Reframed: The Journal of Self-Reg
Volume 2, Issue 1

Dr. Stuart Shanker, DPhil

In Culture and Value, Wittgenstein expressed an idea that serves, not just as the motto, but indeed, the inspiration for the journal Reframed:

Philosophical problems are like weeds. Getting hold of the difficulty deep down is what is hard. Because if it is grasped near the surface it simply remains the difficulty it was. It has to be pulled out by the roots; and that involves our beginning to think about things in a new way. (Wittgenstein, 1984: 48).

When it comes to problems in psychology, however, our goal is not to pull out the roots but rather, to nourish them. Yet here too, it is “beginning to think about things in a new way” that makes it possible to see that there are roots to a problem, and then to set about grasping – in its cognitive sense – and strengthening them.

Thinking about things in a new way requires that we ask why a problem occurs, which might in turn require us to challenge established paradigms. It is quite striking how “asking why” on a paradigm that has exhausted its resources ends up in either a blank stare or an argumentum ad baculum (usually in the form of a curt rejection letter from an editor or a harsh review). But other than the “demise of the why’s,” are there other signs of when a paradigm is nearing its exhaustion point?

Richard Florida has done fascinating research on the social, economic, and demographic factors that predict a political revolution (Florida, 2011). A similar point can be made about paradigm revolutions. In psychology, we know that a paradigm is nearing its end when we start to see:

  • increased polarization (and with this, more extreme language);
  • growing use of ad hominem argumentation;
  • law of diminishing returns (the same experiment, which has been repeated ad nauseam, is starting tolook tired);
  • law of adhesion (viz., quick fixes are used to seal up the cracks in a theory); and
  • settling for thinly disguised tautologies.

The last point is the sure sign that digging past this point is dysregulating. (To quote the inimitable David Crosby, “You can dig for diamonds in the dust; you can dig forever if you must; just don’t dig here.”) But that’s exactly what we do in Self-Reg: We start digging where others fear to tread.In this issue we put theory into practice. In the first paper, Jennifer Brout, Roianne Ahn, and Madeline Appelbaum look at the impact of an infant’s over-sensitivity to sensory stimuli on co-regulation and the development of attachment. The standard paradigms used to test attachment (and if ever there were a paradigm that is looking a little tired it is the Strange Situation) are performed at a relatively late stage in an infant’s development. Digging deep into the sensory roots of problems in co-regulation not only enables us to see attachment problems in an entirely new light, but as the authors show, tailor our interventions accordingly.

In the next paper, Casey Burgess shows how addressing the autonomic states that underlie the behaviour and communication of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, rather than focusing on the behaviour itself, dramatically changes our understanding of ASD and, once again, our approach to intervention. Rather than trying to change or mold the child’s behaviour, we work on the roots of the problem by helping children engage more naturally with their social environments and thereby follow a more typical developmental trajectory.

Next, Stuart Shanker reframes the concept of high math anxiety (HMA), looking at the relationship between societal HMA and student HMA. His goal is to understand the roots of the cognitive stress that drives a child into HMA and thence either prevent this from happening using Self-Reg, or structure math interventions around Self-Reg when it has occurred.

The last paper is a call to action. Stefani Burosch presents an impassioned plea for educational transformation that is designed to support human flourishing through social justice and sustainability. She shows how the key is to leverage recent advances in neuroscience and psychophysiology in such a way as to nurture the roots of wellbeing at all levels of the ecological system.

In many ways, the journal Reframed is like a gardening catalogue: an advertisement to interested readers of the wonderful plants that can be grown from this new Self-Reg paradigm – but only if you’re prepared to get your hands dirty and start digging. And if this issue shows us anything it is just how important it is that we tend to the roots of a problem in order to nurture healthy growth.

What none of these authors mention, but is an obvious truth to everyone in the Self-Reg community, is that the gardener benefits every bit as much as the garden from all this hoeing and tilling.


