanage.  With social change and the move away from orphanage based care to out of home foster care and residential treatment, Mount Saint Vincent moved with the times and now prides itself on being a treatment center for children ages 3 – 13 years.

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Mount Saint Vincent specializes in treatment of children who have suffered abuse, neglect, trauma and/or mental illness, offering services with a child-focused but family centered approach acknowledging the importance of the family in a child’s healing and recovery.  Referrals to Mount Saint Vincent Home come largely from the County Human Services Department of Child Protection, School districts and other mental health services.

 Mount Saint Vincent offers a variety of services to clients including:

  • A 36 bed residential treatment program consisting of 3 cottages each housing 12 children
  • Individualised day treatment programs for up to 55 children
  • In home treatment and follow up services
  • K – 8 School program that affords children developmentally matched education rather than chronological determined education.
  • An early learning child care program

All of the services offered by Mount Saint Vincent operate under their treatment philosophy that focuses on the regulation of a child rather than compliance; that care is developmentally appropriate and matched and that they afford a child an environment of safety that allows children to ‘try on’ and develop positive relationships.

Mount Saint Vincent has some very innovative service elements including:

  • Creative Arts Therapy team who provide music therapy, dance/movement therapy and art therapy;
  • An animal assisted therapy program onsite using dogs and guinea pigs and offsite using horses
  • An onsite volunteer tactile therapy program offering clothed massage, yoga, meditation/mindfulness, bach flower remedies and reiki for example.
  • Individual Therapy
  • EMDR
  • Swimming
  • Bike Riding
  • Gym
  • Group Therapy Programs including Lego Group and Psychodrama
  • Sensory tool boxes for each child and program
  • The school program has a dedicated mental health clinician to support the inclusion of developmentally matched regulatory activities for the students so to assist in maintaining a state of regulation, coupled with an intervention team able to take students in the moment and provide co-regulation for children to assist them back into classroom learning activities.msv swimming pool

Like everywhere else I had visited up to this point, the staff at Mount Saint Vincent Home are dedicated, passionate and committed to making a difference in the lives of children.  I watched and listened to staff talk openly about their love of the work, the challenges it brings and most importantly the changes they feel privileged to be part of in the journey of these children.  Like all services operating with the public health system there were clearly challenges that the programs were having to manage and deal with, but that aside the Mount Saint Vincent team not unlike Sandhill, Cal Farley’s, Sumner Mental Health and Alexander Youth Network were thoughtful, authentic and so very respectful in their work with children and families.

In 2013 Mount Saint Vincent Home’s Creative Arts Therapy team published an awesome resource called, “Doodles, Dances and Ditties: A Somatosensory Handbook”.  This book is a collection of creative, sensory and movement based activities you can use to regulate children.   You can get it on their website http://www.msvhome.org or via amazon – where I see it now comes in a Kindle version.

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Greater and Less Than – Lessons in learning Through Movement

Somatosensory activities and education, this is a topic close to my heart.

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For a little over two years now I have been consultant and then project manager of a pilot project in Australia looking at the inclusion of patterned, repetitive somatosensory activities in primary school classes.

So often we hear teachers and educators ask about strategies for managing traumatised children and their resultant behaviours in the classroom.   All too often in my clinical practice teachers have looked at me, perplexed when I suggested they could include somatosensory activities into curriculum.  In fact I had almost got to the point that I believed this maybe wasn’t achievable and that I had to enlist an education champion to help me articulate my meaning more clearly.  The latter may still be the case, but in Charlotte NC I had the professionally heart warming experience of watching a relatively new teacher to the Alexander Youth Network (AYN) Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility (PRTF) School do exactly what I’ve been talking about for years.

The PRTF School do what most neurodevelopmentally and “trauma” informed education programs do, by providing frequent “brain breaks” for their children.  Essentially this is where they step down from academic learning and engage in some form of somatosensory activity such as playing outside, water play, sand play, play doh, calming corners with sofas, bean bags, blankets and soft toys etc. They do this routinely, repetitively and frequently – in fact given the arousal and dysregulation of the children AYN sees in its PRTF, these breaks seemed to work best when applied every 10 or so minutes.  Having access to a staff member dedicated to leading these breaks and co-regulating the children in between them worked a treat as well.   All of this impressed me, but what really stood out was this one teacher who found a way to incorporate somatosensory activities into curriculum based learning!IMG_7140

You know maths and mathematical concepts is a difficult gig at any school, let alone a classroom of children struggling with emotional, social and behavioural difficulties.  So when this teacher came in to teach the concepts of less than and greater than I thought to myself this will be interesting.

