We are all aware of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on both our children and young people, and the adults who care for them. Feelings of anxiety and feeling unsettled are normal, healthy reactions to an abnormal and unique situation. We have all been affected in some way and while some will recover and ‘catch up’ relatively quickly, others will find the process more difficult, so access to appropriate therapeutic relationships and spaces are now essential.
Creating a calm corner or space offers children and young people a place in which they can learn how to safely regulate and develop tools and strategies that help them to remain in their window of tolerance. The calm corner needs to be a special place of safety where they can give themselves greater opportunities to be resilient and stay calm and focussed. Developing their self-awareness and with this, greater levels of adaptability, flexibility and independence are the key objectives of such a space.
In this article we will look at how to develop the space and highlight some key tools and resources to support you in the process.
Starting with you
A vital point to remember – the need to be resilient yourself.
In order to develop your calm corner/space to promote the wellbeing of children and young people, you need to firstly ensure that you have found your own calm.
We know that unregulated and stressed adults cannot effectively support and help children and young people who are also unregulated and stressed. It is impossible.
We also know that the direct carers or nurturers of children are most effective in helping them develop self-regulation. They can provide activities that support regulation and are also the most immediate role models for children. The emotional tone of a school or home is dramatically affected by the capacity of adults to regulate themselves. If adults respond to children’s distress in a calm but engaged way, they demonstrate an alternative way of managing stress. When adults respond to difficulties by becoming dysregulated, they replicate the damaging environments that characterised children’s earlier or current experiences.
Being the therapeutic adult in the relationship
This is hard work and demands a level of self-care that many of us find difficult to sustain.
We know that the brain develops from the back to the front and from inside to out. When human beings are emotionally dysregulated, the brain stem and limbic areas are activated which results in the deactivation of the frontal cortex, responsible for executive functions, including attention and impulse control.
Any intervention and support offered by us as adults therefore needs to be primarily targeted at safety and connection (brain stem and limbic system) and not at a cognitive, language-based level. This means that we need to be available emotionally and evidently present in terms of being there to support and nurture the child. This is the key to building a therapeutic relationship.
In order to build such a connection, we firstly need to ensure our own wellbeing is intact and that our own brain needs are met. One means of judging this is to use the healthy mind platter which promotes self-care to ensure that we can then be emotionally available for others and have the energy and sensitivity to support them in the most therapeutic way possible.
The Healthy Mind Platter
The Healthy Mind Platter (developed by Dr. David Rock and Dr. Daniel J. Siegel) has seven essential daily activities that provide the ‘mental nutrients’ necessary for optimum mental health. By engaging in each of these every day, you allow your brain to coordinate and balance its activities, which helps to strengthen your internal connections and your connections with other people.
The visual provides an essential reminder to us all, as the adults nurturing the wellbeing of children and young people, to maintain a real balance in our own daily lives.
Kolk (1994) described trauma as ‘speechless terror’ and traumatised children may be slow to develop speech or may struggle to find words to describe their trauma or their feelings. Trauma and stress may also affect the capacity to process verbal information and children can struggle to follow complex directions and may experience auditory selectivity so that only part of a verbal communication is heard. As adults, we can often interpret failure to obey directions or to respond to questions as wilful defiance and react punitively, rather than modifying our own communication to match the children’s needs.
So, once again, we need to be careful to ensure that our responses and the systems we put in place both in the home and in school ensure these factors are considered. We must respond appropriately to children and young people who have experienced trauma, stress and anxiety and who are currently living through the traumatic times of this pandemic. We need to create safety routines first and to also change our own expectations and behaviours.
We all now know that stress and anxiety disorders are an increasing problem for our children and young people and that we do need to therefore work more at a preventative level to support the development of key skills and strategies to manage such issues. Effective stress management and specifically using relaxation strategies can be highly effective for many children. This is the rationale for including a range of such strategies and techniques/resources in your ‘Calm Corner’. It is vital that all adults (teaching professionals and parents/carers) can and do model these to the children and young people they nurture.
