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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

BRAVE for Teachers: The Need for Physical Activity

“What would have helped me as a child?” I try to answer this in Jeannie’s BRAVE Childhood: Behavior and Healing through the Lens of Attachment and Trauma. The following except is one such answer. I could never sit still. I desperately needed to release trauma held in my body and one way to do that is through physical activity. The bicycle on the cover of BRAVE not only symbolizes the freedom I felt as a child when riding, but also how important exercise was for my survival.

It is a mistake to separate the body from the mind. Doing that is a westernized, modern-day cultural concept which is reaping a whirlwind of stress and trauma-related illnesses. Positive thinking can only go so far if the problem is inside the body. What we “think” may be what we are, but what we hold is what we become. Holding volumes of pent-up trauma and shame in the body will eventually take a toll.

It is a cautionary tale to those who make decisions in education (often politicians with little educational background). When the length of school days increases and recess times are shortened, children lose the opportunity to release pent up energy and learning suffers.

Increasingly, the researchers are telling us the key to learning is physical activity (though this is not a new understanding). While we need to allow all children to release natural energy, releasing trauma energy is critical. When “the bear” threatens, the body wants to run. When children can’t run, they internalize the energy. It releases through behaviors usually classified as “acting out.”

I was fortunate to grow up in an era when recess was morning, noon, and afternoon and we spent our after-school time running through the neighborhood. I find it fascinating my eight-year-old child self was always hopping from one linoleum block to another in the Basement of Shame. She understood what she needed. My restless anxiety was likely the trauma and shame trapped inside my body.

It was unfortunate that my love for physical activity came to a screeching halt when I failed P.E. in fourth grade. How was that possible? There were probably two reasons. I had a male P.E. teacher and I refused to participate in a dress (I owned no shorts to wear under my dresses). I also had a phobia about any relay race in which I had to wait my turn. My parents dismissed my P.E. grade as unimportant and no one ever knew why I refused to participate. For the remainder of my schooling, I rarely had a positive experience in P.E. and never thought of myself as athletic, despite the fact that before this year, I was a very active child.

Sometimes traumatized children cannot access the very activities which would help them. And sometimes we unwittingly remove the access through our lack of curiosity about the reasons the child isn't participating. By limiting the opportunity and time for physical activity, we are missing a way to both help these children and identify those who are struggling.

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