Immediately on entry into the room, she invited the children to the front of the class and had them all stand or sit around her as they preferred. She didn’t get flustered or annoyed when children came and went from her teaching space and in doing so, actually appeared to manage keeping them around her and in the vicinity of learning for the whole exercise.  Each child was given a piece of paper containing a number, each child read their number out aloud.  The greater than symbol was drawn on the board and there was minimal question and answer time to ensure that everyone understood the concept of the greater than symbol.

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Less than & Greater than

Then engaging the students in an activity based process, moving them around she asked them two by two (based on those most engaged in the moment) to identify their number and stand either side of her – as she held the greater than symbol.  The student’s task – to put themselves in the right spot – who’s number was greater than the other.  Each student excitedly took their turn and much celebration was had as each pair got it right.  In addition to the movement which we know provides sensory and motor based regulation to the lower parts of the brain, this teacher relied on her voice to ensure up regulation and down regulation in the moment and what was most impressive was that she made the lesson punchy and brief.  In and out in no more than 15  minutes and a key mathematical concept was taught and grasped by these children.

Can somatosensory activity be incorporated into curriculum?

I think it can.  It might take a bit of creativity and planning, and maybe even a shift in basic education philosophy about how to teach children, but I still think this is very achievable.

Alexander Youth Network

 

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In the last week of May I journeyed to beautiful Charlotte in North Carolina to spend the week with my colleagues at Alexander Youth Network (AYN).  AYN’s main campus or headquarters, and the home of it’s Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility (PRTF) and one of their Day Treatment Programs, is located on a picturesque 60 acre property with buildings nestled in a woodland area with open grounds and recreation areas for their clients.  This campus also houses facilities including a gym, indoor swimming pool and cafeteria.

AYN is a non profit community based organisation receiving funding from fees for services (medicaid, insurance and the like) as well as contributions from individuals, corporations, foundations and government agencies.  AYN serves children ages 5 to 18, who are referred from hospitals, physicians, parents, schools and from state and county organisations such as department of social services and juvenile justice.  AYN serve over 7000 children each year.

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Surrounding woodlands

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Woodland Trail

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Deep in the woodland trail

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Alexander Youth Network Grounds

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Onsite Playgrounds

AYN provide an array of mental health treatment for serious emotional and behavioural difficulities including: diagnostic and outpatient services, community based programs, multisytemic day therapy, therapeutic foster care and an onsite, 36 bed psychiatric residential treatment facility.  The idea being that children, young people and families accessing their services can move from service to service with established working relationships of trust within the one organisation.  Added to this is the strong grounding the staff have in child development, trauma, attachment and neurodevelopment as a core component of their orientation and ongoing training.

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It was a contrast to go from services that have decisively removed themselves from the medicaid system or appear to have more flexibility than is given from the public health system and as a result appear better funded and able to provide longer term intervention for their clients.  At AYN the financial resourcing struggle of service delivery was evident in comparison to the private services I had visited.  While the AYN staff were at times a bit despondent about this, I was nonetheless impressed at what they were offering and able to offer.  There is something about not having resources at your fingertips that can contribute to a creative resourcefulness and the team at AYN do this well.  In fact when it comes to neurodevelopmentally informed and respectful interventions AYN have lots to offer:

  • Individual therapy including EMDR, play therapy, sand tray and an awesome play room furnished largely by donation and financial grants
  • Art Therapy including pottery and their very own kiln
  • A ropes course for adventure therapy
  • A Labyrinth
  • Occupational Therapy with a motor and sensory furnished room including a swing and tunnels.
  • Physical Therapy
  • Reiki
  • Swimming
  • Vegetable and flower bed gardens and gardening program
  • Woodland walking trails
  • Playgrounds
  • Gym
  • Developmentally matched classrooms that afford children regular (every 10 – 15 mins) brain breaks and recreation
  • Classrooms that are highly sensory and provide calming, alerting and regulating activities including rocking chairs, bean bags, chill out areas and such
  • Bike program whereby each PRTF child has their own bike.