To achieve this, we need to ensure that we know how to engage in effective self-care and how to manage our own stress and anxiety whilst simultaneously understanding the need to respond in a truly trauma informed way. This has never been more important when we know that children are all experiencing such a stressful social and educational context in these difficult times.
The Window of Tolerance
The Window of Tolerance is a model founded in Neuroscience and helps develop good practice for improving and maintaining mental health and wellbeing. It presents us with information as to how we function at our best, in all areas of our lives so that we can manage when emotions become difficult, complex or seemingly overwhelming.
We know that children’s emotions fluctuate, particularly at times of stress and crisis and they can find it hard to put their feelings into words. We need therefore to be able to recognise this sense of overwhelm and to know when and why they are struggling with their feelings and emotions. Using the Window of Tolerance provides us with a way to do this.
Each person’s window of tolerance is different. Those who have a narrow window of tolerance may often feel as if their emotions are intense and difficult to manage. Others with a wider window of tolerance may be able to handle intense emotions or situations without feeling like their ability to function has been significantly impacted.
When a person is within their window of tolerance, it is generally the case that the brain is functioning well and can effectively process stimuli. That person is likely to be able to reflect, think rationally, and make decisions calmly without feeling either overwhelmed or withdrawn.
During times of extreme stress, people often experience periods of either hyper- or hypo-arousal.
- Hyper-arousal, otherwise known as the flight/fight response, is often characterized by hypervigilance, feelings of anxiety and/or panic, and racing thoughts.
- Hypo-arousal, or a freeze response, may cause feelings of emotional numbness, emptiness, or paralysis.
In either of these states, an individual may become unable to process stimuli effectively. The prefrontal cortex region of the brain shuts down, in a manner of speaking, affecting the ability to think rationally and often leading to the development of feelings of dysregulation. This may take the form of chaotic responses or overly rigid ones. In these periods, a person can be said to be outside the window of tolerance.
So, what can we do?
It is possible for individuals who have become dysregulated to use techniques to return to their window of tolerance. Grounding and mindfulness skills and techniques are considered beneficial by many mental health experts. By focusing on the physical sensations currently being experienced, people are often able to remain in the present and calm and soothe themselves enough to effectively manage extreme arousal.
Many children and adults are able to widen their window of tolerance and, by doing so, increase their sense of calm and become able to deal with stress in more adaptive ways.
Therapeutic relationships and trauma informed contexts and spaces can provide a safe space for people to process painful memories and emotions and make contact with their emotions without becoming so dysregulated that they cannot integrate them. Increasing emotional regulation capabilities in this way can lead to a wider window of tolerance and prevent dysregulation.
Working in the ‘Calm Corner’ and in the classroom
There are 2 types of interventions that we can all make use of to support a child or young person to return to their window of tolerance in both the Calm Corner and in the classroom too.
This ensures they can develop their self-awareness and with this, greater levels of adaptability, flexibility and independence. These are called Process Interventions. We can teach these skills and provide the opportunity for children and young people to practice them within the context of the Calm Corner.
We can also give them external supports and strategies, such as adapting the environment (e.g. sensory accommodations); building in predictability (e.g. visual timetables, structure, routines); and / or providing keyworker support. These are the Compensation Interventions which we can also ensure as part of the Calm corner intervention.
Strategies and resources for moving from hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal to the Window of Tolerance
This next section will introduce you to a range of tried and tested/evidence-based tools and strategies to support children and young people do this. What is important to remember is that one size does not fit all and that building the toolbox of wellbeing and increasing the window of tolerance will be different for each individual. We need to ensure the intervention is bespoke and that a wide range of resources are made available so that through the process of trial and error the child can identify what works best for them.
At the outset, it is vital that they feel safe and nurtured knowing that they are accepted for who they are and are not judged for displaying symptoms of anxiety or previous trauma.
