• Michelle Bickhaus

Teaching Modulation


I have a story for you. It’s not a pretty one…and it’s not uplifting.

It is an important story.

It’s the story of a girl.

By the time this girl had reached the age of twelve, her dad was in jail. Her grandfather was in jail, too, as were her aunt and uncle.

Her mom was not in jail, but soon would be. She would go to jail and would no longer be permitted to have contact with her daughter.

You see, this mother was in search of a desperately-craved high, and she had no money with which to purchase drugs. She was blind to everything but her craving and she didn’t care at whose expense she scored her next hit. Her addiction was in control, and the ramifications are horrific.

She took her precious twelve-year-old daughter to a truck stop, drugged her, and permitted men to have sex with her for payment.

Then she bought more drugs.

There is just too much awfulness to unpack. But what cannot be avoided is the rehabilitation of this young girl.

Once the state steps in, and the girl’s mother loses her rights to parent, or even have contact with the girl, the girl returns to school.

Can you even imagine being twelve and trying to carry on with a normal life? Can you fathom trying to concentrate on academics? How in the world is she supposed to trust people?

I don’t know how the poor kid even found the energy to crawl out of bed and face another human.

This is just one example of an infinite number of children who are traumatized at the hands of people who are supposed to love and care for them.

And it’s just one example of the experiences so many of our students have had. We should not feel bewildered or affronted when they don’t pay attention to our lessons. We must learn to recognize that these kids have stories.

Our response in the classroom should come from a place of love; love and action.

We should be driven by this information to seek and employ techniques that will help our students get on in the classroom with fewer fears and struggles. Our classrooms should be oases of safety. They should be sanctuaries in which, when students finally overcome their fears for a moment, they can explore an environment which piques their curiosity and allows them to learn.

But, how do we get them to this point?

How do we help our students get past their involuntary impulses and responses so that they can pursue a few academic moments?

One way to help them is to engage your classes in sensorimotor activities, with the intention of teaching modulation. By addressing the body’s responses to its tumultuous emotional state, we are able to help the students reach a more teachable state. When the students are reliving past traumas, or their emotions are sort of stuck in a response to the past trauma, we can help them modulate their physiological responses through sensorimotor activities.

What is a sensorimotor activity?

It’s essentially play.

This play looks different for various age groups. I teach high school students, so I might alter the words to a rap and teach them a 20-second hand-clap routine. I might have the students spend three minutes playing the glockenspiel (which I love, and so do the students). I might have them volley a balloon with partners, or as a solo game. If we have more time, we might make Kool-Aid playdough, or sensory bottles. Younger kids might play with rhythm instruments, or bounce a ball. What makes this particular playtime different is that we are going to teach them to modulate.

If my class is doing a hand-clap routine, we’ll vary the volume of our voices and clapping. We might start softly, crescendo into super-loud, and then diminuendo AND ritard into the softest and slowest version.

The idea is to model, and have them practice moving from a heightened state to a calmer state. This mirrors their physiological responses as they move from a dysregulated arousal, which causes emotions to escalate, to a regulated state in which they have more control.

I often do this modulation activity with laughter; building to the craziest and loudest laughter, then retreating to the softest and most subtle laugh they can eek out.

Another way I love to do this is with a fun balloon volley -- you can see that activity in the video.

Almost any “play” activity can be used to teach modulation. Fun interactive stories such as “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” and songs are perfect for teaching modulation as you can have your students vary the tempo and the volume according to your direction; always ending at a regulated level.

Enjoy this powerful activity. Give thanks for the ease and joy.

Sometimes we marvel at the madness in the world. Other times we are in awe that love and building connections with students can improve their lives in such profound ways.


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 © 2017 Teaching Troubled Hearts, Chaddock Quincy, IL