This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
one component of the Information Age Education project.
All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are
available online at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html. In addition,
two free books based on the Newsletters are available at http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Newsletter.
The most recent one is titled Common
Core State Standards for Education in America. This newsletter is the second of a series on recent research
developments in the culturally important issue of morality. Morality is
a human issue because we're a social species. The series of articles
explore the issue of whether morality emerged only when humans evolved
into a social species, or if morality is something that emerged as
mammals discovered the values of cooperative behavior.
Morality: Recent Research Developments.
The Intriguing Educational Applications
of Polyvagal Theory. Part 2
Associate Professor Emerita of Special Education
George Mason University
The previous IAE Newsletter in this series (http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2013-110.html) summarized Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory of how
the evolution of the vagus nerve impacts human behavior today (Porges,
2011b). The first or reptilian stage produces an immobilization or
freeze reaction when great fear is evoked, the second stage mobilizes
an individual to fight for survival or flee for safety, and the third
stage allows for social engagement without traumatizing fear. In this
issue we more fully explore the role of education in promoting social
engagement and its role in learning.
According to the polyvagal theory, nonconscious nervous system
functions such as heart rate, breathing, voice control, and other
autonomic physiological functions are related to the evolutionary
stages of the vagus nerve (Porges, 2001, 2003, 2009, 2010). In the face
of fear, the heart races, breathing becomes shallow, our voice may
tremble, and/or a sick feeling may occur in the stomach. A safe
environment enhances even breath flow, and the heart beats without
drawing attention to itself. Further, our voice is calm and steady.
Positive and negative life events unconsciously influence physiological
reactions and those reactions influence social interactions. These, in
turn, influence the nervous system. Porges argues that humans need
social interaction to survive, because social interactions function as
regulators of one’s physiological state. He notes that humans crave
positive reciprocal engagement, because it enables a state regulation
that makes us feel safe. Behavioral problems occur when positive social
engagement and reciprocal interaction are lacking.
Teachers must provide an emotionally, physically, and psychologically
safe classroom environment in which positive interactions flourish. By
doing so, the myelinated mammalian stage three strands of the vagus
nerve are free to function and prompt pro-social behaviors while
subduing activation of the unmyelinated freeze, flight, or fight
However, even in positive classrooms, Porges (April, 2009) states that
due to the residue of previous trauma such as abuse “some individuals
experience a mismatch and their nervous system appraises the
environment as being dangerous even when it is safe.” He stresses that
a mismatch in this direction results in “physiological states that
support fight-flight, or freeze behaviors, but not social engagement
behaviors” (p. 889). Porges thus emphasizes that “social communication
can be expressed efficiently through the social engagement system only
when these defensive circuits are inhibited” (p. 889). Therein lies the
central educational value of the Porges polyvagal theory.
Educational Considerations of the Polyvagal Theory
Since students often conceal their emotions and act out without obvious
provocation, it may be difficult for teachers to recognize trauma
residue that interferes with learning. It is thus vitally important
that classroom interactions are consistently positive and nurturing,
and that teachers do whatever is necessary to create a feel-safe
Porges offers tips for working with youngsters who suffer from trauma
residue. Avoid blame, he stresses. To overwhelm a student with blame or
negative feedback when the potential for fight or flight is present
only serves to emphasize that something is wrong with the student.
Consequently, the student moves further into a fight or flight
physiological state, typically reducing the behavior potential for
social engagement (Porges & Buczynski, 2012).
Second, students need to be taught how their nervous system functions
for self-protection without any conscious decision making. Students can
be taught how to engage their brainpower—the third evolutionary stage
of the vagus nerve—by employing self-talk narratives that reduce fear
residue and guide them into positive interactions. Further, self-talk
narratives can help them overcome inappropriate behaviors that result
from trauma as they gain an understanding of self-preservation freeze,
flight, or fight reactions over which they had no control.
Porges uses a traffic light metaphor to represent the three
physiological states prompted by the vagus nerve: red (life threat;
immobilization, freeze), yellow (danger; mobilization, fight or
flight), and green (safety and social engagement). To the left of the
traffic light illustration he writes an “S” for environmental stimulus.
To the right he writes an “R” for responses that depend on the
physiological state (traffic light colors) the person experienced. This
metaphor can guide teachers to better understand why some students
“misbehave” and how best to work effectively with them.