Also, these skills need to be practised frequently when the young person feels relatively calm. They will then be able to eventually transfer these skills to those moments of more heightened stress and emotion – thus becoming more empowered and in control.
You will need to consider which resources are appropriate for the development of your Calm corner alongside identifying and furnishing the space appropriately.
5 Keys to setting up the Calm Corner space
Key 1 – Location
It is important to carefully consider where you will set up your calm down corner. For example, you may choose a space in the back of the room, so students using it do not feel self-conscious. The best option of course is to have a dedicated room but this is a luxury for many in today’s current climate. Ask yourself:
- Does the space have enough room for a chair/small sofa/bean bag and possibly a small table?
- Does the space seem semi-private?
- Can children easily access the space?
Key 2 – Furniture
Furniture is another key factor in creating your calm down corner. The size of the space will determine what you can include. At a minimum, you will need an adequate seating area which includes a chair/bean bag/small sofa. A small desk or table will also be useful for any self-reflection/recording activities as will a listening booth for access to music tapes/relaxation tapes/online calm down resources.
Key 3 – Meaningful visuals
You will need to provide children with visual displays and resources to help them self-regulate and manage their emotions. For example:
- A poster with breathing techniques.
- A poster asking students to rate their “emotional temperature.”
- A list of things they could do in the Calm corner.
- A resource with strategies for problems solving in a stepped way.
- A resource with strategies for using key tools from Mindfulness such as visualisation of my calming place/grounding of my feet to the floor.
Key 4 – Calm down tools
A calm down corner is not complete without the physical/tactile tools children can use to help themselves regulate their emotions and return to their window of tolerance. These might include the following:
- Glitter Jar
- Puffer Squeeze Ball
- Sensory Stixx
- Expandable Ball
- Kinetic Sand
Key 5 – Teach children about the calm down corner
All the children and young people will need to be taught about the ‘Calm Corner’ and why it is such a helpful and essential intervention for our wellbeing. Why do we need this? What does it help us to do? What are the resources in the corner and how do we use them? When and why? Spending some time as a whole class to reinforce the purpose and practicalities is obviously an essential.
The following tools and strategies are all worth considering in order to support the development of the space and intervention.
Moving from hyper-arousal to the Window of Tolerance
The Power of Best Breathing
- Our breath is an essential in terms of regulating emotions, especially when used with movement. However, not all children will respond well to using breathing techniques. If you think a focus on breathing may be useful to the child, then consider how you can build in some exercises as a proactive measure, e.g. at the start of every school morning and afternoon, at home before they leave for school or as part of the regular routines in your Calm corner or Nurture provision/area.
- Cheap breathing balls are very useful and readily available. As children breathe in, the ball expands. As they breathe out the ball closes. They can repeat as necessary.
- This is also known as belly breathing or abdominal breathing. The belly rises on the in-breath and lowers on the outbreath. This allows effective use of oxygen as it reaches the lower parts of the lungs. Children can practise by placing a hand on their belly and feel the movement. A younger child could practise by lying on their back with a soft toy on their belly – giving the toy a ride as the belly goes up and then lowers.
- This is sometimes called star breathing (using a star instead of a hand). With fingers outstretched, use the index finger of the other hand to trace around the thumb and fingers of the outstretched hand whilst breathing. From base of thumb to tip breathe in; from tip of thumb to base on the other side breathe out and so on. This can then be repeated on the other hand.
Tracing and breathing
- The child can draw a shape on a piece of paper. As they breathe slowly in and out they continue to trace the shape without lifting the pencil from the paper.
Visualisation tools and ideas
Provide a range of scripts for visualisation and work with individual children to make up their own scripts. For example, ‘Picture yourself…’:
- gathering the emotions, scrunching them up, and putting them into a box.
- walking, swimming, biking, or jogging away from painful feelings.
