Neuroplasticity is our human superpower!

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.

I am determined and hopeful to share a deeper understanding of social and emotional learning through the lens of the nervous system and brain development as we move through year three of a global pandemic alongside many other adversities and challenges our schools are facing and pondering. Early in this school year, staff, educators, students, and families are already feeling the tension, fatigue, and frustration, as we navigate this return to school with the conditions from Covid and the Delta variant. The chronic unpredictability is visceral as we are trying to repair and recover from a “lost” academic year and a half for many of our students. I also recognize that for some students learning from home this past year felt regulating, and less distracting.

It feels as if many adult nervous systems are generating increased anxiety, anger, and resistance creating a collective infectious fear and apprehension as our emotional states are so contagious. This contagion can feel like a waterfall of emotive turmoil, that we carry with us in all moments. We are desiring “felt safety,” but sometimes adults, just like our children, ask for understanding and clarity in the most unloving ways!  Whether at the gas station, grocery, airport, or school event, I believe we are experiencing a “fight/ flight” communal autonomic nervous system state that is swimming in states of survival, and in these elevated stress responses, we cannot parent well, teach well, lead well, or learn well! We cannot live well. Among the many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, its effects on mental health have proven to be widespread and considerable. In January 2021, four out of 10 adults in the United States reported symptoms of anxiety or depression disorder – a 400 percent increase from January 2019. Health care workers are particularly exposed: more than half of workers on the front line could be at risk for one or more mental health problems, alongside the health risks involved in working with COVID-19 patients.

Children are also facing a monumental mental health crisis during the pandemic. Emergency department visits by children for mental health issues went up about 30 percent for kids ages 12-17 and 24 percent for children ages 5-11 between March and October of 2020. Unstable learning environments, prolonged isolation, chronic unpredictability, housing insecurity, systemic racism, and the resources and supports that were stripped away from being thrown into virtual and hybrid learning have impacted the emotional and social health and brain development of many of our children and youth.  For many of our students, and especially those youth from black and brown neighborhoods, they were not able to access sufficient technology for online learning and this creates burn-out which can negatively impact the developing brain and nervous system.  Burnout occurs when there is physical or emotional exhaustion caused by long-term stress.  As students return to school, this burn-out produces emotional fatigue which will literally take up energy, room, and space in the developing brain and nervous system, creating less cortical area for learning, problem-solving, and all the executive functions, such as sustained attention, working memory and emotional regulation that we need for learning and overall well-being!

Through an educational lens, I continually hear educational policy leaders discuss and contemplate the learning loss our students have experienced during the past 20 months. This nationwide panic over the academic learning loss cannot be our priority in this time! Why? Our world health organizations are reporting levels of anxiety and depression in our children and youth that we have never seen! How are our youth handling so much of the adult tension, fighting, unrest, and resistance? The statistics above speak to how our youth are coping in this time. We are already seeing behavioral challenges and failing grades in the first 20 days of school from students in all grade levels that are communicating dysregulation in the nervous systems as behaviors are only signals or indicators of how our students are experiencing their worlds through the autonomic lens.

Social and emotional learning through the lens of applied social and affective neurosciences needs to be a part of every school’s culture and environment as our youth’s emotional and mental health is at stake!

Social and emotional learning addresses the development of the nervous system and brain through creating conditions of “felt safety.” Social and emotional learning introduces students to the language of science as they learn about their brains and bodies, identifying sensations and autonomic states of calm and dysregulation so that they can build, acquire, and apply the practices that connect their feelings to behaviors! Social and emotional learning helps our children and youth develop healthy identities, cultivating practices of movement, breath, rhythm, and play that assist in recognizing autonomic states and create some safety and calm so they can access the cortical regions of the brain for learning and emotional growth! Social and emotional learning recognizes the cultures, traditions, and unique embodied and generational experiences students carry into our schools as we have an opportunity to celebrate our “lived experiences.” Social and emotional learning gives students an opportunity to learn about the science beneath their behaviors as we learn together about our autonomic system and states of survival and felt safety!

When we feel seen, heard, and safe, we can connect with others and cultivate caring and supportive relationships!

Social and emotional learning is not a politicized educational agenda or tool for arming our schools or students with divisive agendas. Social and emotional learning is not a replacement for rigorous academic content, and in fact, without addressing our nervous system states, we cannot access the executive functions we need for academic and cognitive growth! Social and emotional learning is not a tool for shaming white students or making them feel bad. Social and emotional learning has nothing to do with Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that race is a social construct and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.

The basic tenets of critical race theory, or CRT, emerged out of a framework for legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s authored and shared by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, among others. CRT also has ties to other intellectual currents, including the work of sociologists and literary theorists who studied the correlations between a variety of social organizations, political entities, and languages. Its notions and ideas have since informed other fields, like the humanities and the social sciences.