Florida, R. (2011, March 1) Can data predict political revolutions? The Atlantic

Wittgenstein, L. (1984). Culture and Value. (P. Winch, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sensory Over-Responsivity, Attachment, and Self-Regulation: Considerations of the Specific Impact of Auditory Stimuli
Jennifer Jo Brout (International Misophonia Research Network, CT, USA)
Roianne Ahn (STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder, Colorado, USA)
Madeline S. Appelbaum (International Misophonia Research Network, CT, USA)

This paper explores how the developing infant’s over-sensitivity to sensory stimuli may negatively impact co-regulation and the overall attachment relationship. Research supports that between 5 and 16% of typically developing children experience sympathetic nervous system arousal in response to various kinds of sensory stimuli (Ahn, Miller, Milberger, & McIntosh, 2004; Ben-Sasson, Carter, & Briggs-Gowan, 2009). In order to elucidate how sensory reactivity and the attachment relationship interact we briefly review both areas of research. We then narrow our focus to contemporary attachment theory (Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist, & Target, 2002; Fonagy & Target, 1977) and propose ways in which sensory processing problems serve to inhibit co-regulation, disrupt the child’s ability to understand the mental states of self and other (mentalization), and consequently hinder self-regulation. We note the importance of exploring the auditory modality, as individuals with auditory hypersensitivity may be at higher risk for dysregulation regardless of caregiver efforts (Ben- Sasson et al., 2009). A case vignette is presented to illustrate these processes and how they may be remediated through Infant-Parent Training. Finally, the need for translational research is discussed.

Keywords: mental representational system, affect regulation, sensory processing, co-regulation, self-regulation, misophonia, auditory over-responsivity, sensory over-sensitivity

Sensory Over-Responsivity, Attachment, and Self-Regulation: Considerations of the Specific Impact of Auditory Stimuli

Understanding the complex relationship between sensory processing, the attachment relationship, and the development of self-regulation skills warrants both critical thinking and experimental investigation. Two prominent organizations, Zero to Three: The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families and the Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders (ICDL), recognize sensory processing disorders in their diagnostic manuals.4 However, sensory processing disorders are not recognized in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

(DSM-5) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Consequently, the trajectory of sensory impairment through the lifespan and the interactive relationship between sensory processing, attachment, and self- regulation are rarely investigated.

The purpose of this paper is to integrate attachment theory with sensory processing research. More specifically, we highlight how atypical sensory processing may negatively impact the cognitive processes described in a contemporary attachment model that focuses on successful co-regulation as a necessary precursor to self- regulation (Fonagy et al., 2002; Fonagy & Target, 1977).

We briefly review sensory processing and attachment research and follow this with a discussion of the

specific ways in which early sensory processing issues may disrupt the caregiver-child relationship within a contemporary attachment model (see Fonagy et al., 2002; Fonagy & Target, 1977). We then present an illustrative case vignette to showcase effective methods practitioners may use to address these issues and conclude with ways in which empirical research might translate into better interdisciplinary practice.

Sensory Processing and Attachment Are Inextricably Intertwined

Sensory processing involves the reception of and automatic neurobiological response to stimuli from the outside environment (Brown, Tollefson, Dunn, Cromwell, & Filion, 2001). Yet, individual variations in sensory processing (that is, sympathetic nervous system arousal in response to everyday stimuli) are often overlooked in attachment theory. This is counter-intuitive since the connection between sensory perception and learning is widely accepted in cognitive developmental theory and in basic neuroscience (Vuilleumier, 2005). For example, in 1958 Piaget described how infants’ coordination of sensory-motor actions forms the foundation of cognitive development. As infants begin to explore the world, through sensory perception, they simultaneously internalize models of self and other through their relationship with their primary caregiver. The role of sensory stimuli as a catalyst to learning is explicit in Piaget’s theory, but while the model addresses early interpersonal relationships, it does so mainly in the framework of cognitive development.

Basic neuroscience has also highlighted the connection between sensory stimuli and emotional responding. Specifically, sensory stimuli serve as an antecedent to emotional responding (Almada, Pereira, & Carrara- Augustonborg, 2013). For example, while stzudying fear learning in rodents, LeDoux (1984) mapped the circuit connecting auditory stimuli and the amygdala – the

neural structure where the freeze, flight, or fight response is mediated. The senses, then, are connected to complex and incalculable neural processes, including perception, learning, memory, motor coordination, and emotion regulation (Brown et al., 2001; Kandel, Schwartz, & Jessell, 2000; Shepherd, 1994).

