Information Age Education
   Issue Number 111
April, 2013   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online at In addition, two free books based on the Newsletters are available at The most recent one is titled Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This newsletter is the second of a series on recent research developments in the culturally important issue of morality. Morality is a human issue because we're a social species. The series of articles explore the issue of whether morality emerged only when humans evolved into a social species, or if morality is something that emerged as mammals discovered the values of cooperative behavior.

Morality: Recent Research Developments.
The Intriguing Educational Applications
of Polyvagal Theory. Part 2

Barbara Given
Associate Professor Emerita of Special Education
George Mason University

The previous IAE Newsletter in this series ( summarized Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory of how the evolution of the vagus nerve impacts human behavior today (Porges, 2011b). The first or reptilian stage produces an immobilization or freeze reaction when great fear is evoked, the second stage mobilizes an individual to fight for survival or flee for safety, and the third stage allows for social engagement without traumatizing fear. In this issue we more fully explore the role of education in promoting social engagement and its role in learning.

Social Engagement

According to the polyvagal theory, nonconscious nervous system functions such as heart rate, breathing, voice control, and other autonomic physiological functions are related to the evolutionary stages of the vagus nerve (Porges, 2001, 2003, 2009, 2010). In the face of fear, the heart races, breathing becomes shallow, our voice may tremble, and/or a sick feeling may occur in the stomach. A safe environment enhances even breath flow, and the heart beats without drawing attention to itself. Further, our voice is calm and steady.

Positive and negative life events unconsciously influence physiological reactions and those reactions influence social interactions. These, in turn, influence the nervous system. Porges argues that humans need social interaction to survive, because social interactions function as regulators of one’s physiological state. He notes that humans crave positive reciprocal engagement, because it enables a state regulation that makes us feel safe. Behavioral problems occur when positive social engagement and reciprocal interaction are lacking.

Teachers must provide an emotionally, physically, and psychologically safe classroom environment in which positive interactions flourish. By doing so, the myelinated mammalian stage three strands of the vagus nerve are free to function and prompt pro-social behaviors while subduing activation of the unmyelinated freeze, flight, or fight branches.

However, even in positive classrooms, Porges (April, 2009) states that due to the residue of previous trauma such as abuse “some individuals experience a mismatch and their nervous system appraises the environment as being dangerous even when it is safe.” He stresses that a mismatch in this direction results in “physiological states that support fight-flight, or freeze behaviors, but not social engagement behaviors” (p. 889). Porges thus emphasizes that “social communication can be expressed efficiently through the social engagement system only when these defensive circuits are inhibited” (p. 889). Therein lies the central educational value of the Porges polyvagal theory.

Educational Considerations of the Polyvagal Theory

Since students often conceal their emotions and act out without obvious provocation, it may be difficult for teachers to recognize trauma residue that interferes with learning. It is thus vitally important that classroom interactions are consistently positive and nurturing, and that teachers do whatever is necessary to create a feel-safe environment.

Porges offers tips for working with youngsters who suffer from trauma residue. Avoid blame, he stresses. To overwhelm a student with blame or negative feedback when the potential for fight or flight is present only serves to emphasize that something is wrong with the student. Consequently, the student moves further into a fight or flight physiological state, typically reducing the behavior potential for social engagement (Porges & Buczynski, 2012).

Second, students need to be taught how their nervous system functions for self-protection without any conscious decision making. Students can be taught how to engage their brainpower—the third evolutionary stage of the vagus nerve—by employing self-talk narratives that reduce fear residue and guide them into positive interactions. Further, self-talk narratives can help them overcome inappropriate behaviors that result from trauma as they gain an understanding of self-preservation freeze, flight, or fight reactions over which they had no control.

Porges uses a traffic light metaphor to represent the three physiological states prompted by the vagus nerve: red (life threat; immobilization, freeze), yellow (danger; mobilization, fight or flight), and green (safety and social engagement). To the left of the traffic light illustration he writes an “S” for environmental stimulus. To the right he writes an “R” for responses that depend on the physiological state (traffic light colors) the person experienced. This metaphor can guide teachers to better understand why some students “misbehave” and how best to work effectively with them.

Porges (2011a) emphasizes the fact that “. . . once we can easily engage the social engagement system, we are free to mobilize without being in fight or flight. Rather than fight or flight, we can move and play. Although fight/flight and play behaviors both require mobilization, play turns off defensiveness by maintaining face-to-face social referencing. Play uses the social engagement system to signal that the intentionality of the movements is not dangerous or hurtful” (p. 14).

