Explore Nueroscience in Education with Dr. Lori Desautels

Manual Introduction

BODY & BRAIN BRILLIANCE

A Manual to Cultivate Awareness and Practices for our Nervous Systems

When we and our children and youth become aware that our nervous systems are working for us and not against us, we begin to feel relieved and empowered with a greater understanding of why we sense and experience the world in the ways we do. 

~ Lori Desautels

Cover illustration of Body and Brain Brilliance by Lori Desautels

Why Is This Neuro-Educational Social and Emotional Manual Critical Right Now?      

Although the teachings from this manual would have been applicable years ago, and most certainly will be for many decades to come, a confluence of signs suggests that the country and the world are at a critical point in the wake of the Covid pandemic. Facing an inevitable shift, what can we do differently as educators in this time? So many staff are feeling stressed and demoralized. Educators are feeling the heaviness from adversities inside the profession of teaching.  

Some of these teaching adversities include feelings of isolation, lack of building-level support, and inadequate resources to care for students who carry in pain-based behaviors. These teaching adversities are compounded on top of our ever-changing lives and challenging experiences that our nervous system states hold each day. This manual begins with the adults! This is a mindset shift, because most social-emotional learning (SEL) and mindfulness programs are scripted for students, adding yet another initiative for adults to integrate when they already feel overwhelmed by additional responsibilities and tasks. The student behavioral challenges we’re seeing are signals that children and youth have been reaching out for emotional safety and connection, but staff shortages and the tenuous focus on academic assessments and curriculum have stripped our schools of healthy reflection and discussion times. This manual addresses, first and foremost,  adult social and emotional health that will help us embody the practices we will eventually share with our students. Ensuring this level of health will require administrative leadership, collaborative preparation, and allowing time for restorative and reflective conversations. In the following chapters, we will share a variety of practices that can be integrated into our classroom every day. At the same time, we will address building-wide procedures and inconsistencies that can wreak havoc on adult nervous systems, throw us into survival states, and compromise our ability to deeply listen to one another.

 Our children and youth feel the contagion of this current societal unrest. We also have the opportunity and ability to share contemplative and thoughtful grounding practices that carry positive contagion inviting more ease and awareness inside our personal and professional lives.  

This manual is designed as an anchor for staff and students as they integrate practices that focus on the awareness and health of the nervous system. It will serve as a touch point for staff and students to learn together throughout the days, weeks, months, and years to come. Traditionally, we do not think of education as a place where adults and students join up and learn from and with each other. This is a departure from conventional teacher-led pedagogy-informed practices, but one I feel will empower our students with a sense of autonomy and agency as they learn with their teachers and classmates.

 Body and Brain Brilliance is not a scripted program or SEL mandate that we check off after 11 AM. Living in a cognitive world where word talk is dominant, we have lost touch with the miraculous superpowers of our nervous systems. This manual focuses through the lens of learning differences rather than learning deficits. When we provide practices that embrace and honor the individual, their identity, and their interests, we recognize that nervous system functioning is unique, and acknowledge that differences in brains are a normal part of humanity.   

Our children and youth are not okay. They are not feeling safe, because they are not safe.   This generation of children and youth have never experienced the societal layers of trauma and adversity as they are in this time. The Covid-19 pandemic only added to the existing mental and emotional health crises that our children and youth were encountering in 2020. They feared the worst as the pandemic took the lives of so many family members and friends, and created lasting rifts of economic insecurity across the globe. Along with the tremendous physical and felt isolation, coupled with chronic unpredictability, social media use by children and teens rose tremendously with youth navigating online rejections, criticisms, and pressures from peers through the likes and dislikes that filled up the lonely hours each day.

