Polyvagal Theory: What Is It and How Can Teachers Use It?

by Debra Em Wilson

In education, we don’t write books for fame or fortune—that aim is best left to the J. K. Rowlings of the world. We write because we have something important to say. As an educator for more than thirty years in the field, I’ve observed the ever-increasing demands placed on teachers in classrooms. The internet is rife with articles about teachers leaving the field due to burnout, disillusionment, frustration, and compassion fatigue. Teachers enter the field to teach, yet it often seems the classroom is expected to serve more as a mental health clinic than a place of academic learning. This leaves us feeling like our skill sets are inadequate and we’re “not enough” when it comes to meeting the diverse emotional needs of our students. 

As teachers, we love to witness all students engaged, motivated, and thriving in the classroom. This begins with understanding learning as an embodied experience involving the bi-directional loop between the mind and body. In my book, The Polyvagal Path to Joyful Learning, I share the science that underpins regulation, resilience, and academic buoyancy in a practical way that is within the skill sets of teachers and leads to the ultimate goal of optimized learning for every student. Along the way, I integrate Polyvagal Theory with concepts familiar to educators including academic resilience, fixed and growth mindsets, cognitive load theory, extended mind science, and Martin’s Wheel of Motivation and Engagement.

 We don’t need yet another curriculum—heaven help us! We need a better understanding of what it means to be a regulated human in a dysregulated world. We need to see the joyful messiness of our classrooms through a polyvagal lens of hope, curiosity, and possibility. It’s only from a state of regulation that we create a transformative space for change and can see preferred or alternative futures. I invite you to come on a journey of discovery with me as I explain Polyvagal Theory and its classroom implementation through stories and metaphors, while tossing about a bit of humor in the process—something we can all use more of these days!


The following are excerpts from the Preface and Chapter One of 

The Polyvagal Path to Joyful Learning: 

Transforming Classrooms One Nervous System at a Time

From the Preface

Polly Who? 

During an online training session with a leadership team from a school in Northern California, a teacher stopped me during my compressed introduction to Polyvagal Theory and asked, “Now how do you spell her name? I got Polly, but how do you spell her last name?” 

That’s when I knew that a brief, 20-minute scratch-the-surface explanation of Dr. Porges’s theory (Porges, 2017) wasn’t the best way to go. My already jampacked six-hour course focusing on teacher and support staff collaboration didn’t allow more time. But I also knew that the role the nervous system plays in teaching and learning warranted greater attention and had the power to transform classrooms. In a classroom of diverse students, the common denominator is that everyone is affected by the state of their nervous systems. And it’s in understanding this marvelous system that we can change classrooms (and the world) one nervous system at a time (Dana, 2018). 

With encouragement from my colleagues in the field of social work, I wanted to bring Polyvagal Theory—already prominent in the clinical disciplines of psychology, counseling, and social work—into today’s complex and often challenging teaching environments. Hence this book. By the way, in case you’re wondering, the word polyvagal comes from the Greek prefix poly, meaning more than one, and the vagus nerve, which comes from the Latin word for wandering. You’ll read all about the wandering nerve in Chapter 1.

From Chapter 1

Programs Come and Go, But Your Nervous System Is Here to Stay 

Polyvagal Theory isn’t a fad or a program, but rather a framework to understand and optimize the learning experience. Every student we work with and every child we parent is different, but there’s one thing they all have in common—a responsive nervous system ready for action. This is something upon which we can all agree. Understanding and applying Polyvagal Theory is the perfect starting point, as it underpins many of the programs we currently use in classrooms. 

Deb Dana writes, “My personal experience, and my experience teaching Polyvagal Theory to therapists and clients is that there is a before-and-after quality to learning this theory. Once you understand the role of the autonomic nervous system in shaping our lives, you can never again not see the world through that lens” (2018, p. xix). By understanding how the ANS responds throughout the day, you can create transformative learning environments where children and the adults who mentor them work together and optimize the synergistic relationship between the mind, body, and environment.

The Autonomic Ladder in the Classroom 

You move up and down your Autonomic Ladder throughout the day, whether you’re dealing with a student’s behavior issue, a fight breaking out on the playground, or an impromptu fire drill—your nervous system analyzes the degree of threat and responds accordingly. The more you understand and befriend your nervous system, the better you’ll be able to handle daily challenges in your classroom without being exhausted by day’s end. Based on your nervous system states, the world can be a safe, supportive place or dangerous and unsupportive. Let’s explore how the world looks from different states of the nervous system. 

