Considering Polyvagal Theory and self-regulation when working with distressed children
We are inundated with evidence which tells us that “Connection before correction” is the only way to support positive change in the behaviour of children who are communicating to us through challenging behaviour. This is easier said than done if you are a classroom teacher who has 29 other children to teach, or a therapist who is working hard to bring calm to an anxious and angry child.
Polyvagal Theory, brought to our attention by the work of Dr. Stephen Porges provides practitioners with a biological understanding of why a distressed 5 year old can make us feel so out of control. It is all to do with our nervous system.
We know that our brain is developed through evolutionary hierarchy: brainstem, mammalian, cortex, but Porges has taught us that our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) has developed in the same way. Our ANS is designed to respond to external stimuli to scan for safety and provides us with three pathways to respond:
- Immobilization: Dorsal Vagus
- Mobilization: Sympathetic Nervous System
- Social Engagement and Connection: Ventral Vagus
Our ANS causes us to respond without conscious awareness to threat, it is highly protective, and is the reason why we are able to connect with some people and either run away or not communicate with others.
Early experiences will have an effect on whether our ANS is appropriately tuned or highly tuned (overresponsive). This is obviously also true of the children we work with. Our ANS is seeking connection with others all the time. We cannot connect with others without coregulation and therefore we have to be in reciprocal states to do this.
What does this mean for all of us working with children?
A child who is heavily influenced by their sympathetic nervous system is triggered by an alarm in their own ANS and without any conscious intention. They either shut down, go too big (what does this mean?) or manage to stay connected and open. So, how can you influence your ANS if it all happens without conscious awareness?
Fundamentally we need to strengthen our vagal tone. Porges encourages us to do this, with intent of helping us to relax faster after stress and to help us stay in the open and connected state.
The following recommendations are supported by Porges and many other experts in the field as having a direct impact on strengthening our vagal tone:
- Wash your face with cold water or if you can’t cope with that, drink a glass of iced water – this has an instant effect on the sympathetic response system.
- Sing or hum: The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and muscles in your throat
- Play team sports: Having a joint aim, being socially connected and doing exercise heavily supports vagal tone strengthening.
- Get a foot massage: Foot massage has been shown to increase vagal modulation and decrease the ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic response. You will also get a helpful burst of oxytocin to do battle with cortisol levels.
- Socializing and Laughing: social engagement and connection leads to more social engagement and connection.
- Yoga: studies have shown that yoga increases activities in both the vagus nerve and your parasympathetic nervous system, as well as increasing GABA which is a calming neurotransmitter in your brain.
This is MORE than self-care. These measures will support your ability to coregulate with the children and young people who are existing in protection mode and therefore NEED another available human to bring them to an open and connected state. It is only through REGULATING ourselves that we can have a hope of regulating others.