- imagining your thoughts as a song or TV programme you dislike, changing the channel or turning down the volume — they’re still there, but you don’t have to listen to them.
- Deep pressure stimulation of the body gained from use of a weighted blanket can increase the release of the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.
Music to soothe
- Using the sense of hearing with rhythm can relax both the mind and body. It can be used to accompany breath work and movement. You can grade the music from a higher tempo to lower tempo to gradually regulate. Personalise this for the child or young person – some people like the sound of the sea, a stream, a crackling fire, blackbirds, etc.
- Using the 5 main senses for bringing attention – 5 things they can see; 4 they can feel; 3 they can hear; 2 they can smell (or imagine) and 1 they can taste (or imagine) is a very helpful grounding strategy and easy to tach and model to children.
Sensation or Feelings Area
- A Sensation or Feelings wall is an area you can create in the Calm corner with words that describe sensations or feelings. This can be helpful as language is difficult to access when we are dysregulated, but a child could use the visuals and point to the sensation they feel in the body. Remember that the ‘language of the brain stem is sensation’.
Moving from hypo-arousal to the Window of Tolerance
Anything that stimulates the senses can be included in a list of strategies/resources that proposes to do this for a child.
- Our sense of smell is the fastest way to the thinking brain. Making a sensory tray with a range of different smelly objects can be a fun activity – lavender, basil, soap, handwash etc.
Chewy, crunchy food
- Crunchy foods wake us up because we have to work harder to consume them, and that satisfying crunch engages the ears as well. Like crunchy foods, chewy snacks can help a child feel more alert simply because of the effort it takes to consume these foods.
Sensory Rain Stick Bottles
- Rain stick bottles use the calming effect of the sound of rain to soothe the child’s troubles away, and can be made from a huge array of household items such as dried rice, beads or buttons. Support the child to add their chosen objects to fill around half of the container, secure the lid and then engage with the soothing sounds.
- If you have the space then providing a sand play area is also extremely useful. If not, then a mini sand tray will suffice.
- Purchase a mini paper shredder and provide children the chance to shred their worries while spending time in the Calm Down Corner!
Stress / squeeze balls / slime
- Stress balls are excellent tools to relieve stress and release anxiety. They also improve motor skills, loosen muscles, promote blood circulation, and strengthen the hand grip. It is worthwhile investigating in a range of these to resource the Calm corner as they are relatively cost effective and many children and young people find them easy to use both in the corner and in the whole class context.
Calm down jars
- To make your own calm down jar, start by mixing glitter glue with hot water and adding a few drops of food colouring. Whisk until the glue ‘melts’ and mixes properly with the water. Next, add additional glitter, whisk vigorously one more time, transfer the mixture into your clear jar, and top the bottle up with water so it’s completely full. Allow the water to cool to room temperature before securing the lid with glue to ensure it is properly sealed and won’t leak. Shake when you need to calm down.
Feet On the floor
- Feeling the soles of the feet on the floor or the body sat on a chair, noticing how the body is supported is a key grounding technique. The Soles of the Feet practice enables the individual to divert attention from an emotionally arousing thought, event or situation to an emotionally neutral part of the body.
Dance and music
- The calming effects of music are evident as is the use of dance to express emotion and increase endorphins, so having the opportunity to dance to a tape is something you may also wish to consider for some children as a part of this intervention.
Gently sitting or bouncing on a therapy ball
- Gently bouncing a sitting child on a therapy ball offers increased vestibular input and this activity helps to raise a child’s arousal levels when they are feeling sluggish or slow. It brings about eye contact with the person in front of them in addition to alertness and awareness of one’s own body in space. In the same sitting position, if the therapy ball is rocked front and back, it enhances the balance and postural control of the child while providing vestibular input. Slow bouncing or slow rocking on the therapy ball for a period (specific to each child) brings about a calming effect on the child. On the other hand, fast bouncing or rocking on the therapy ball brings about alertness in a child. Bouncing can be done in a distraction free environment such as the Calm Corner with rhythmic music or rhyme that enhances the child’s response to his/her surroundings.
