Intentional Neuroplasticity

BY: LORI L. DESAUTELS, PH.D.

FOREWORD

A Paradigm Shift in Education 

On September 21, 2019, I presented the keynote at the 2019 Educational Neuroscience Symposium at Butler University. The symposium was a highlight of an innovative program developed by Dr. Desautels to introduce neuroscience to educators.  As a prelude to the symposia, Lori invited me to discuss Polyvagal Theory with her graduate students through an interactive zoom dialog. As a laboratory-oriented scientist, it was a challenge for me to translate concepts from the Polyvagal Theory into a language that mapped into the issues that educators faced in their classrooms. The discussion with her and her students introduced me to aspects of the unique portal she was developing to embed neuroscience into the training of her graduate students that would enrich and expand their perspective of the educational experience.   

In retrospect, I have always been engaged in exploring the educational process.  Of course, as a professor for more than five decades, teaching, mentorship, and lifelong learning have always been the focus of my personal experiences. However, my personal link with the educational process goes back to my childhood. My parents both had experiences as classroom teachers and my father later became a school administrator.   

As my academic career developed, in 1985 I shifted institutions and moved from being a Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to a professor of human development at the University of Maryland College Park. Unlike my position at the University of Illinois, the department of human development at the University of Maryland was administratively within the College of Education and early childhood education resided within the department.  Later at the University of Maryland, I would chair the department and direct the Institute for Child Study which contained the preschool.   

Exposure to the teacher training curricula from the various departments within the college, provided me with insight into how educators conceptualized the behavior of children. In general, behaviors of school-aged children were viewed as intentional and independent of age. The courses in the teacher training curricula treated child behavior as manipulatable through the traditional principles of learning such as rewards and punishments. Even in the realm of developmental disabilities, there was little acknowledgement of neurobiological contributions due to maturation or to the observed individual differences among students. For many faculty and their students, behavior modification procedures were the primary tools for managing atypical, less desirable, or disruptive behaviors. I quickly realized that the educational curricula within the entire College had a strong behavioral orientation, virtually devoid of an understanding of potential biological contributions to variations in behavior especially behaviors that disrupt classroom activity, which have often become pathologized (e.g., ADD, oppositional).  

As I developed my courses, I distilled a modest goal of embedding two biologically based principles into teacher training curricula. First, I realized that although children were the target populations for teachers, teacher training did not provide a strong foundation for understanding the maturational trajectories of the brain and nervous system. Since the status of the brain and nervous system are important neuroanatomical foundations for learning, then an understanding of these structures, their relation to learning and behavior, and their developmental trajectory should be important to teachers and should influence teaching strategy and content. Second, there seemed to be a lack of interest in individual differences especially in terms of behavioral state regulation. Both these important biological variations were masked with assessments of productivity usually indexed by relatively simple outcome metrics of vocabulary, memorization of facts, and math skills.  

As a department chair within a college of education, I approached this void by attempting to hire faculty with strong biological orientations and an interest in the nervous system. Although I was able to hire strong faculty in the cognitive sciences, I was not successful in recruiting faculty who were committed to a new educational neuroscience, an area that is successfully being pioneered by Dr. Desautels and highlighted by the current volume, Intentional Neuroplasticity 

While a faculty member in a college of education, there were several faculty members across departments who had an interest in how the nervous system’s contribution to child behavior could be leveraged in developing educational strategies. However, their interests were not supported by their academic background or passion to develop a program through the lens of a classroom teacher. Lori is a personification of this vision, which ironically, while being firmly based on science, leads to the treatment of students and their parents as well as teachers and staff with greater compassion. Lori would have been the dream candidate for the program I had envisioned. Not only does she understand neuroscience principles, but by having a classroom teacher perspective, she can, as she has done in this volume, effectively communicate with educators. Without a colleague like Lori, my interests in the neurobiology of development and developmental disabilities motivated me to move in 2001 to the University Illinois College of Medicine where I created and directed the Brain-Body Center in the Department of Psychiatry. 