The View From the Ventral Vagal State 

A visual mnemonic to help you remember the ventral state is a heart with a vent that represents all the good stuff you let in and give out when you are in a good relationship with yourself, the environment, others, nature, and spirit (whatever that might personally mean for you). This is often referred to as ventral energy. When you bring ventral energy to all the associated experiences that being in a classroom offers, the feeling is one of abundance rather than scarcity. You’re able to discover additional untapped resources inside yourself, in your environment, and in your students. In the ventral vagal state, you feel safe to engage with others and handle the inherent ups and downs that are part of living in this world. The feelings associated with the ventral vagal state include but are not limited to safety, relaxation, passion, curiosity, connection, regulation, and a sense that while things may not be perfect, they’re okay. And that’s enough to keep you on your ventral path. In the ventral vagal state, the world is a supportive and welcoming place. You feel grounded, safe enough to connect with others, inspired to learn new things, able to see obstacles clearly, express compassion, and handle the little and not so little challenges that arise. In the classroom, the ventral vagal state is the optimal state for learning. It’s one of safety, connection, and infinite possibilities. 

The View From the Sympathetic State 

To remember the sympathetic state, visualize a runner and a fighter while embracing the irony that the word itself is the opposite of how you feel. Sympathetic resources like compassion, understanding, and empathy aren’t available to you when you’re in a sympathetic state. In the language of Polyvagal Theory (which, remember, comes from the biological sciences), you can’t be sympathetic in a sympathetic state! Life looks very different from the sympathetic vantage point. In the sympathetic state, the world is threatening, and you don’t put much faith in your fellow humans. People are more often foe than friend. Experiences are perceived as risky and unpredictable. You are mobilized for a fight-or-flight response. This mobilization may be organized to get you out of the perceived danger, or it may be disorganized—you know you need to get out of the situation but you’re not sure where the exit is located. In the sympathetic state, you’re flooded with mobilizing energy, unable to see people as benevolent beings, and unable to care about others (unsympathetic!). You are dysregulated. In this state the world is dangerous, unpredictable, and threatening. You may feel anxious, overwhelmed, untrusting, or irrationally afraid. Students in sympathetic states are mobilized for action, but the mobilization is coming from a place of disorganization—fight or flight. It’s difficult to focus when in a sympathetic state. These students mobilize from a place of fear and exhibit survival energy, poised for pushing back, challenging, or escaping whatever you’ve planned for the day. 

The View From the Dorsal Vagal State 

To help you remember the responses common to a dorsal vagal state, visualize a door closing out the world. From the dorsal vagal vantage point, you experience life-threatening cues of danger and lack energy to move forward. You want to disconnect from the world or even disappear completely. The feelings associated with the dorsal vagal state include collapse, loneliness, numbness, dissociation, hopelessness, fogginess, or feeling untethered. In the dorsal vagal state, the world is a lonely place, unsafe and unsupportive. You may feel despair, disconnection from others, or may want to become invisible or not be in the world at all. Noticing these states in yourself and your students is the first step in applying Polyvagal Theory. Students in a dorsal vagal state may be collapsed in their seats with poor posture, checked-out, sleepy, or stuck in a why-bother pattern and unable to learn. These students tend to be overlooked in classrooms because they aren’t loud and noticeable. These are the quietly failing students, discussed at length in Chapter 5. You may use a favorite discipline, regulation, or social–emotional learning program to support students in any response state; however, understanding the hierarchy of these responses can make the programs you already use that much more powerful. Applying Polyvagal Theory doesn’t replace your tried-and-true programs, but rather enhances them. And the more you understand your nervous system, the better you’ll be able to understand your students and choose the most appropriate methods of support.

The Polyvagal Path to Joyful Learning aids readers in understanding how the nervous system responds can help keep teachers and students on an even keel.

Dr. Debra Em Wilson is the Founder of S’cool Moves and a graduate from the University of Southern Queensland Professional Studies Program. She consults with districts, focusing on collaboration between support staff and teachers. For over twenty years, her workshops have provided evidence-based strategies to support all students in the classroom. She is also a Reading Specialist who possesses teaching credentials in the areas of biology, physical education, multiple subjects, and reading and language specialist. Wilson has taught at the college, high school, and elementary levels. 

Dana, D. (2021). Anchored: How to befriend your nervous system using poly-vagal theory. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Porges, S. W. (2017). The pocket guide to the polyvagal theory: The transfor-mative power of feeling safe. New York: Norton.

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