 

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Art Therapy room including Kiln

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Play Therapy Room

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Play Therapy equipment

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Play Therapy Room – role play and dress ups

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Play Therapy puppets

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Play Therapy sand tray and figures

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Occupational Therapy room

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Developmentally matched classrooms

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Chill out area in classroom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of more concern to me than their financial resourcing issues, were the systemic restrictions being placed on AYN in relation to the length of service delivery they are able to offer their clients.  The public health system funding children coming into the PRTF, those clients with the most serious of emotional and behavioural disturbances, are placing pressure on the service to treat and “repair” these children in 3 months.  The years of clinical practice, much of the theory out there, and my more recent acquisition of neurodevelopment and trauma expertise have taught me that it takes more than 3 months to form a trusting relationship with some of these kids.

 And we know that it is only in the context of such trusting relationships that these children can being to heal.

So with that knowledge I take my hat off to my colleagues at AYN and their ability to work within a public health system that places considerable restraint on their ability to really heal these kids.  The staff I met talked openly of the 30 day review process they have to undertake to retain or regain funding for ongoing work and the associated challenges. Despite this, the passion and commitment for their work and the children and families they serve sees them rise daily to these challenges and provide meaningful connections and healing opportunities for North Carolina’s more vulnerable citizens.

 

Adventure Therapy


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Think about a time when you took a risk, stepped out of your comfort zone, challenged yourself!

Scary right?

How did it feel when you succeeded in spite of your fear?

Did it feel good?

I bet you felt proud!

And you know what? If you reflect on that experience long enough and with a level of insight you will notice the skills you learnt or enhanced and the ways in which you coped and managed your anxiety.

Now think about a world where you never feel safe or secure.  A world full of fear and distrust. This is the life of the traumatised child. An existence where safety is stolen and experience leaves templates of mistrust.

Imagine a situation whereby the traumatised child can experience success and a sense of accomplishment in the context of relationships that demonstrate “in the moment” trust. Adventure based therapy like kayaking, ropes courses, wilderness adventure programs and the like can afford traumatised young people this opportunity.

The magic in adventure based therapy is in weaving together into one activity the following developmental and healing opportunities. Participants are faced with activities that challenge and extend them at a skill level, but are absolutely achievable.  What’s more many of these activities involve fear, risk taking and induce anxiety, but are provided in a way that they can be scaffolded for success and achievement. So in a direct experiential way the individual participant has to draw on their competencies, explore problems and difficulties to develop solutions and fundamentally achieve and succeed in the face of trauma. All of this is done in the context of a relationship that implicitly enforces trust and as a result of individual success provides a positive experience of helpful, supportive and trusting relationships.

I observed a kayaking adventure therapy session with a group of adolescent boys at Cal Farley’s. These young men were preparing for an open water kayaking trip the following week and were practicing the skills of rescue post capsizing.

Fascinating in this observation was watching these young men anxiously anticipate the notion of flipping their kayak and deliberately capsizing themselves. Staff engaged in a lot of cognitive discussion based reassurance, what was awesome was that this was done as they kayaked up and down the length of the pond, back and forth, repetitively paddling and talking. This allowed for somatosensory regulation of anxiety, or quietening down of the dysregulation caused by the anxiety, so that the discussion based reassurance and coaching could be heard and internalised by the young men.

Then in pairs – either paired with an intervention therapist, or in peer pairings with one more skilled peer as mentor for the other, these guys practiced capsizing their boats and rescuing each other. There was ample time provided to allow them to work up to and get themselves emotionally and cognitively ready to tip their kayaks, including repeat demonstrations from intervention staff and more competent peers, paddling laps and step by step instructions and reassurance.

Eventually one by one, these young men tipped their kayaks and capsized themselves, were successfully rescued and able to get back into their kayaks from in the water in the middle of the pond and fist pumped the air with the experience of success.

These lads were able to experience in the moment moderate levels of fear and anxiety activation paired with somatosensory regulation and the experience of relational trust all of which culminated in the experience of success. What was really nice was the processing or discussions that took place together about the experience and the learning for the young men after their initial success – talking about what it was like, how it felt, what they learnt about themselves, about their relationship with their partner – some really nice “talk based” therapeutic work attached to a really cool direct experiential learning opportunity.

Dr Perry talks about the importance of repetition to strengthen the new neural pathways and connections that are made with these experiences and you know repetition was not an issue after that first capsize and recovery – these guys just kept doing it over and over and over again.  I could see the increase in confidence right there in the moment by moment repeat of the activity.

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An Excuse for New Boots!

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The Sandhill Trail Ride with Acacia Riding Adventures: San Lorenzo Canyon New Mexico.

I’m always looking for a reason to add to my collection of cowboy boots. Now there’s more to this story and while this blog is really about neurodevelopmentally informed interventions and I’ll get there in this one, just let me set the scene a little.