We learn from Lori’s work that the principles of neuroscience and especially the Polyvagal Theory fit our intuitions and explain the ‘gut’ and ‘heartfelt’ feelings that we as well as our students, colleagues, friends, and family have. By appreciating the nervous system as a dynamically adjusting platform of behaviors and feelings, we treat students as living organisms with an instinctual motivation to survive and to seek safety. Once we see this vision, our responsibilities shift to finding effective portals of engagement and connectedness that will calm the nervous system and mitigate defensive physiological states that become behaviorally expressed as aggression, opposition, anxiety, and even social withdrawal and depression.  

My experiences within a college of education taught me specific lessons. Initially, I was informed about the differences in the objectives and missions between colleges of education and colleges of liberal arts and sciences. Colleges of education are professional schools with a focused agenda of producing classroom teachers (i.e., K-12). In contrast, colleges of liberal arts and sciences are focused on the accumulation of knowledge within a discipline. Graduation from these schools result in different and contrasting products. For example, the teaching objectives and strategies are quite different for a college professor within an arts and sciences department when compared to an elementary school teacher. The professor’s primary teaching role is that of mentorship to a few select graduate students, who are being motivated to be passionately driven by their curiosity to discover new information that optimistically will lead to them becominge independent scholars. Many will continue their scholarship post-graduation and become professors themselves replicating the process with their graduate students. In contrast, the K-12 schoolteacher has a set of goals for the students and needs to be trained to deliver and evaluate a relatively fixed curriculum.  

In 2019 when Lori invited me to participate in the Educational Neuroscience Symposium at Butler University, I was intrigued with the concept of moving neuroscience into the training of educators. However, based on my own experiences, I was cautious about the outcome of such a program. One of the lessons I learned was that coming from the classroom is helpful in developing and implementing teacher education. When I was a faculty member in a college of education, there was internal pressure from the Dean’s office to hire faculty who had experience teaching K-12. Being a laboratory focused scientist, I did not agree with this bias. However, as I have watched Lori’s presentations and read Intentional Neuroplasticity, I now have a better appreciation of the importance of the teacher’s viewpoint in integrating a Polyvagal-informed or a more general neuroscience perspective that can enhance the educational process and may seamlessly be integrated into educational systems.  

When I talked at the 2019 Educational Neuroscience Symposium, I boldly challenged the attendees by asking two questions: 

  1. How would your classroom experience be, if there were no behavioral state regulation difficulties in your classroom? 
  2. How much of your training was dedicated to understanding and developing techniques to mitigate behavioral state regulation problems? 

The answers to these questions were obvious to the attendees. If behavioral state regulation difficulties were not a problem, then students would more efficiently and effectively learn. The classroom experiences for students would change, if there were an appreciation that their behaviors were not solely determined by intention. A neuroscience-informed educational model incorporates the profound and potent role that the physiological state has in mediating behavior. It also highlights the portals through which the physiological state can be monitored such as voice, facial expression, posture, and muscle tone. Teachers will learn that not only do their students broadcast whether their physiological states are calm and welcoming or reacting to threat, but thatt they themselves are part of the communication loop; either co-regulating and calming or disrupting and triggering physiological threat reactions that are broadcast as fear or anger and felt in our bodies. The products of this paradigm shift would lead to the defensive behaviors expressed in the classroom being managed in a more polyvagal-informed and compassionate manner. The results would provide opportunities for children to benefit from being in a calmer physiological state that would support sociality, learning, enjoyment, and even physical health.  

Intentional Neuroplasticity is packed with accessible information to answer these questions and to change classroom teaching. Through the work of Dr. Desautels, educators now have information to understand the potent role of the physiological state in mediating the behaviors of their students, colleagues, and themselves. This knowledge can shift the paradigm in education and lead to schools becoming more effective, welcoming, and enjoyable. 

Stephen W. Porges, PhD

Distinguished University Scientist 
Founding Director, Traumatic Stress Research Consortium 
Kinsey Institute 
Indiana University Bloomington 
Professor of Psychiatry 
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 

ORDERING COMING SOON!

Through the work of Dr. Desautels, educators now have information to understand the potent role of the physiological state in mediating the behaviors of their students, colleagues, and themselves. This knowledge can shift the paradigm in education and lead to schools becoming more effective, welcoming, and enjoyable.