Attachment Theory

A full review of attachment theory is beyond the scope of this paper. Therefore, we briefly summarize highlights of the history of this theory, beginning with Bowlby in 1958. For a comprehensive review of attachment theory and research see Grossmann, Grossman, and Waters (2007) or Marrone (2014). Bowlby (1958, 1969) conceptualized the “attachment system” as a set of infant and maternal behaviours that evolved for survival purposes. The infant seeks proximity to the caregiver because he/she experiences distress upon separation. The distressed (or over-aroused) infant cannot independently regulate his/her affective state and therefore relies upon the caregiver for assistance (Bowlby, 1988). Bowlby frames attachment as an adaptive process conserved by evolution that is shared by all mammals. In doing so, he also brings in the physiological elements of distress that reflect sympathetic nervous system arousal.

Researchers operationalized attachment using the Strange Situation paradigm so that it could be evaluated within an experimental framework (Ainsworth, 1985; Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978; Ainsworth & Wittig, 1969). In this paradigm, a child’s response to separation and reunion with his/her mother reflects the degree to which the child perceives her as a secure base. Using this paradigm, researchers categorized the quality of attachment, which was presumably mediated mainly by the mother (caregiver).

However, Thomas and Chess (1977) refocused the attachment relationship onto the caregiver and child dyad, bringing in infant constitutional qualities that affect the relational dynamics. They used the term “goodness of fit” to describe the degree to which mother and child were temperamentally matched (Chess & Thomas, 1986).

Temperament researchers also utilized physiological measures, focusing on affect, attention, and arousal – each of which impact early affect regulation and personality development. As a result, early temperament literature is replete with terms that imply individual differences in arousal states and how this impacts behaviour. Such terms include intensity of response, level of reactivity, responsivity, soothability, regulation, low reactive, and high reactive (see, for example, Feldman, 2007; Feldman & Eidelman, 2007; Fox, 1994; Marshall & Fox, 2007; Moehler et al., 2006; Woodward et al., 2001; Young, Fox, & Zahn-Waxler, 1999).

Contemporary attachment models (see, for example, Fonagy et al., 2002; Gergely & Watson, 1996) hold that co-regulation is the foundation of eventual self-regulation through a process by which the child learns about the boundaries of self and other (Foley & Hochman, 2006; Greenspan, 1992; Williamson & Anzalone, 2001). Sensory processing as a potential mediating variable, however, is not emphasized even within contemporary attachment models. In order to lay the groundwork for this possibility, the next section focuses on Sensory Processing Disorder, specifically the subtype Sensory Over Responsivity, or SOR.

Sensory Processing Disorder

The term Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) describes individuals who may over-respond or under-respond to sensory stimulation, or who crave more sensory stimulation than others. Individuals with SPD may also have problems differentiating stimuli with the modalities affected, as well as problems with motor planning and sensory- motor integration. Over the past 20 years, an impressive body of literature has emerged demonstrating individual differences related to the tactile, auditory, visual, gustatory, olfactory, proprioceptive, and vestibular systems. These differences are often associated with various problems

related to daily living, including motor planning, visual and auditory discrimination, as well as processing and reacting to sensory stimuli in a graded manner (Bundy & Murray, 2002; Greenspan & Porges, 1984; Reeves, 2001; Schaaf & Anzalone, 2001; Wiener, Long, DeGangi, & Battaile, 1996; Williamson & Anzalone, 2001). These issues are estimated to occur in 40–88% of children with developmental disabilities (Adrien et al., 1993; Dahlgren & Gillberg, 1989; Dunn, 1997; Ornitz, Guthrie, & Farley, 1977; Talay-Ongan & Wood, 2000; Tavassoli et al., 2017) and between 5–16% of children in the general population (Ahn et al., 2004; Ben-Sasson et al., 2009). More recently, using MRI, Owen and colleagues (2013) found that some children with SPD had decreased white matter connectivity, particularly in the parietal regions of the brain, compared to their peers. This finding adds validity to designation of SPD as an independent disorder, but it is derived from a limited study of only boys that did not address the various proposed subtypes of SPD. For the purposes of this paper, we focus on one subtype: Sensory Over-Responsivity. For a more comprehensive review of SPD research, see Miller, Anzalone, Lane, Cermak, and Osten (2007).