When adults are hurting, feeling fearful, and functioning in survival nervous system states, we tend to divide, label, fix, resist, feel threatened, threaten, and therefore talk louder and faster, viewing experiences, environments, philosophies, or movements in definitive absolutes.

Our children pick up on this unrest and begin creating their own narratives about the world and the people that care for them. Often, these narratives are distorted, and they feel scary or unsafe to our children and youth. Yet, I am hopeful, because in a crisis, there is an opportunity, and this is where neuroplasticity comes on board!

Neuroplasticity is our human superpower! It is our brain and body’s ability to change structurally and functionally with every encountered experience! Neuroplasticity is how our nervous systems can create feelings, thoughts, and behaviors through a process of structural and therefore functional change! How? Every time we think a thought and generate a feeling, we install neurological hardware that impacts our well-being in all moments! Our networks fire, signaling the limbic brain to create peptides, which signal hormones, which enter the receptor sites on cells- we receive messages or emotional signals, that signal genes which create new proteins which are the expressions of life and contribute to our well-being! Dr. Joe Dispenza shares that with a clear intention and elevated emotion, we don’t need to wait for a condition to change to bring us joy or pleasure, we can begin to find moments or “glimmers” as author and therapist Deb Dana shares, that can begin a stream of improved thoughts and emotion! This takes patterned repetitive experiences and is a process! These small shifts can begin to occur throughout our routines and procedures at home, school, and inside our organizations and communities. How can we support ourselves and our children during these times of unpredictability and heightened emotional states? By replacing old habits and behaviors with the support of regulatory practices, we can begin to weaken the brain architecture of synapses that no longer serve us! Not only can we strengthen circuits between brain areas by getting these areas to fire at the same time to produce new feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, but we have the ability to weaken connections because neurons that fire apart, wire apart! Can we begin to weaken links of pain-based behaviors replacing these habits of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with practices that generate social and emotional well-being? Below are three practices that we can share with our students, preparing the nervous system for the mental and cognitive tasks we need for learning and academic growth, as well as social and emotional development. Education requires state regulation.

  1. Glimmers are the micro-moments of our experiences feel hopeful or energizing and yet, go unnoticed,” therapist and author Deb Dana shares. We tend to label our days as good or bad, but what if we focused on specific moments within those days and pulled out the energizing glimmers or moments? As a class, family, or anytime we have an opportunity to sit beside our children and youth, we can begin to look for glimmers throughout the day! My daughter Regan and I looked for glimmers together a week ago and it was so powerful! She was having a long hard and sad Sunday preparing to move to Mexico for the next year with more unknowns on this journey than anything predictable! We sat on the bedroom floor Sunday evening and started noting moments throughout the day that she had experienced as calming, comforting, and even a bit hopeful! We found five! We were both surprised and were able to reframe this upcoming adventure with a fresh perspective and a bit more hope before we fell asleep!
  2. Nervous system check-ins. Check in with ourselves and our children’s nervous system! Below we have created a graph for tracking our nervous system states denoting how we feel or felt throughout a day! On this graph, students can track how they were experiencing their nervous system during a variety of times throughout the day! When we can recognize our anger, anxiety, sadness, shut down, calm, or joy, we are able to increase capacity in our nervous system for well-being! Autonomic awareness can be thought of as an emotional buffer or protective factor for psychological well-being. Low resilience corresponds with less awareness of our nervous system states!
  3. What is my shape and color? Students and adults can empty their stress into art! What does sadness look like? What color is it? What shape is it? How big is grumpy? Where do you feel calm in your body? What color is edgy or prickly? What shape is numb? What shape is hot? Fill your paper with today! What are the colors, lines, and shapes that represent your feelings and thoughts?
Nervous system check-in

Our sensations and feelings become our guidance throughout the day and the more we worry, the stronger the connections become in the brain for worry! If we practice anger all day long, we get good at being angry! Our beliefs are practiced thoughts! What thoughts do you practice most often? What thoughts or feelings do you want to weed out? Patterned repetitive experiences strengthen connections in the brain for kindness, empathy, anger, or even anxiety! Our nervous systems respond to what we focus upon and practice, and usually what we practice is unintentional! When we can name, track, and visualize or draw and color our sensations, feelings, and thoughts, they become less intense and do not feel so overwhelming! Therefore drawing, coloring, journaling, or ways of expressing how we feel through art strengthens our capacity for resiliency.


  • Guest Blogger

    This post was written by a guest blogger for the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. Views and opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not represent the views and opinions of AASR.

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