There I was in Denver – a little over a week of being in the States and well I hadn’t really packed for a cold snap.  In fact, despite what seemed to be seamless organisation in relation to my packing – I really didn’t consider or even think about researching the spring weather conditions for places like Denver, Banff and Calgary.  So after a 102/38 degree day in Wichita, I head to Denver – where it was a crisp 63/17 degrees and my footwear is pretty much a pair of canvas Toms and two pair of open toe summer sandals!  This coupled with a Facebook post from a dear colleague in Calgary showing their spring snowfall (looks like our winter on the ski slopes) resulted in a rapid move up the arousal continuum to a state of mild stress activation.  “Will it be like that when I get there in June ?” “I’ve only canvas and open toed shoes, hello frostbite…”  and then as I engaged some self regulation, calmed and regained access to my thinking brain, came the problem solving “…Hello Boots!” On that very same day I get an email from Cal Farley’s to let me know that I’d be doing a trail ride – on a horse.  It is meant to be and now the deal is sealed, new boots for me!

I haven’t ridden for over 23 years, so the idea of getting back on a horse caused me some apprehension, however in the last two weeks I’ve now had opportunity to do two trail rides, firstly with Sandhill in one of the most picturesque canyons, secondly at Cal Farley’s around the treatment centre campus.  I’d love to be able to tell you that it’s just like riding a bike and one of my observers suggested to me that it looked just like that – on the back of that animal although – that’s not how it felt.

The mere idea of getting back up on horseback was in and of itself anxiety provoking for me.  I’m not a lover of heights, and well I’ve put on a bit of weight since I was a kid riding and being a lover of animals was quite concerned about my horse having to bear my weight.  On both rides what was fantastic was the reassurance from experienced horse handlers that both of my horses were more than capable of carrying me and doing so safely.  The other thing that I loved about both Dacodah and David was their ability to scaffold a feeling of competence and in turn begin the process of co-regulation of my anxiety.  I couldn’t help but think about what this experience would be like for a child or young person so used to negative human interaction, to have both an animal and its handler working together in the most natural of ways and leaving you feeling nothing but important and what’s more, even with skill.

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Cal Farley’s Trail Ride

Once on the back of the horse, there was no going back on either occasion.  In fact on the first ride there may not have been any going forward either had the horse not clearly communicated to me that I was anxious and she was not enjoying that experience.  My horse kept looking at me and snorting almost with derision.  Initially this did nothing to quell my anxiety and left me thinking all sort of negative self talk about my weight and the horse’s experience of it.  Not unlike the float tank, it was interesting to notice the thought processes that emerged about myself and the importance of sorting that stuff out or at the very least challenging it, for the success of the experience.

Dacodah and David on both occasions reminded me that the horse, being a prey animal, have an overactive stress response system – not unlike the abused and traumatised kids we work with and that they are finely attuned to threat.  Sensing my anxiety both the horses had started to become a bit “on edge” really just feeding off my own anxiety.  So in order to calm them, I had to calm myself.  The horse like the frightened and traumatised child, at the heart of it, really wants a calm, regulated, nice, nurturing, rewarding rider who can take control and be respectful of them.  The more I was able to manage my anxiety and relax into the animal while at the same time retain a sense of confident control the more attuned the horse and I became, the more responsive they were to me and the more confident and skilled I felt.

I can only imagine living a life where you feel out of control all the time and then having an experience like this where you have capacity to control the success of your interaction.  Yeah sure we could argue that our kids have capacity to control the success of their interactions with us all the time, but the immediate feedback from the animal that is without judgement, mixed messages and completely non verbal is so very powerful.  If you don’t get yourself sorted and regulated then your horse is going to do what it needs to take care of itself. There’s not going to be responsivity, let alone the chance of working together.   I watched young people who got this and were able to, in the moment, do what they needed to do to have a successful and pleasant ride with their horse.  I also watched other young people struggle to manage themselves, then end up more dysregulated when their horse wouldn’t do what they wanted, making the horse even more non compliant and not interested in the process.  I could absolutely see the benefit for in the moment reflection and wondering about the experience with the kids and the power of experiential learning when observations and interactions could be reflected on and internalised.  Aside from the physical sensory experience of riding there is definitely something in this equine based work!!

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Not so new anymore

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San Lorenzo Canyon

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On the trail

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A Self Portrait on horseback

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Canyon Pictures

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More of the Canyon

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Pictures do not capture the beauty of this place

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Just like in the movies

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Views from a top San Lorenzo Canyon