Porges (2011a) identifies two detrimental trends that can make pro-social interactions nearly impossible. The first is over-reliance on electronic devices that create a hyper-vigilant state; the second is sustained attention that fails to support health, growth, and restoration. He believes that heavy reliance on electronic devices is antithetical to social engagement behaviors necessary for meaningful social interactions.

Even though students may use texting, twitter, Facebook, or other forms of social media for communication, they are missing the critical need to see the other person’s face; they are missing the opportunity to “read” facial expressions unless they are using Skype or some form of live camera production. Even then, they miss body language and context that send important messages needed to develop an efficient neural platform that supports social behavior and facilitates physiological state regulation (Porges & Buczynski, April 2012).

Porges and Buczynski, caution that a second detrimental trend is treating students as if they are “learning machines” by placing an over-reliance on teaching “cognitive-centric” information rather than exercising social engagement through music and play with others. He emphasizes “that our nervous system needs to be in a specific physiological state to promote bold ideas, creativity, and positive social behavior. . . . [otherwise] the information is not getting in, and oppositional behaviors are popping up. So, it’s a naïve view of the educational process and human development” to focus on information at the expense of pro-social development.

Before the polyvagal theory, teachers were taught to interpret positive and negative behaviors from a psychological or behavioral frame of reference. Now, Porges tells us that we really need a physiological perspective. Without question, whether from a psychological or a physiological perspective, it is clear that safe classroom environments promote self-respect, respect for others, and a sense of well-being. Such classrooms do not just happen. Teacher actions and interactions must be carefully planned, monitored, and refined to foster effective student engagement to help youngsters overcome trauma and develop social engagement skills.

In emotionally safe classrooms, on-guard defensive posturing is not necessary. Safe environments reduce unpredictability, instill a classroom code of citizenship behaviors, and build trust relationships among students and teachers. Safe classrooms honor student learning even when new learning is fragile and students are uncertain of what to do. Safe classrooms prevent freeze, fight, or flight student reactions and calm traumatic reactions to frightening situations that occur outside the classroom. Safety is essential for social engagement and healthy growth.


Porges’ polyvagal theory provides a clear perspective of how the body reacts to fear and trauma with freeze, fight, or flight and how physiological reactions are out of one’s conscious control. Even so, traumatic residue may evoke feelings of guilt, shame, and self-doubt that must be subdued before meaningful social engagement and meaningful learning can occur. That is, the human nervous system influences the mind and body, while reciprocally the brain influences the nervous system through self-talk and social interactions.

Educators now have a well-grounded scientific theory about why a positive, empowering feel-safe environment in which students know what to expect is essential for learning. We have known this intuitively for a long time, but now Porges provides powerful research evidence and a solid theory that support our intuitions.

References and Resources

Porges, S.W. (2001). The polyvagal theory: Phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 42:123-146.

Porges, S.W. (2003). Social engagement and attachment: A phylogenetic perspective. Annals New York Academy of Science. DOI: 10.1196/annals.1301.004: 31-47.

Porges, S.W. (April, 2009). The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 76 Suppl 2: S86-S90.

Porges, S.W. (2010). The early development of the autonomic nervous system provides a neural platform for social behavior: A Polyvagal perspective. Infant and child development published online in Wiley InterScience. DOI: 10.1002/icd.688. See

Porges, S.W. (2011a). “Somatic perspectives” series: Interview with Serge Prengel. USABP and EABP. See

Porges, S.W. (2011b). The Polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. New York: Norton.

Porges, S.W., & Buczynski, R. (April 2012). The polyvagal theory for treating trauma: A teleseminar session with Stephen W. Porges, Ph.D. and Ruth Buczynski, Ph.D. The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine. See April 2012.pdf.

Scaer, R.C. (2001). The body bears the burden: Trauma, dissociation, and disease. New York: Haworth Medical.

Barbara K. Given

Barbara K. Given, Ph.D., initiated the Special Education Teacher Preparation Program and served as Special Education Program Coordinator at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, VA. She is a former Director of the Center for Honoring Individual Learning Diversity, an International Learning Styles Network Center. She received two prestigious research awards. In addition to publishing many articles, she is the author of Teaching to the Brain's Natural Learning Systems (ASCD, 2002), and Learning Styles: A Guide for Teachers and Parents (Learning Forum Publications, 2000). In her retirement, Given is a GMU Associate Professor Emerita of Special Education and Faculty Affiliate at Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study.

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Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.