In this time, there is also great divisiveness across our country and inside our communities, as we face an increase in political discord, racial injustices, school shootings, and massive refugee crises occurring all over the world.  Emotions are contagious, and our children and youth are picking up on the tenor and heightened survival states of their adults living in marginalized conditions, trying to care for families with job losses, illnesses, and housing and food insecurities. Researcher and writer Donna Jackson Nakazawa shares, “17 million children in the United States go to bed hungry, and 2.5 million children do not have a bed to call their own. When we consider the array of adversities today’s children face, it might seem that certain types of chronic toxic stress are more potent than others, but this is mostly not true – all forms of chronic adversity can affect a child’s nervous system and biology.”  Our children and youth need to understand that their emotional stressors work along the same brain pathways as our biological stressors, and trusted adults can help to mitigate this felt stress in ways that can enhance psychological, mental, and physical safety. I am not asking educators to be therapists, but I am aware of how accumulating “therapeutic moments” in our classrooms can build emotional safety and connection, growing and nurturing a sense of purpose and autonomy in our children’s and youth’s lives.    

Body and Brain Brilliance is a neuroeducational manual for social and emotional development embracing all ages and developmental levels – including educator nervous systems – and will address the science and language of our nervous systems as educators and students learn together. When adults become aware of their nervous systems, they can recognize their emotional triggers or activators, sense the dysregulation in their bodies and brains, and respond accordingly. This allows adults to lean into proactive empathy when encountering a dysregulated child, empowering them to respond with compassion and connection instead of control, escalation, and enforced compliance. Our nervous systems are continuously storing, metabolizing, and conserving energy, and this is why it is so critical to integrate neuroeducational practices into our schools at this time. When our nervous system reserves are low or empty, we observe, label, and discipline behaviors as aggressive, defiant, or apathetic, to name a few, but we miss the dysregulation and pain lying beneath those behaviors. This is what the Body and Brain Brilliance manual will address. 

This manual emphasizes Tier One practices for all students, but it can be adapted to serve our children who need more support, accomodations, and adjustments when they are feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and dysregulated. When applying these practices with our children and youth who carry significant developmental and complex trauma into our schools, we can modify the practices to small groups and one-on-one therapeutic practices and activities with increased  intensity and frequency. These practices support the developing nervous systems of our children whose embodied experiences have compromised their development and social-emotional growth.  

The human nervous system has evolved over time to respond to the needs, strengths, and environments of our ancestors. What kept them alive was a vigilant system that prioritized safety while redirecting energy in moments of danger. If a predator appeared, the body would focus its attention on getting oxygen and blood to the muscles and away from the internal organs so that they could fight or flee. After the threat was gone, they could then rest and recuperate. Through the process of evolution, human beings inherited three building-block nervous system states that became our autonomic hierarchy: the 500-million-year-old brainstem; the 400-million-year-old sympathetic system; and the 200-million-year-old ventral vagal hierarchy.   Through the lens of Polyvagal Theory, we recognize that these older pathways are still in place, and that we continually integrate this hierarchy of systems in present-day situations every time we encounter stressful conditions, whether perceived or real. By understanding how these nervous system pathways developed, when they engage, and how they impact our bodies and minds, we can better understand how we interact within our environments and why we feel and experience the world in the ways that we do. 

Nervous systems primarily focus on our survival as our brains predict experiences based upon past experiences, and this is why so many of our children and youth carry a hypervigilant or immobilized disconnected autonomic nervous system state into the classroom, based on the embodied experiences they have encountered in their developing years. When children and youth learn the language of the nervous system and begin recognizing and becoming aware of these sensations and feelings, there is growing relief and ease as they realize that they have some control over how experiences impact them. Educators can begin to share the resources and practices that can incrementally create this growing awareness, helping students to acquire felt safety while feeling protected and capable. 

What Is Body and Brain Brilliance

Body and Brain Brilliance provides daily practices for educators and students to begin embodying the skills through practical activities that are supported by co-regulatory practices and nervous system warm-ups and applications. This trauma-accommodating Tier One framework, rooted in the relational and social neurosciences along with Polyvagal Theory, strengthens the awareness and understanding of how our nervous system functions, adapts, and protects us so that we can sense, feel, and learn through the adversities and lived experiences while embracing negative emotions in our lives. Negative emotions are our navigation or GPS (global positioning system) signaling where we are inside our nervous system and what we need to reduce the anxiety, tension, or angst we might be experiencing. This framework is not just about emotional regulation; it also assists our children and youth in becoming aware and in touch with how they are sensing, feeling, and reacting to big emotions. The goal is not regulation. The goal is recognizing when we feel dysregulated and disconnected from ourselves and those around us. When we recognize our sensations, which comprise the language of the nervous system, then we can attune to the practices, people, and places that feel steadying and supportive.

