Children's Mental Health Week - part two: Using a low arousal approach in your practice

In this part of the series for Children’s Mental Health Week, we look at the low arousal approach. We will discuss what the approach is, the benefits of adopting it and how you can implement it within your own practice.  
Children's Mental Health Week - part two: Using a low arousal approach in your practice
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In part two of the series for Children’s Mental Health Week, we look at the low arousal approach. We will discuss what the approach is, the benefits of adopting it and how you can implement it within your own practice.  

What it the low arousal approach?

The low arousal approach is a collection of different strategies, which have a shared aim of reducing children’s stress, fear, frustration and anxiety. In turn, these strategies can help children to feel safe, secure and regulated. Quite often a classroom can be a hive of activity and full of different sounds. For some children, particularly children with sensory processing difficulties, this can become a very stressful and overwhelming environment. It could trigger a child’s flight or fight response, leaving them anxious and risks a detrimental impact upon their mental health and wellbeing. Through implementing the low arousal approach within your practice, you can create an optimum, inclusive learning environment for all children, as it can reduce the sensory input and increase their engagement in learning opportunities. 

How to implement it into your practice?

There are a wide range of strategies that you could implement under the umbrella of the low arousal approach. Far more than can be covered within this series. However, here are some suggestions that can help to start your thinking about changes you can make within your own practice:

Physical environment:

We often want our classroom to look ‘child friendly’ – full of colour, with an array of posters and displays of children’s work. However, all this can quickly become distracting and over stimulating for a child. We need to get back to basics and plan the décor and room layout more carefully, with the children’s needs in mind. Provide a range of ways which children can access activities, with different seating options. Not all children want to sit at a desk with an activity placed in front of them, some may want to stand or lie down. Provide different types of chairs, cushions, floor space and beanbags for children to sit on.

Neutral colours and natural tones are linked to calming environments. Use soft tones of colours in your classroom and add splashes of colour with soft furnishings so that they can easily be added or removed. Declutter your classroom and make it easy for a child to move around and access a few resources at a time. Having all your resources in the classroom can provide a child with too much choice and can easily overwhelm them. As much as possible, reduce sensory inputs such as minimalizing all unnecessary sounds, sights, and smells.

For me, I am very sensitive to smells and cannot tolerate plug in air fresheners or any type of diffusers. I find the smells from these products overwhelming and can make me feel sick. Just because one person may find a smell pleasant, to someone else it could be very unpleasant. Imagine having to work in a space that is infused with the worse smell that you have ever experienced. I am sure your level of engagement would drop very quickly. Likewise, if we were trying to concentrate on a piece of work and all you can hear in the background was construction work, how long would we remain focused? Now apply these scenarios to children and their learning environment. If they are surrounded by loud noises and a mixture of smells, would they be able to concentrate?

Time and space:

As practitioners, it is ingrained into us to sit with children and attempt to extend their learning at every opportunity. However, children also need time and space to be on their own and for you to stand back and just watch. This is not to say you should sit down and write a formal observation, but to just watch what they do, watch what connections they are making, how they are learning and most importantly, what is capturing their interests. All the information you gather can help you to get to know the child better and understand what strategies may best suit them. It also lets children know that they can do things for themselves, but also know that a practitioner is nearby if they do need support.

For some children, there will also be times throughout the day when they want to be on their own and appear to not want to do anything. However, children are never doing nothing. Even when a child is lying down in a cosy corner on their own, not playing or talking to anyone, they are busy resting, regulating, and processing things that have happened. Providing children with a space to rest and to take time out is a fundamental aspect of supporting a child’s mental health and wellbeing and is as important as any learning/outcome-based activity.

Activities:

Although many learning opportunities are adult-led and directed, it is important to also enable child-led, open-ended activities. Allow children time to explore objects and resources and choose how they engage and interact with them. When you do provide adult-led activities, try as much as possible to ensure that they are meaningful to the child and follow their own interests. For us as adults, it can be very frustrating to be given a task that does not interest us. We will often procrastinate for a while before starting the task and take our time to complete it. Now imagine setting a child a task that does not interest or motivate them, they too will procrastinate. However, how often would we see their procrastination over a task as ‘challenging’ behaviour rather than an indication that they do not want to do something because it is not engaging for them. It is important to stop and think about what a child is trying to tell us through their actions and behaviours. More importantly, though, is listening to what they are telling you and adjust what you are doing in response to it. 

Agency and choice:

Children need to be viewed as competent and capable, and given opportunities to express their right to make decisions. Too often in education, children must meet certain learning outcomes and we pre-set activities to meet those outcomes. However, we can be a bit more flexible in how we present children with learning activities and opportunities, while still meeting a learning outcome. For example, provide two different ways that a child could achieve a learning outcome and allow them to choose which one they want to do. A learning outcome could be to practice writing the letters in their name. You could set up an activity on a table with their names on a card for them to trace over with a pencil or you could set up the sand tray with wooden sticks to encourage them to form letters of their name in the sand. Both activities would meet the learning outcome, but you are giving the child a choice of how to approach it. However, it is important to minimise the number of choices you offer at a time, as too many could prove to be overwhelming and become a barrier to selecting what they want to do.

In terms of agency and choice, think about other opportunities where children are enabled to choose freely. Think of displays of children’s work that you put up on your classroom walls and in corridors for everyone to see. Do you ask a child first if they would like their work to go on display or do you just put it up? Not all children are comfortable with having attention placed upon them and may not want their work out on display. It is important to enable children to make choices and for you to respect the ones that they make.

  

In the next part of this series, we move on from the low arousal approach and focus on the low demand approach. We will discuss what the approach is, the benefits of adopting it and how you can implement it within your own practice.

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