Sensory Over-Responsivity

Sensory Over-Responsivity (SOR) describes children who react adversely to sensory stimuli that others find neutral or even pleasant (Miller et al., 2007). In a seminal study, McIntosh, Miller, Shyu, and Hagerman (1999) measured electrodermal activity and vagal tone in SOR and control participants. The researchers found that children with SOR demonstrated greater sympathetic arousal to stimuli. In addition, these children demonstrated difficulties in habituation. That is, they exhibited a diminished ability to return to baseline arousal compared to their typical peers (McIntosh et al., 1999; Schaaf & Anzalone, 2001). This study opened the door to numerous studies replicating high sympathetic arousal in response to different kinds of sensory stimuli, with decreased habituation.

Research examining children with SOR also demonstrates deficiencies in auditory gating (Davies, Chang, & Gavin 2009, 2010; Davies & Gavin, 2007; Gavin et al., 2011). Auditory gating is the ability to detect changes in the frequency and loudness of auditory tones presented sequentially. When auditory gating is impaired, individuals react to repetitive stimuli as if each stimulus were novel. The preconscious ability to become alert to novel auditory stimuli is conserved by evolution as a way to perceive and ready the organism to react to potential danger (LeDoux, 2015). Without efficient gating, each presentation of a repeated sound re-alerts the nervous system, negatively impacting overall habituation in the presence of auditory stimuli.

Auditory gating issues are also implicated in a newly proposed disorder, misophonia, that is phenotypically similar to SOR (see, for example, Brout et al., 2018; Schrӧder et al., 2014). More specifically, Wu and colleagues (2014) reported preliminary convergent validity (r = 0.50) between misophonia symptoms and a self-report item assessing over-responsivity in the auditory domain on the Adult Sensory Questionnaire (Kinnealey & Oliver, 2002). Individuals with SOR, have difficulties related to multiple senses. However, individuals with misophonia mainly have difficulties in the auditory modality. Originally described by Jastreboff and Jastreboff (2001), individuals with misophonia demonstrate increased sympathetic nervous system arousal, accompanied by emotional distress, in response to specific pattern-based sounds, irrespective of decibel level. Although the research on this disorder is in its infancy, preliminary studies using physiological measures such as galvanic skin response and heart rate support expectations of sympathetic nervous system arousal in response to specific sounds (see, for example, Edelstein, Brang, Rouw, & Ramachandran, 2013). In addition, using fMRI, Kumar and colleagues (2017) found hyper-myelination between the parts of the brain that process auditory stimuli and parts of the brain that process emotion. These findings, as well as the phonotypical overlap, suggest that the auditory modality may be of particular importance in the exploration of how self-regulatory skills develop. This is also supported by clinical observation that auditory over-responsivity is more resistant to sensory-based intervention, compared to other sensory modalities, and by the very high levels of distress those with misophonia report (Koomar & Bundy, 2002; Kumar et al., 2015; Brout et al., 2018).

Sensory Over-Responsivity, Mental Representation, and Affect Regulation

Beyond enriching or disrupting personal relationships, the essence of abstract thinking depends upon our ability to make meaning of and internalize language, physical gestures, and the understanding that one’s self and others are distinct entities. As Greenspan and Shanker (2006) state, survival depends upon this ability:

The growth of complex cultures and societies and human survival itself depends on the capacity for intimacy, empathy, reflective thinking and a shared sense of humanity and reality. These are derived from the same formative emotional processes that lead to symbol formation. (p.10)

Fonagy and colleagues (2002) and Gergely and Watson (1996, 1999) specifically describe steps that involve building a mental representational system that allows the infant to interpret his/her own feelings and the feelings of others. The term “mentalizing” describes the ability to think about other people reflectively, and attachment theorists have operationalized this as the “reflective function” (Fonagy & Target, 1977; Fonagy et al., 2002). The infant develops the reflective function through complicated socioemotional exchanges with his/her caregiver (Greenspan & Shanker, 2006). This ultimately enables theory of mind (Fonagy & Target, 1977; Fonagy et al., 2002). Theory of mind is a singularly human quality that allows us to understand that we have a mind that is separate from another’s mind. We use the reflective function to speculate about other people’s thoughts and feelings and because of this we can mediate thought and emotion (Fonagy et al., 2002). Sensory over- responsive children without developmental or cognitive problems do not have problems with theory of mind (Bundy & Murray, 2002). However, even when an infant is able to develop theory of mind, sensory over-responsivity can impede the capacity for emotional learning because of the processes involved in mentalization.