Rocking chair or rocking horse
- If you have enough space for this, it can really enhance the provision and has similar effects to bouncing on the therapy ball.
- Collect a series of labyrinth pictures for children to trace around. They can make up their own folders and also include some Mindful colouring activities if these are considered age appropriate.
- This is a good activity for developing fine motor strength, finger isolation, fine motor coordination, and for helping a child who is sensitive to messy textures. For the child who is sensitive to having his or her hands messy, offer a paper towel or rag to allow the child to wipe his or her hands as much as they need to. Finger painting does not have to be limited to just using paint; you could use pudding, sauce, peanut butter, foaming soap, shaving cream or any substance that is easily spread with fingers.
- To make a sensory bin/tray all you need is a storage container (can be as small or as big as you would like) and material to fill the bin. You can use any of the following: sand, oatmeal, rice, dried beans, dried split peas, lentils or any combination of these. You can then take small toys such as little people, farm animals, matchbox cars, pompom balls, etc. and hide them in the bin. To find the items you have hidden the child/children can use tools like spoons, shovels, trowels, or forks. This allows them to experience different textures with their hands and to develop skills with utensils.
A final note …
I hope that you have found this article helpful and that it will support you in setting up and effectively resourcing your Calm Corners or wellbeing spaces.
Taking the time to learn and develop your own self-regulation skills are clearly an essential as stated at the outset of this article, so please do not lose sight of that. Self-care is an essential for all of us who nurture children and young people so take the time to reflect on your own window of tolerance and keep it intact. By doing so you will then be best placed to ensure that your children and young people can do likewise.
References and useful resources
- Bryson, T. & Siegel, D. (2012) The Whole Brain-Child:12 Proven Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind New York: Robinson
- Van der Kolk B (2003) The neurobiology of childhood trauma and abuse, Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12, 293-317
- Rae, T. (2016) Building Positive Thinking Habits Increasing Self-confidence and resilience in young people through CBT Buckingham: Hinton House Publishers.
- Rae, T., Walshe, J. & Wood, J. (2017) The Essential Guide to using Mindfulness with young people Buckingham: Hinton House Publishers.
- Rae, T., Bunn, H. &. Walshe, J. (2018) The Essential Guide to using Positive Psychology with children and young people Buckingham: Hinton House Publishers.
- Rae, T., Such, A. & Wood, J. (2020) The Well Being Tool Kit for Mental health leads in schools A comprehensive Training Resource to Support Emotional Wellbeing in Education and Social Care Buckingham: Hinton House Publishers.
- Rae, T. (2020) It’s OK not to be OK: A Guide to Wellbeing London: QED Publishing
- Rae, T. (2020) A Toolbox of Wellbeing Helpful strategies and activities for children, teens, their carers and teachers Buckingham: Hinton House Publishers
- Rock, D. et al (2012) ‘The Healthy Mind Platter’ in NeuroLeadership Journal (Issue 4)
With many thanks to Dr Tina Rae for this hugely insightful article.
Dr Tina Rae has 37 years’ experience working with children, adults and families in clinical and educational contexts within local authorities and specialist services. She is currently working as a Consultant Educational and Child Psychologist in a range of SEMH and mainstream contexts and for Fostering agencies as a Consultant Psychologist supporting foster carers, social workers and Looked after children. She was an Academic and Professional tutor for the Doctorate in Educational and Child psychology (University of East London) from 2010-16. She is a registered member of the Health and Care Professions Council, a member of ENSEC (European Network for Social and Emotional Competence) and a former trustee of Nurture UK.
Tina is a member of the editorial board for the journal Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties and for the International Journal of Nurture in Education. She is also a member of the Advisory board for Fresh Start in Education.
Tina is a prolific author and has over 100 publications to date.