Introduction to ‘CARDS TO HELP YOU CONNECT’

Lisa MillardBeacon Community Services, Beacon Education Services, Beacon Family Services, Beacon Training Services, Family Relationships, News

Have you heard of our resources but don’t know how they work? Want to know more about how our resources support relationship-building? Wondering what’s in the pack? Then this post is for you.

Our tried and tested resources have been developed by professionals and educationalists to help parent / carers, families, educators, fellow professionals and children identify the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviours, while the play-based games and activities support co-regulation and help to build positive relationships.

While many people are very familiar with the concepts behind the resources such as play therapy and Dr Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, many more are not. In this blog we explain a little more about how our resources work and what’s in the pack.

What is the connection between children’s behaviours and the nervous system?

Throughout the day we all move through a range of feelings and thoughts depending on our unique responses to those experiences. Before we are able to make sense of our experiences, our bodies are already responding to our internal and external environment.

When our bodies sense a real or perceived emotional or physical threat, our nervous system responds by preparing our bodies to get away from the threat or to stay and fight. Adrenaline is released, muscles are tenses and our senses focus in on the immediate threat. This means that we are often unable to see, hear, feel or think about anything else other than the threat. This all happens before we are fully aware of how we are feeling.

The definition of a threat varies for each person. For some, the body will perceive going somewhere new as a threat, for others, the threat may be emotional, psychological or physical.

Over time, most of us will have learned techniques or developed tools and / or coping strategies to manage our body’s response to a real or perceived threat. Children have yet to learn this. Their behaviours are the result of the body responding to their environment.

What is the SAFE state? 

When children feel SAFE, they are ready to connect, ready to play and ready to learn. They may be interested in meeting new people, new ideas and new experiences. They will feel they have the support of a trusting, safe adult who can help guide them back to safety when their body senses a real or perceived threat. As a result, children who feel SAFE are content, confident and comfortable.

Play-based games and activities which have the SAFE icon above on them can help children in this state through challenge, new learning and calculated risk-taking. 

What is the STRUGGLING state? 

A child who is STRUGGLING may display behaviours such as kicking, biting, punching or shouting as their bodies react to the threat and attempt to ‘fight off’, or escape from it. Someone who is STRUGGLING may be hypervigilant and overly aware of, and even anxious or fearful within, their surroundings. This hypervigilance may precede meltdowns or blowups.

A STRUGGLING child will have excessive energy in their body as adrenaline is released. In order to feel SAFE they will need help and support to release the energy so they can feel content, confident and comfortable.

Play-based games and activities which have the STRUGGLING icon above on them are supportive for children in this state. 

What is the DROWNING state? 

Children who feel as though they are DROWNING will have moved past the STRUGGLING state. They may seem distant, disengaged and disinterested in the people and things around them and their behaviours may reflect this. It may seem as though they have ‘shut down’ or ‘given up trying’.

A child in the DROWNING state may be feeling alone, empty and invisible. In order to move out of this state, children will need to develop or re-establish a trusting relationship with a trusted adult who can support them to move towards feeling SAFE.

Play-based games and activities which have the DROWNING icon above on them can help children in this state build or re-establish trusting relationships with trusted adults. 

What’s included in the ‘Cards To Help You Connect’ resources? 

‘How Are You Feeling?’ polyvagal-inspired poster

This poster is designed to help children and adults connect with how they are feeling.

On the poster, SAFE is shown as the lighthouse and the sky above and around it. In this state, children and adults may feel content, comfortable and confident. STRUGGLING is shown on the poster as the area on the rocks and in the sea. In this state, children and adults may feel ‘angry, uncomfortable or frustrated’ and they are only able to focus on getting away from, or confronting, the real or perceived threat. DROWNING is shown as under the water. In this state, children and adults may be feeling ‘alone, empty or invisible’. A person in this state may seem distant, withdrawn and as though they want to be alone.

Ideas for use: 

There is no prescribed way to use the poster except that it is intended to be used as a tool to help children and adults connect with and talk about how they are feeling. It has been designed to be used together with your child/ren.

You could use it:

  • as a visual reminder that we all feel differently throughout the day
  • to open up conversations about thoughts and feelings
  • to connect with your own thoughts and feelings
  • to build safe, trusting relationships

You can display it in a number of ways, though it works best in a communal space such as the kitchen or in a child’s favourite space.

Character Cut-Outs

These characters are designed to help adults and children talk about their own thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

In the packs for Parents / Carers and Families, there are two sets of cut-out character cards – one for children and one for adults. There are also some blank spaces for children or adults to create their own characters.

These are provided as additional tools for identifying and discussing thoughts, feelings and behaviours. There is a choice of different animals with different emotions and body language.

Ideas for use: 

There is no right or wrong way to use these characters. Some suggestions for use include:

  • choosing a character and sticking it on the poster – this could prompt a conversation about which state the child, or you, are in; how they are feeling and further discussion about the internal or external stimuli affecting their state
  • storytelling – the characters could be used by children or adults to tell a story about the animals, their state, the influencing factors and their relationships with the animals

‘Safe, Struggling, Drowning’ Cards

These cards are designed to help adults and children understand the connection between thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Each polyvagal-inspired card explains what it means to feel like you are Safe, Struggling or Drowning.

Ideas for use: 

While there is no set way to use these resources, they could be used to:

  • help adults and children identify which state they are likely to be in based on how their body feels, their thoughts and feelings and what they may, or may not, be able to do within each state
  • offer the right support to a child in each state with suggestions of things the child can do themselves or things others can do to maintain a feeling of safety or move towards feeling safe
  • help adults choose the most supportive and appropriate games and activities for a child’s current state

Play-based Games and Activity Cards

These cards contain connection and relationship-building games and activities to support children in each state. This resources is designed to be played alongside children.

Choosing the right form of play for a child’s current state is crucial in helping to build relationships and experience connection. Each card contains information for parents / adults about the specific benefits and purpose of each game or activity. Each of the cards in the pack has a small, circular icon like those shown above in the bottom left-hand corner to show which states this play is suitable for.

While it may seem that the games and activities in the pack can be played at any time, the therapeutic and relationship building benefits can only be realised if the child is able to get what they need in their current state through the interaction that takes place within the game or activity.

For example, a child who may be in a DROWNING state will not be comforted by, or open to, playing games requiring eye contact. Likewise, a child who may be STRUGGLING will not be able to engage in a game or activity which requires them to sit still for a length of time.

There will be children (and adults) who may never be able to fully identify or name their feelings. That’s okay. Simply paying attention (or ‘playing attention’) to behaviours, how their bodies are reacting and what they are trying to communicate non-verbally will help you work out what type of play is most appropriate. Remember that it’s the time spent together, enjoying one another’s company while playing, that’s important!

Ideas for use: 

Like all of the resources in this pack, we encourage you to use and play with these resources in the way they work best for those using them. Do not feel as though these games and activities need to be played in a certain way. Focus on connection and be adaptable.

To get you started, here are some things you can try:

  • Lucky Dip – shuffle or spread out a selected pile of state appropriate game cards on a table. Take turns choosing a card.
  • Pot Luck – with the state appropriate cards on a table or on stuck on the wall with blu-tac, randomly select a game by playing ‘Eeny Meeny Miny Moe’ or closing your eyes and randomly pointing to one

Given that each game produces different results, you may also want to select, or engineer the selection of, a specific game or activity. Overall, remember to play in way it works for everyone playing.

Read more about the additional support and training we offer to  families, professionals, organisations and schools by following the links. Alternatively, you can get in touch with us at resources@beaconservices.org.uk to discuss your needs.