The infant’s expression of affect is the catalyst for a convoluted process of reciprocal communication that serves as the foundation for the symbolic system on which mentalization depends. Through “affect signaling,” a caregiver helps the infant attach meaning to affective states. Reciprocal affect signaling entails the caregiver mirroring the infant’s feelings in a way matches his/her own, or is contingent (Gergely & Watson, 1996). When the infant expresses affect, the caregiver accurately reflects the affective state, so that the child is able to learn to correctly identify it. Through affect signaling, the dyad co-constructs a representational system that allows the developing child to accurately identify his/her feelings (Fonagy et al., 2002).

Further, through this process the child learns to differentiate his/her emotional states from others’, and the child comes to understand that his/her own feelings are separate from the feelings of others (Gergely & Watson, 1996). The infant also discovers a sense of agency due to the increasing awareness that the growing child can mediate relationships through the mind and through thoughts. As such, the growing child’s thinking becomes an internal regulator of affect. As the child begins to use thinking to mediate and control his/her emotional life, affective states are represented in his/her mind, and ultimately this representational system allows for a depth of emotional processing about the self and others. These fine differentiations help to support emotional regulation.

The caregiver ideally responds by mirroring the infant’s affective state in a way that is soothing, so that the infant is not overwhelmed by his/her own emotions. This modulation is known as “markedness” (Fonagy et al., 2002). Markedness is an important element of contingent mirroring. It is a regulatory factor that refers to the intensity of emotion with which the caregiver reacts to the infant (Fonagy et al., 2002). For example, if an infant drops a bottle and cries in distress, a caregiver might exclaim, “Oh my, you dropped your bottle!” However, the caregiver’s well-meaning and common attempt to match a highly distressed cry with the same level of emotional and/or auditory intensity could further arouse and distress the over-responsive infant.

Most attachment models imply that co-regulation will occur if a caregiver responds contingently. However, attachment models do not take into consideration the dysregulation effect of atypical sensory processing. In addition to cueing in ways that are more difficult to read, sensory over-responsive infants and toddlers may not be able to make use of the affect signaling process because they may be overloaded by sensory stimuli. Consequently, this impedes co-regulation and negatively impacts mentalization. The following case vignette demonstrates how SOR, particularly with regard to the auditory modality, may affect contingent responding, co-regulation, and the attachment relationship.

Case Vignette

Vivian, an energetic 32-year-old retail sales clerk, and her husband James, a 40-year-old computer programmer, looked forward to the birth of their first child. Vivian delivered Anna without complications and unconditionally adored her daughter. During the first few days after the birth, however, every little change seemed to distress Anna. She often cried even when she was held. She cried when her clothes were changed. She cried when she was bathed. Anna was calm during breast-feeding and ate often, but never seemed full. Anna often cried for reasons unknown to her mother. Most of all, Anna seemed to either shut down or become highly irritable when she was in noisy environments and/or when her mother was singing lullabies to her.

Anna’s pediatrician told Vivian that Anna was just a sensitive baby who would eventually outgrow her fussiness. Anna’s mother-in-law was certain the baby had colic. At six months, Anna was still fussy. She rejected the bottle as well as solid food, so Vivian continued to breast-feed. Anna screamed and cried intensely when Vivian took her into grocery stores, friends’ houses, or neighbourhood playgrounds. Therefore, Vivian generally avoided these outings. Anna always seemed calm during car rides, however, and Vivian found herself relying on neighbourhood drives for Anna’s naps or to soothe her.

Despite a great deal of distress, Anna also experienced many instances when she was happy and engaged. She sometimes liked to hear Vivian sing, watch Vivian make funny faces, or play peek-a-boo-games with her mother. However, other times the same activities seemed to upset Anna. Anna’s unpredictable responses confused and frustrated Vivian. Vivian became more concerned when Anna, at nine months of age, seemed to prefer being with James.

