What Our Nervous Systems Will Need When School Begins

Original article: Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint

Today’s guest author is Lori Desautels PhD. Lori is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Butler University College of Education, a former special education teacher and school counselor and currently teaching applied educational neuroscience / brain and trauma to undergraduates and graduate candidates in the certification program. For the past six years, Lori has returned to the classroom co-teaching in multiple grade levels bringing these strategies and practices into the classroom preparing the brain to learn while dampening down our stress responses systems and attuning to the developing brain states of our children and youth. Author of several publications and writer for Edutopia. Recently Lori published her fourth book, Connections Over Compliance, Rewiring Our Perceptions of Discipline.

Paradigm Shift in 2021/ 2022 Academic School Year

As we reflect upon our current educational landscape and the social and emotional implications of the pandemic over the past 15 months, we are already seeing the critical impact of this collective trauma on so many of our students, educators, and families! Elevated levels of adverse mental health conditions, substance use, and suicidal ideation were reported by adults in the United States in June 2020. The prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5% versus 8.1%), and prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3% versus 6.5%) (CDC) Children and teens react, in part, on what they see from the adults around them.

Yet, a collective crisis can create an opportunity to rethink and revision how we approach the social, emotional, and cognitive health of our youth. Unfortunately, many school districts and policy leaders around the country are already addressing the “learning loss” as one of our greatest challenges in the 2021/2022 academic year! There is no doubt that learning has been lost, but at the root of this loss, is the fragile and wavering emotional and mental health of our children and youth. In the young brain and body, the nervous system is developing at unprecedented rates while survival responses and emotional reactivity are elevated! Along with brain states of survival, the emergent nervous system embraces heightened emotional reactions that prioritize threat and safety over learning! The pandemic is and has been a continual threat to our country and world’s collective nervous systems which biologically shuts down accessibility in the frontal cortex for felt safety and ease of connection with another. I have also been thinking about the palatable communal nervous system states in schools. Which schools are functioning in fight /flight states where there is ramped up emotional reactivity? Which schools feel a significant loss of energy, purpose, and are hanging by a thread of hope?

As author and therapist Resmaa Menakem shares, “Settled adult bodies produce settled bodies of children and youth.” Human beings are contagious!

Our physiological states are inherently social, affecting everything we sense, feel, do, and experience within our internal and external environments. This is true for all adults, but the brain development of children and youth is constantly being shaped by experiences with others and the perceptions of those experiences and environments. The chronic behavioral challenges from many of our students are often communicating nervous system pathways functioning in sensitized threat and survival states. Our educators have also felt and experienced tremendous anxiety and an immobilized and collapsed nervous system state when our brains and bodies feel overwhelmed with the chronic unpredictability over this past year within our current system. What does this mean for the upcoming school years?
One of our priorities for this upcoming year is to focus heavily on connection- to care deeply for one another in our buildings, classrooms, and districts! We must also prioritize sensory regulation over cognition! When a nervous system feels safe and felt, pathways to the cortex open and generate access to the executive functions and cognitive skills we need to be academically successful! As I listen to educators across the country and world, social and emotional development does not occur through purchased programs or 30 minutes of an SEL lesson pushed into the day! When we create environments that embrace social and racial equity, cue safety and connection, and are aligned with the application of nervous system science and health, we see learning gaps lessen and well-being deepen for staff and students. It is a start, but it is not enough to only ask, “What happened to you?” We need to follow this question with, “What do you need? How can we work through this together?” “I will meet you where you are!”