Our sensory and emotional realities, and the behaviors that show up through these emotional experiences, do not fit inside a box, a behavioral plan, or a protocol. They are as individualized as our fingerprints. 

We will delve into the traditional fight/flight/freeze nervous system states with colorful and applicable explanations and details. We are much more than our calm, fight/flight or freeze/shut-down autonomic nervous system states. Our nervous systems carry blended states. For example, there are times when we feel focused (social engagement) and excited (fight/flight), or anxious (fight/flight) and steady (social engagement). Sometimes, we need quiet and stillness (immobilized/shut-down) to enhance our curiosity or calm and centered states (social engagement). Another example of blended autonomic states is when our hearts are beating fast (fight/flight), and we feel stuck or frozen in our thoughts (shut-down) and do not have the energy to follow through with a task, start an assignment, or even prepare a meal. In this blended state, we feel anxious (fight/flight) and exhausted (shut-down) at the same time!

Body and Brain Brilliance is not a program with a script. This manual and accompanying modules provide a relational platform for modeling connections and practices that ease and soothe the nervous system throughout the day. We are our students’ environments. Human beings are one another’s relational fields, requiring social connections which are our biological priority. Through the Applied Educational Neuroscience (AEN) framework, this manual provides touch points for staff and students to learn together, while experiencing co-regulatory practices that can be integrated and discussed all day long. 

Humpty Dumpty can be put back together as we honor every emotion, sensation, and thought with curiosity and wonder. We are the intentional operators of our nervous systems, and the path is far from linear. Setbacks arise, but we lean into one another and our resources, as our inner stability and that of our students returns slowly. Maybe this manual is a roadmap for piecing together not only insight, but perhaps the unbreakable wisdom that can only arise through coming undone. 

 

Trauma-responsive work begins with the adults. It is our hope that students and staff will integrate these practices into their everyday lives, cultivating the resources and practices, just as we acquire and nurture our academic learning. The manual is intended to be incorporated each day as a part of our procedures, routines, and transitions, whether that is bell work, morning meetings, advisory classes, sensory breaks, or short practices implemented during transitions. Body and Brain Brilliance is a supportive, evidence-based, and nurturing resource for preparing the nervous system to feel safe and connected so that social-emotional health and deepened  learning are the byproducts. This manual holds space for adults and students to learn and reflect together, while our growing awareness becomes anchored inside our everyday experiences.  

The resources inside the activities in this manual will raise the emotional and experiential window of tolerance  for students and adults. This window, a concept created by Dr. Dan Seigel, describes the optimal zone of emotional arousal that aligns with thinking clearly, pausing before an angry reaction, or simply feeling overwhelmed by an experience, person, or environment. 7 When we are outside our window of tolerance, we often feel negative emotion and are mostly focused on finding safety and detecting risk, making it difficult to connect with others. When we  acknowledge and identify the emotional pain that is often misunderstood as oppositional, defiant, aggressive, or shut-down behavior, we can offer co-regulatory practices that help to bring students inside their window of tolerance through their sensory preferences. This is a process and takes an aware, steady, and grounded adult to sit beside a child who is overwhelmed and dysregulated.    

We are no different than our children and youth, and so this manual addresses adult nervous system awareness and regulation as well as the co-regulation that our children and youth so urgently need from us, whether we are parenting, caregiving, educating, or working within a youth-centered organization or school. These practices are geared toward fixing anyone. They are opportunities to join up with our children and youth learning the neurodiversity of our unique nervous systems. 

Experiences shape the developing brain in such a way that when we are living with chronic unpredictability, felt isolation, or overwhelming stress for longer durations, our nervous system can shift into a threat-and-protect drive, prioritizing our survival, even when we are not physically threatened or facing bodily harm. Our nervous systems are social structures that are constantly trying to find equilibrium and stability in relationships with others. 