James was a devoted father and husband, but he worked long hours away from home and was often tired when he came home. Although James didn’t have a great deal of energy to play with Anna, he would happily hold her while watching television or reading. Vivian wanted James to be more active with Anna, and felt that James was not giving Anna enough attention. While James and Anna were together, Vivian would try to engage Anna by laughing, talking, or playing with her, but Anna would grow sullen or turn away from her mother. Vivian found herself growing resentful of her husband and worried about Anna’s increasing quietness.

Vivian took Anna to the pediatrician and explained her concerns. The pediatrician reported that Anna was healthy and was achieving typical developmental milestones. However, the pediatrician told Vivian that if she wanted to look further into Anna’s social- emotional development he would refer the family to a centre for infants and young children.

At the centre, Anna was evaluated by a team of interdisciplinary clinicians led by a pediatrician who specialized in developmental disorders. The pediatrician told Vivian and James that Anna seemed to be “sensitive to environmental stimuli” and scheduled the family to meet with an occupational therapist (OT) specializing in sensory processing disorders. After evaluating Anna, the OT explained that Anna was over-responsive to sensory stimulation and seemed to react the most negatively to sounds. As part of the interdisciplinary team, the OT worked with the family in order to better understand how different sensory-based activities affected Anna’s over- responsivity in order to decrease sensitivity and mediate her arousal states.

In addition, Vivian and James worked with a psychologist trained in parenting who helped them develop and transfer the skills learned through the OT. The psychologist and OT both also suggested ways for Vivian and James to modify the home environment so that Anna was over-stimulated less often. The psychologist also helped Anna’s parents understand that they had not done anything wrong and were not “bad parents.” The psychologist explained that infants are born into the world with variations in the ways they respond to sensory stimuli. Parents often have difficulty assessing this and understanding how to make adjustments.

After visiting the centre two times per week for four weeks, Vivian and James were well versed in the nature of parent and child dyadic regulation. Vivian and James began to understand that levels of sound, sights, and touches they thought were typical were often too much for Anna. They understood that noisy toys and loud voices could over- arouse and distress Anna. In addition, toys with blinking lights with fast rhythms were likely to do the same. As they worked through these issues, both parents began to feel a sense of self-efficacy in regard to their parenting skills. Vivian and James reorganized home activities to match Anna’s tolerance for stimulation and found effective sensory strategies to comfort their daughter. They were delighted to discover that Anna smiled more, cried less, and stayed calm for long periods throughout the day. After Vivian and James discontinued therapy, they checked in with the centre on an as-needed basis.

The above case discussion illustrates how, with guidance, appropriate caregiver responses can lead to attunement in spite of an infant’s atypical sensory processing. Initially, Anna’s over-responsive sensory processing mechanisms negatively impacted her family relationships. Vivian, for example, mistook Anna’s distress as boredom and sought to help by playing boisterously with Anna. However, Anna’s sensitivity to sounds caused her to interpret Vivian’s well- meaning gestures as intrusive, over-arousing, and even frightening. Anna’s atypical reactions to sensations led to behaviours that were difficult for her parents to understand. Consequently, Anna’s parents were unable to accurately read her cues, could not respond contingently, and could not engage Anna in co-regulation on a consistent basis. In addition, Anna’s inability to habituate caused her to feel continuously overwhelmed by sensation.

Anna’s over-responsivity to sensory information, particularly in the auditory domain, presented challenges that were beyond her parents’ understanding and ability to refine. James and Vivian were guided to respond contingently to Anna’s distress, which helped soothe and reassure her. This allowed Anna to enter into co-regulated relationships with her parents more easily and consistently. Within the co-regulated relationships, Anna could begin developing the mentalization skills that would help her process and regulate emotion as she continued to grow.


This paper integrates theories of sensory processing and attachment to explore how attachment may be impacted in children who have sensory over-responsivity, particularly within the auditory domain. Studies that better characterize the precise relationships between sensory processing, attachment, and mentalization are needed. Comparisons of the developmental trajectories of typical infants and those with SOR, particularly with intense reactivity to auditory stimuli, would facilitate better understanding of how infant, toddler, and early childhood disorders manifest in adolescence and adulthood. This specification is especially important as attachment theory predicts that infants and toddlers with attachment problems are more likely to manifest psychological and psychiatric problems such as poor emotional and interpersonal functioning.


