Not safe to learn: how addressing anxiety can help your child’s learning

The work I do is based around Dr Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, and the concept of social engagement vs flight/fight/freeze.

My work is based on the concept of “neuroception” – the fact that some children (and adults) cannot distinguish safety from perceived threat, and so their bodies live in a stressful fight/flight state ALL the time.

Referrals to CAHMS take forever – if they happen – and intervention is patchy. Ask CAHMS about the Polyvagal Theory, and you’ll probably get a blank stare!

However, I strongly believe that the introduction of this work in schools would save our government SO much money in SEND terms. I’ve already seen it.

Take, for example, Sam. He is 8 years old and when I first met him, he was approximately 2.5 years behind in literacy and numeracy. He struggled to focus and had extreme difficulties relating to other children.

Through reflex integration work and the Safe and Sound Protocol, we have seen such incredible developmental growth across the board that it’s astounded parents and teachers alike. He is now approaching the expected range academically, has several friends and is able to focus much better in class.

I would like to emphasise that this was without an expensive private maths tutor and certainly without specialist help with specific learning difficulties.

How our physiological state affects sensory input

Before using the Safe and Sound Protocol, Sam had seen a variety of people for retained reflexes over a period of approximately four years. While, initially, this had made an enormous difference, it seems that progress had plateaued and halted. His mother reports that the SSP simply seemed to get things going again.

This is probably because of the way that the SSP works:

The freeze response (known as the Fear Paralysis Reflex) is a cellular response rather than a primitive reflex. It therefore stands to reason that an intervention that helps regulate the autonomic nervous system, bringing a person out of their dorsal vagal (freeze) and sympathetic (fight/flight) nervous states and into a parasympathetic (social engagement) state makes greater shift than reflex integration work. Primitive reflexes start patterning at a much later point in development, and reflex integration replicates pre-birth movement patterns rather than re-setting the nervous system like the Safe and Sound Protocol does.

If a child feels under threat, they will not be able to learn efficiently. Think how it feels to receive really shocking news and how difficult it is to take anything else in: that’s what it’s like for children who are permanently stuck in fight/flight/freeze.

The triune brain – Dan Siegel’s Upstairs and Downstairs Brain analogy

Having worked with my own family and ended up training in neurodevelopmental therapy myself, I feel as if I’ve joined a LOT of dots.

My dots are scientific: no energy work, no supplements, no dietary changes, no mysticism. I have seen the biggest changes in those who don’t use a scattergun approach – but that’s not to say that people can’t try all the above if they feel the need.

By moving children into their social engagement system, allowing them to feel safe in the world, we are a very big step closer to supporting their learning.

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