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Triggers and Glimmers

Within the classroom setting, lots of us are very aware of the fight/flight response that our students can display when they are feeling overwhelmed. Every teacher will have seen at least one child who escalates their behaviour into fight when they feel cornered, or the child who hides either literally or metaphorically when they feel they have made a mistake. We spend a lot of time as teachers identifying the triggers for these moments, in order to predict and avoid a recurrence of a stressful situation. But what can we do to support children when they are in the midst of the whirling distress? How can we help them to re-engage their prosocial brain and feel safe again?

This is where glimmers come in!

First an overview of the theory behind this approach: Polyvagal theory. Dr Steven Porges, starting in 1994, developed a theory centred on the role of the Vagus nerve in mediating emotional regulation, social connection and fear response. 3 main systems have been identified: the ventral vagal system, which mediates our social engagement systems, enabling us to feel calm, breathe evenly and tune into or out of noises that interest us in our environment. The next system, characterised as a ‘step down the evolutionary ladder’, is the sympathetic nervous system, which supports the action or escape pathways. Our hearts beat faster, our breathing becomes more laboured. The final system is the dorsal vagal branch, the path of last resort. This is where we reach shutdown, breathing slows and our bodies work to conserve metabolic resources. These systems are often described as a ladder, allowing us to move between each state in response to external or internal stimuli.

In this illustration (Deb Dana, 2014), triggers are the stimuli that move us down the ladder, engendering feelings of danger or threat, while glimmers are the experiences that help us to feel safe and secure.

Autonomic Ladder

How can you identify what experiences may work as glimmers for your children and young people?

Firstly, observe what strategies they turn to in times of stress already. Do they curl up and hide? Maybe a cosy den would be comforting for them. Do they prefer to get outside and run? An opportunity for time outdoors might be more effective.

For the autistic learners in your school, many autistic adults report that time spent pursuing their special interest has a calming and relaxing effect, so can you find a way to facilitate this in the school day? This could be having a selection of favourite toys available, or making time to watch an episode of a preferred TV programme, or even time to play a favourite game (if appropriate!)

Others may prefer sensory experiences, squeezing playdough or stroking a favourite cuddly toy. Smells can also be hugely supportive, like the smell of a favourite ‘blanky’, or a family member’s perfume.

Often when I talk about this with schools, I explain it as looking for a moment of relief, when all feels right with the world; I feel like this when I’ve sorted my felt-tips into rainbow order! It might be useful to consider what ‘glimmers’ you return to on a hard day: maybe a cup of tea, a good book, or even a warm bath?

Of course, the most powerful glimmer for many is a strong and safe relationship, which can be challenging for some of our children to access in the school environment. In a time of crisis, I’m sure many of us can relate to the feeling of “I just want my mum/dad/significant other!” and recognise how important secure relationships with a key adult can be.

By identifying the glimmers that speak to the individual you are supporting, you can then plan to have them available when needed, both proactively and reactively. This could be addressed formally through the development of a self-regulation toolkit, when the individual is part of selecting and accessing the appropriate strategy, but we may also need to offer glimmers as part of co-regulation strategies, lending children and young people our calm when they feel overwhelmed. It may help to list them on any risk assessments or behaviour plans produced, so that all supporting adults know how to support when needed. If you are someone who prefers to physically work or run off big feelings, there’s nothing worse than someone trying to squish you into ‘calm breathing’ and making you sit still! As always, individualisation is key.

Have fun finding your glimmers and sharing them with those around you. Focus on moving towards the ‘glimmers of joy’ instead of avoiding triggers and see how this can change the narrative.

Additional resources:

Beginner’s guide to Polyvagal Theory, by Deb Dana, available on her website, along with other resources.

Search “triggers and glimmers” on tiktok, to see examples of the glimmers in other people’s lives. Perhaps you could create a whole class display of every body’s glimmers?