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Reframing Autism Spectrum Disorder: ASD Through A Neuropsychological Lens
Casey Burgess, Lakehead University

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is described in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) according to diagnostic criteria focused on observable, behaviour-based characteristics, including social reciprocity (for example, conversation skills), nonverbal communicative behaviour, relationship development (for example, ability to adjust behaviour to suit social context), stereotyped motor movements, ritualized patterns of behaviour, restricted interests, and hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input. However, it is known in the academic research community through advances in neuroscience that ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, and not a disorder of behaviour. A neurodevelopmental or psychophysiological lens encourages a focus on the autonomic states underlying behaviour and communication, rather than on conscious behavioural choice or behaviours themselves, and may therefore facilitate a more scientifically accurate means of conceptualizing ASD. While the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria focus on identifying certain characteristic behaviours, Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, a psychophysiological model of human development, describes differences in the social engagement system that help explain these behaviours. It also points to alternate, and perhaps more successful, approaches to intervention based on neuroscience. Rather than treating the behaviourally based diagnostic characteristics or symptoms of ASD, an intervention focused on the underlying autonomic causes of behaviour allows us to lay developmental foundations that lead children to learn more naturally through engagement with their environments and ultimately follow a more typical developmental trajectory.

Keywords: autism, autism spectrum disorder, ASD, social engagement system, Polyvagal Theory, self-regulation, neurology, neurodevelopmental, psychophysiology, intervention.

Reframing Autism Spectrum Disorder: ASD through a Neuropsychological Lens

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects 1 in 68 children and its prevalence continues to increase (Christensen, 2016). The need to support children in more effective and efficient ways is more critical than ever. According to the American Psychiatric Association (2013), ASD is characterized by deficits in social communication and social interaction (social reciprocity, nonverbal communication, and relationship development), as well as by restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities (motor movements, speech, inflexibility, intense focus of interests). It is typically diagnosed using tools such as the Childhood Autism Rating Scale(Schopler,Reichler,DeVellis,&Daly,1980)toguide the measurement of observable behaviours or “symptoms” aligned with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a standard manual of diagnoses for North American diagnosticians (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Public funding for interventions is geared towards behaviourally based support (Government of Ontario, 2017), which has a known evidence base for altering the behavioural symptoms or characteristics of autism and teaching milestone skills across a variety of learning domains.

Clinicians, though, have varied in their theoretical concepts of ASD (Parks, 1983). Founded on science and understanding of neurology, the academic research community knows ASD to be a neurodevelopmental disorder, not one of behaviour. However, our mainstream, publicly funded intervention remains behaviourally based. This paradox in etiology, diagnosis, and mainstream intervention can potentially be reconciled using a more integrated model of the nervous system in understanding ASD and approaching intervention using this lens.

Since Darwin’s early (1872) discussion of the bidirectional neural communication between the brain and the heart (through a nerve he called the pneumogastric nerve, now known as the vagus), research in human development has looked at how the brain and body communicate. Recent research emphasizes the importance of brain–body communication to psychopathology, including epilepsy, depression, and many of the behaviours associated with ASD (Porges, 2011). Porges’ Polyvagal Theory and its described “social engagement system” are based on neurophysiology and provide an alternate and perhaps more plausible account of the functional and developmental challenges faced by individuals with ASD, which leads to a philosophical reframing of how to best support lifelong development, learning, and well-being of individuals with ASD.

The Polyvagal Theory encourages scientists to consider the role of the nervous system in the regulation of biobehavioural processes (Porges, 2007) and thus helps us to better understand ASD. It explains the dysregulation of the organs often seen in ASD (heart rate, gut, and digestion problems), which are regulated by the nervous system. It describes the visceral pain tolerance threshold, connected to the sensory challenges which are part of ASD’s DSM- 5 diagnostic criteria. It provides an explanation for the more complex information processing challenges, such as executive functioning difficulties, that are also known to be key processing challenges in ASD. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it accounts for challenges in social engagement that underlie the functioning of the nervous system and the foundational challenges of social communication inherent to ASD diagnosis and later development and learning. Essentially, the diagnostic criteria established in the DSM-5 are specific to behaviours controlled by the Polyvagal Theory’s social engagement system, including eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, joint attention, expressive language, and more (Patriquin, Scarpa, Friedman, & Porges, 2013). Examining ASD from this perspective may lead to interventions focused on the upstream developmental foundations of ASD rather than its downstream behavioural symptoms and skill deficits.