Porges (2011a) emphasizes the fact that “. . . once we can easily
engage the social engagement system, we are free to mobilize without
being in fight or flight. Rather than fight or flight, we can move and
play. Although fight/flight and play behaviors both require
mobilization, play turns off defensiveness by maintaining face-to-face
social referencing. Play uses the social engagement system to signal
that the intentionality of the movements is not dangerous or hurtful”
Porges (2011a) identifies two detrimental trends that can make
pro-social interactions nearly impossible. The first is over-reliance
on electronic devices that create a hyper-vigilant state; the second is
sustained attention that fails to support health, growth, and
restoration. He believes that heavy reliance on electronic devices is
antithetical to social engagement behaviors necessary for meaningful
Even though students may use texting, twitter, Facebook, or other forms
of social media for communication, they are missing the critical need
to see the other person’s face; they are missing the opportunity to
“read” facial expressions unless they are using Skype or some form of
live camera production. Even then, they miss body language and context
that send important messages needed to develop an efficient neural
platform that supports social behavior and facilitates physiological
state regulation (Porges & Buczynski, April 2012).
Porges and Buczynski, caution that a second detrimental trend is
treating students as if they are “learning machines” by placing an
over-reliance on teaching “cognitive-centric” information rather than
exercising social engagement through music and play with others. He
emphasizes “that our nervous system needs to be in a specific
physiological state to promote bold ideas, creativity, and positive
social behavior. . . . [otherwise] the information is not getting in,
and oppositional behaviors are popping up. So, it’s a naïve view of the
educational process and human development” to focus on information at
the expense of pro-social development.
Before the polyvagal theory, teachers were taught to interpret positive
and negative behaviors from a psychological or behavioral frame of
reference. Now, Porges tells us that we really need a physiological
perspective. Without question, whether from a psychological or a
physiological perspective, it is clear that safe classroom environments
promote self-respect, respect for others, and a sense of well-being.
Such classrooms do not just happen. Teacher actions and interactions
must be carefully planned, monitored, and refined to foster effective
student engagement to help youngsters overcome trauma and develop
social engagement skills.
In emotionally safe classrooms, on-guard defensive posturing is not
necessary. Safe environments reduce unpredictability, instill a
classroom code of citizenship behaviors, and build trust relationships
among students and teachers. Safe classrooms honor student learning
even when new learning is fragile and students are uncertain of what to
do. Safe classrooms prevent freeze, fight, or flight student reactions
and calm traumatic reactions to frightening situations that occur
outside the classroom. Safety is essential for social engagement and
Porges’ polyvagal theory provides a clear perspective of how the
body reacts to fear and trauma with freeze, fight, or flight and how
physiological reactions are out of one’s conscious control. Even so,
traumatic residue may evoke feelings of guilt, shame, and self-doubt
that must be subdued before meaningful social engagement and meaningful
learning can occur. That is, the human nervous system influences the
mind and body, while reciprocally the brain influences the nervous
system through self-talk and social interactions.
Educators now have a well-grounded scientific theory about why a
positive, empowering feel-safe environment in which students know what
to expect is essential for learning. We have known this intuitively for
a long time, but now Porges provides powerful research evidence and a
solid theory that support our intuitions.
References and Resources
Porges, S.W. (2001). The polyvagal theory: Phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 42:123-146.
Porges, S.W. (2003). Social engagement and attachment: A phylogenetic perspective. Annals New York Academy of Science. DOI: 10.1196/annals.1301.004: 31-47.
Porges, S.W. (April, 2009). The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 76 Suppl 2: S86-S90.
Porges, S.W. (2010). The early development of the
autonomic nervous system provides a neural platform for social
behavior: A Polyvagal perspective. Infant and child development
published online in Wiley InterScience. DOI: 10.1002/icd.688. See http://www.interscience.wiley.com.
Porges, S.W. (2011b). The Polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. New York: Norton.
Porges, S.W., & Buczynski, R. (April 2012). The polyvagal theory for treating trauma: A teleseminar session with Stephen W. Porges, Ph.D. and Ruth Buczynski, Ph.D. The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine. See http://www.stephenporges.com/images/NICABM April 2012.pdf.
Scaer, R.C. (2001). The body bears the burden: Trauma, dissociation, and disease. New York: Haworth Medical.
Barbara K. Given
Barbara K. Given, Ph.D., initiated the Special Education Teacher
Preparation Program and served as Special Education Program Coordinator
at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, VA. She is a former
Director of the Center for Honoring Individual Learning Diversity, an
International Learning Styles Network Center. She received two
prestigious research awards. In addition to publishing many articles,
she is the author of Teaching to the
Brain's Natural Learning Systems (ASCD, 2002), and Learning Styles: A Guide for Teachers and
(Learning Forum Publications, 2000). In her retirement, Given is a GMU
Associate Professor Emerita of Special Education and Faculty Affiliate
at Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study.
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About Information Age Education,
Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to
improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world.
Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org,
a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, a Blog
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