We feel heightened emotional stress through our sensitized perceptions of past adversity and trauma, or times when we felt emotionally unsafe or ignored. For example, when someone rolls their eyes at us, or gestures and postures in ways that alert the body and brain to prepare for physical danger even when there is none, our physiology prepares for the ensuing threat. Social stress, such as being ostracized, bullied, ignored, or left out can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that can create physical inflammation in the brain, impacting our physiology, feelings, perception, and cognition. 8  The activation of social stress is a part of our evolutionary biology. Recognition of our reactive social biology is critical for students and staff, as we all create perceptual maps of the world based on sensations and feelings from past and present-moment experiences that cue safety or signal danger.   

This manual and accompanying modules will provide mini-activities with relational and preventative practices for preparing adults and students to recognize (and ultimately avoid) experiences that feel unsafe and isolating, thereby creating pain-based behaviors. Our nervous system is social, and when we address emotional regulation, these practices are about the healthy bidirectional communication between adults and youth, even – and especially – when we are encountering challenging behavior and disciplining. 

It takes thousands of experiential moments of being co-regulated to develop the executive function of emotional regulation.- Lori Desautels

 

Our nervous systems prioritize attachment. The physiology of the brain is impacted by trauma, but the physiology of connection can mitigate our brokenness and our disconnect from adversarial and traumatic experiences. 

As I have shared, the Body and Brain Brilliance manual and modules are as much about adults as they are about children and youth. From cradle to grave, our nervous systems are experience dependent and social. Adults, children, and youth cannot avoid adversarial and traumatic experiences. We need one another during challenging times because attachment is a key ingredient of how our brains and nervous systems develop. Our brains and bodies are always cross-talking, so that when we begin listening to our nervous system’s language, we can tune in and share that language with one another. Our children and youth are growing up in unprecedented times of social isolation, violence, the aftermath of a global pandemic, natural disasters, wars, systemic racism, and the toxic stress that families and communities are experiencing across the world. Currently, students have less opportunity for connections and co-regulation with trusted adults. We hope this social-emotional neuroeducational manual will not only provide practices to shift discipline protocols for our educators and students, but that schools will begin to apply and integrate these practices into all learning environments.    

Work Influencing Body and Brain Brilliance    


Applied Educational Neuroscience: A Trauma-Accommodating Tier One Framework  

This manual will be grounded in the Four Pillars of the Applied Educational Neuroscience (AEN) framework: Educator Brain and Body State, Co-Regulation, Touch Points, and the Language of the Nervous System. AEN is a trauma-accommodating Tier One framework that supports the neurobiology of the developing nervous system, while addressing and attuning to educator nervous systems. 9 This framework shares practices and resources that attend to a deeper understanding of nervous system states. In doing so, we explore and address what is underneath student behaviors and how adults can become emotionally triggered when confronted with negative behaviors. When we understand how our survival instincts can collide with student behaviors, our perceptions of discipline shift as we sit beside our children and youth. The framework also explores and responds to the neurobiology of stress through the hierarchy of our nervous system states. It integrates current research into practical resources and lessons, ensuring that our students can access the regions of the brain where they are able to problem solve, pay attention, pause, and reflect. It is through the integration of neuroscience research that we can cultivate practices to meet our children and youth in their nervous system states.

When children and youth are met with a variety of different emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social practices aligned with their unique needs, they will begin to understand that their brilliant  nervous systems are wired for resilience and plasticity. Neuroplasticity is the nervous system’s ability to change structurally and functionally with every experience.  

This is also a framework for adults to deeply reflect upon their nervous system states. They can apply the research and practices in their personal and professional lives, cultivating internal, external, and relational experiences that promote overall emotional and social health and growth.  

Learning the Language of the Nervous System

The language of our nervous system is sensation. When we reach for how we experience our nervous systems throughout the day, we become aware of when we feel rough, grounded, tight, edgy, open, stuck, numb, and teary, providing our bodies and brains with the resources and practices that comfort us, steady us, and help us find awareness. The process takes time, repetition, and co-regulation with another. We have created this social-emotional neuroeducational manual for all students and staff to embody and incorporate into everyday instructional practices that apply in and out of school. Social-emotional learning is ongoing. Learning about and maintaining the health of the nervous system is more than a module that happens from 10 AM to 10:30 AM. It is integrated into all content, routines, and experiences each day. 