  • Schools will need to be intentional about creating routines and schedules throughout the school day that are not only predictable but address the cultivation of emotional and physical stamina that many of our students are missing, especially those who have been virtual for six months to a year! Movement will be a game-changer as our nervous systems will need the exercise and movement breaks to help unlock the tension and stress as they move through individual stress cycles. Our routines must encourage Focused Attention Practices so that students and staff are able to integrate intentional breathing, rhythmic practices, and sensory accommodations that aid in creating a sense of calm and safety in the body that can anchor our nervous systems for improved attention, working memory, and successful learning. Many of our students have recently reported that they have not left their homes since the pandemic began. As these students return to the classroom, they will need the supports and resources to build the emotional and physical stamina that has been lost during the past 18 months.
  • Our nervous systems need each other, and we will need to prioritize frequent “check-ins” with our students. We refer to these as “touchpoints” within the framework of applied educational neuroscience, as these micro-moments of connection can strengthen a sense of autonomy while validating and noticing what is going right and well! Our adolescents will need these touchpoints as much if not more than our younger students as their brain and body development is moving through a heightened pruning and proliferation of synaptic connections in the brain preparing for efficiency and specialization during the adolescent years and through young adulthood.
  • As we rethink our procedures and routines, school-wide, administrators, and staff we will need to prioritize sensory regulatory practices as we begin, transition, and end the day or class period. As previously mentioned, Focused Attention practices will help to energize or calm the nervous system through movement, patterned rhythms, and breath. Brain-aligned bell work will be an important start to the day or class period creating engagement, novelty, and a relaxed state of alertness to the present moment. What does brain-aligned bell work look like? When we are intentionally checking in through novel and engaging practices, we are also addressing discipline challenges on the front end! Below are two examples of brain-aligned bell work we can integrate at the beginning of the next school year! These projects and activities can carry over for several days or weeks and I will continually share examples of these practices. These practices are also beneficial for adults and can be introduced before staff, department, and grade-level meetings.
    • Morning gatherings will be an essential activity for all ages of students and adults. These gatherings prepare the nervous system for learning and allow everyone to check in and share the predictable routines, schedules, and expectations for the class or day. There are several ways to check in with one another, and passing the drum is a novel and engaging choice. As we pass the drum in a circle, we each choose to share our own rhythmic beat that aligns with how we are feeling in that moment. We can drum to the rhythm, speed, and volume of our nervous systems each morning, during transitions, or at the end of the day. Discuss the patterns you noticed! Was the rhythm soft and slow? Was the rhythm fast and loud? Was it chaotic or did it have a smooth coherent beat? When we are feeling rough and dysregulated, what types of rhythms feel relaxing or comforting to our nervous systems? We can record our rhythms in a journal for a week or two and notice the ebb and flow of our own patterns during a period of time.
    • Art expression is an extremely regulating practice to begin a class or day. Fill your paper with colors, lines, and shapes! What colors are the biggest or loudest? What colors are hiding? What shapes are the biggest? Draw what happiness looks like! Draw what sadness is! Draw how anger feels and what it is! Now look at your art, then close your eyes and feel in your body if happiness, safe, irritated, nervous, anxious anger or sadness are there. Where in your body are those feelings located? Can you journal, doodle, or create images that share how you are experiencing this morning in your body and brain?
  • Our students have not been required to sit for seven hours a day working on academic assignments. We will need to “chunk” assignments with recurrent movement, water, and snack breaks! We may need to focus on smaller portions of quality work and not quantity. If students are understanding content and the applications of what is required, we will need to focus on a process of gradually increasing the length and duration of assignments to meet students in their brain and body states. Our focus will need to be on five problems completed accurately versus 30 problems, with two paragraphs written well and feedback that will reinforce successful completion!
  • As my colleague Anne Marshall shares, “Schools operate through schedules. Students are offered designated times to eat, enjoy their related arts classes, transition from class to class with a variety of expectations.” For students who have been virtual this year, returning to detailed and specific schedules may require an adjustment period. Caregivers, older siblings, and parents can help support these school schedules by creating a few mini schedules at home this summer. Examples might be timers for chores, morning agendas, schedules with friends or activities, routines for the evening or mornings, or designated breaks throughout the day?
  • “Every heart sings a song, incomplete until another heart whispers back.” – Plato We come into this world wired for connection as connection is a biological imperative. Our nervous systems require reciprocity to regulate our states and to feel safe (Porges, 2012). A sense of belonging brings satisfaction, and our individual sense of happiness is impacted by being part of a social network! We lost this connectedness last year and the residual effects of felt isolation and chronic unpredictability will be remembered for years to come! Cultivating a “family culture” in our classrooms and schools will help to mitigate those feelings of distressing isolation, loss, and loneliness. Can we embrace and validate our inimitable embodied experiences over the past 18 months? Can we listen deeply to one another’s pain, challenges, strengths, and celebrations through an equitable lens generated from our unique cultural experiences? Can we create rituals of collaboration, talismans that speak to our unity, songs of hope, banners, poetry, and shared art that collectively celebrate the reclaiming of our schools as a living system?
  • Can we encourage opportunities for service next year with our staff and students as we care for one another, placing a significant emphasis on serving one another? What does intentional service inside our schools look like? Could the seniors care for our custodial staff for one week? Could our freshmen zoom in with our elementary grades sharing their first few adventurous weeks in high school? Could our office staff co-regulate with parents in a special greeting when they walk into the office, often feeling overwhelmed? Could our SRO’s work beside our school counselors and social workers for a few weeks each semester? Could our seventh-grade students care and surprise bus drivers with banners, notes of appreciation, snacks, and creative greetings? There are hundreds of ways we can strengthen the network of community in our schools and districts! We need each other!

Finally, we will need to embrace the “process of learning” and not the quick “fix,” end products, or strategies that promote and promise definitive results. Over the past 18 months, our children, youth, educators, and parents adapted to significant unpredictable changes inside of hundreds of moments each day. As the 2021/ 2022 school year approaches, we will need to share the science of “why” we are feeling dysregulated, saddened, overwhelmed, anxious, angry, and everything in between! When we join up with our nervous system states, we begin to feel a sense of relief, empowerment, and curiosity for the resiliency and plasticity of our body’s ability to find moments of calm during our roughest individual and collective storms. The rhythms of life are always about ruptures and repairs, and during the past year, our schools have experienced a significant amount of rupture without the time, space, and opportunities to repair and move through these changes together! We will need to acknowledge these storms of racial and social inequities, adversity, and trauma to carry this generation and generations into new ways of repairing, leading, teaching, and living life with the emotional, mental, and physiological well-being that is the birthright of every human being! The role of education is to help us live outside the walls of a school. Science continues to demonstrate that our brain and body systems are always changing and neuroplasticity (the ways our brain networks reorganize) is our superpower! Author and social worker Deb Dana states, “Our autonomic nervous system is at the heart of daily living.” State regulation must be recognized in our schools as a prerequisite to the mental and cognitive tasks before us!

“You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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