Seeing students’ challenging behavior from a nervous system perspective.
By Amy Hadden, NBC-HWC, FMCHC, published in Psychology Today
Another desk crashed to the ground. My student’s fight-flight response revved up.
“What am I missing?” I frantically searched my database of training and tools. Stickers, time-outs, and behavior schedules didn’t help. Little did I know, the word “safety” could make all the difference.
Polyvagal theory is the science of safety. The biology of our human stress response provides a framework for understanding the challenging behavior displayed by students. All humans think, feel, and perform better when our stress-detecting nervous systems receive cues of safety.
It’s not just students with oppositional defiant and conduct disorders who can benefit from a polyvagal lens on behavior.
Looking to understand a preschooler’s tantrums? Tween’s aggression? Teen’s test anxiety? The first step is to consider the behavior as protective and adaptive. The second step is to provide cues of safety.
Challenging behaviors are protective, adaptive responses to stress.
According to polyvagal theory, the stress-sensitive autonomic nervous system has three main states in response to environmental cues, and they shape behavior, thoughts and body posture.
Ventral: Connected, Curious, Ready to Learn
Sympathetic: Fight, Flight, Angry, Anxious
Dorsal: Immobilized, Shut Down, Disconnected
Ventral is a sweet spot for growth and learning, where we access problem-solving, creativity and multiple perspectives. Our bodies and thoughts are flexible. Possibility and a sense of “I can” reign.
In the states of sympathetic and dorsal, students have less access to cognition. The prefrontal cortex steps aside to prioritize survival. The ability to process human speech is compromised.
In sympathetic, vision narrows. Our body becomes rigid and ready for action. A sense of urgency pervades as we prepare for fight or flight.
In dorsal, our bodies may feel heavy and numb. We are like a turtle seeking shelter in an overwhelming world of isolation and mental fog.
Consider the defense states of dorsal and sympathetic in these scenarios:
Head down, unable to begin
Tearing and throwing papers
Hiding in a closet
Pushing or screaming
We move into a survival state as we detect danger. Through neuroception, we sense cues of threat without conscious awareness. Smells, sounds, or other stimuli can put the body on alert. Both real and perceived threats are detected. Much like a surveillance system, neuroception scans the environment for danger. The good news is that neuroception also detects safety.
Context, choice and connection communicate safety.
Our survival states are necessary forms of self-protection. We can’t always live in a ventral state, nor would we want to. What we can aim for is flexibility. Caregivers and educators can support students’ ability to move between states.
Polyvagal-informed therapy identifies the "3 C’s" of safety for the nervous system: choice, context and connection.
Teachers and caregivers can support student regulation of the autonomic nervous system using the 3 C's:
Choice: Since lack of choice signals danger, what are things students can have control over?
Context: How to communicate expectations, reasoning, and resources?
Connection: What might connection look like for the student in this moment? A gentle head nod? Verbal acknowledgement? A non-threatening posture?
Once teachers recognize students are in defensive states, they can be curious about how choice, context and connection may bring them one step closer to being in a ventral state.
How a polyvagal-informed approach supports students, teachers and caregivers.
A common approach to preschool separation anxiety might be to leave the classroom as quickly as possible, ignoring all tears so the child can self-soothe.
However, a polyvagal-informed strategy considers the 3 C’s.
Context: “Tomorrow is apple day at school. Your teacher said you’ll even paint with apples!”
Choice: “After school should we go to the library or the park?”
Connection: “Will you show me your favorite center? I can play for five minutes before it’s time to say goodbye.”
Self-regulation develops from co-regulation: young people “borrow” the nervous systems of adults in their lives. A slow transition sends cues of safety.
Often when a child has a meltdown, adults also become dysregulated. Yelling, threatening, or ignoring may ensue.
Alternatively, responding with the nervous system in mind centers on compassionate curiosity and connection.
Context: “You didn’t want that to happen.” Consider other factors at play. Is the child hungry, sleepy, or not feeling well?
Choice: “Should we stomp our feet or roar like a bear?”
Connection: “Wow. You are really angry. Can I sit here and breathe with you for a while? Let me know if you’d like a hug.”
Play is a ventral state blended with some energy of sympathetic. Is there a way to add an element of playfulness to your tone and body language to help ease them into a more ventral space?
Difficulties with starting and completing homework are often misattributed to laziness. However, the dorsal state of shutdown brings insight to this challenge.
Context: How is this like other assignments completed in the past?
Choice: Are there options on how this assignment can be completed? What’s supportive? A snack? Headphones?
Connection: Rapport and resourcing from the educator and caregiver support regulation.
Older students can engage in exploratory conversations around their autonomic states. What are the sensations, thoughts, and feelings you notice in each?
Evaluation is a cue of danger. Validating a student's response can disarm shame.
Context: Educators can provide details around the content of tests. What happens if a student needs more time? Are calculators, formulas, or other resources permitted?
Choice: What choices are available to the student in how the test is administered? Can they have water or a mint? Are breaks allowed?
Connection: A supportive relationship with their educators and peers in the room aids in a sense of safety. The educator’s own ventral state signals safety to other nervous systems.
In states of sympathetic arousal, movement and pressure can be soothing—fidgets, swaying, rocking, and weighted lap blankets may help.
By assessing and supporting our own nervous system state and by being aware of the state of those around us, adult teachers and caregivers create a more compassionate form of communicating, educating, and parenting.