Introducing Neuroplasticity 

Neuroplasticity is humanity’s superpower. The nervous system organizes, disorganizes, and reorganizes incoming information based upon experiences. This prepares the nervous system to shape and reshape its firing patterns and architecture of the brain, impacting the developmental process.

When we are intentional, aware, and focused in our thinking, feeling, and behavioral patterns, we can begin to partner with our nervous systems, reshaping how we experience our internal, external, and relational environments with patterned repetition. In this manual, we want to honor the flexibility of our nervous systems, knowing that the fluidity of moving into different autonomic states is natural and normal. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach as we begin to learn about the complex and ongoing communication pathways that our nervous systems embrace to keep us safe and connected. The communication pathways between our bodies and brains are intricate and miraculous. When we teach our students about the language of their nervous systems, they feel vested and often relieved to know what lies beneath a feeling, sensation, or behavior that is traditionally experienced as confusing or permanent. This manual and the accompanying modules provide a sustainable foundation and a safe space where children, youth, and adults can explore their nervous systems through supportive practices. We are more than feeling and thinking people. First and foremost, we are sensory people who come into the world recognizing those sensations that keep us alive, comforted, anxious, angry, or steady. 

In the womb, our identity is sensation. We are our warmth, wetness, hunger, coldness, satiation and rhythm. When we recognize our nervous system’s language and all the sensory changes we feel in our bodies each day, we begin to integrate and appreciate the practices and interventions that help us become aware of what experiences, things, conditions, and people anchor and ground us when we feel overwhelmed and disconnected. There are neurobiological reasons for why we feel and sense our worlds with safety and trust, or why we perceive danger and threat inside the world around us.   

Who can teach Body and Brain Brilliance

This manual can be taught by anyone who sits beside children and youth, including educators, parents, social workers, counselors, therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, speech and language pathologists, pastors, and all persons who touch the lives of children and adolescents. It is our eventual hope that children and youth can share with one another the practices that bring awareness and stability in times of dysregulation, and anxiety, and in moments of felt hopelessness or disconnection. Throughout this manual, we refer to the user as “educator,” but it can be anyone who supports and helps children and adolescents metabolize experiences so that our nervous systems find steadiness through reflection, awareness, and understanding. As we move from nervous system states of protection into states of growth, we begin befriending our physiology and create a neural retuning and a much more adaptive, compassionate nervous system. We can be resources for one another when our nervous systems feel strong enough to hold each other if we are in need of feeling felt, heard, and seen.    

How to Move Through Body and Brain Brilliance 

Chapter One begins with the educator nervous system. The following chapters contain sections for adults, adolescents, and children. Each section includes an introduction, practices, reflective questions, and applications for the presented content. There are personal stories from educators along with focused attention practices (FoAPs) for adults and students. We have intentionally built in equitable content addressing the unique cultures, identities, and neurodiversity-affirming practices to enhance the unique nervous systems that our children and youth carry into the classroom. The following questions will be addressed throughout this manual. 

 

Guiding Questions

♦  How does a child’s or adolescent’s nervous system development affect the teaching and learning process?

♦  How do stress and adversity impact the developing nervous system?

♦  How do we work to mitigate the impact of stress and help students recognize their stressful activators while finding ways to ease the felt tension from the body and brain to help learning occur? 

♦  How can we consider behavior through a sensory and physiological lens?

♦  All behavior is communicating a nervous system need, so how do we learn to identify those needs? 

♦  How do we integrate neuroscience research and nervous system-aligned practices and lessons to improve learners’ engagement with their own learning?  

Educator Outcomes

♦  Educators and students will understand nervous system development through shared practices, discussions and personal reflections of body and brain states. 

♦  Educators and students will explore how their stress response systems and survival states can escalate each other through verbal/nonverbal communication initiated in a survival state. 

♦  Educators and students will develop the ability to recognize their sensations and align feelings that promote connection or are perceived as states of protection and threat.  

♦  Educators and students will articulate, learning deeply about the plasticity of their nervous systems and the practices that invite incremental changes in perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors strengthening resiliency.  

♦  Educators recognize and identify that behaviors are only indicators of a nervous system that feels safe or in danger, and that our physiology drives all nervous system states and behaviors.   

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