The Polyvagal Theory

The Polyvagal Theory involves the vagus nerve, which is responsible for the bidirectional communication between the state of the body and the nervous system. The theory proposes that there are three aspects of the autonomic nervous system that exert neural control over the heart (Porges, 2011). First, there exists an unmyelinated dorsal motor vagus which regulates the organs below the diaphragm, including the digestive system, and stress- related hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, and cortisol. Second, the sympathetic-adrenal system, which primes us for immediate mobilization without having to consciously think about it when threatened by activating the muscles required for immediate escape or avoidance and inhibiting the sub-diaphragmatic processes, such as digestion, to conserve energy for survival. Lastly, the parasympathetic nervous system’s myelinated vagus, which is more recently evolved in mammals as opposed to other animals, calms us and allows us to engage consciously with the environment around us through social communication to inhibit the fight-or-flight responses and to become involved with our environment in a much more complex way than other animals. This is what is known as the social engagement system (Porges, 2011).

These self-regulatory processes can be examined through vagal tone, measured via respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). RSA is the variation of heart rate with breathing as the body responds to the environment. When the heart rate varies with response, it demonstrates adaptability to stressors and ability of the nervous system to recover from exposure to stressors. Research has shown differences in the RSA of individuals with ASD in response to various stimuli and task demands (Porges, 2011). Children with ASD do not suppress RSA (recover from stressors) as well as their typically developing peers (Hutt, Forrest, & Richer, 1975). There are clear differences in the nervous systems of children with ASD compared with their peers.

Higher amplitude RSA indicates overall functioning (Thayer & Lane, 2009), and the ability to reduce this amplitude is associated with better cognitive function (that is, processing speed, working memory, learning, and receptive language skills) (Beauchaine, 2001). Individuals who show greater RSA suppression when subjected to stress do better in terms of on-task cognitive function, such as executive function (Blair, 2003) and fluid intelligence (Staton, El-Sheikh, & Buckhalt, 2009). The connection between RSA and cognitive function is robust in the research (Patriquin et al., 2013) and demonstrates that ability to suppress RSA (the nervous system’s ability to recover after stress) is adaptive and may impact the cognitive function of individuals with ASD. Higher vagal tone, leading to the ability to suppress RSA, may be a protective factor against some of the challenges of psychopathology (Patriquin et al., 2013). In ASD, RSA has been shown to predict concurrent and future communication skills (Watson, Baranek, Roberts, David, & Perryman, 2010) and is associated with self-regulation, which is critical to social engagement (Porges, 2011). The Polyvagal Theory, RSA, and vagal tone are certainly areas worth expanding on in ASD research. Such research could lead not only to the development of better support for communication and learning skills, but also to improved approaches to health concerns related to digestion and sensory processing that may cause discomfort and become additional stressors on the nervous systems of individuals with ASD, therefore exacerbating their challenges.

Symptoms of ASD Seen through a Neurobiological Lens Digestion

The higher the vagal tone, the better (more resilient) the heart and gut responses to stress, so understanding that individuals with ASD tend to have lower vagal tone explains some of the digestive/gut difficulties that present themselves in many individuals with ASD. Low vagal tone compromises the functioning of the gut, heart, and pancreas – health problems common in ASD (Horvath & Perman, 2002). There are many unsolved questions regarding the relationship of digestive problems to ASD diagnosis, etiology, and treatment, and the Polyvagal Theory provides a framework through which to examine how these digestive difficulties are connected to vagal regulation of the nervous system, which also affects the other aspects of ASD diagnosis (Porges, 2011). Further research into the relationship between vagal regulation and digestive difficulties may provide answers to and direction for some of the inconclusive research on the relationship between digestive disorders and ASD.

Sensory Processing

The vagus is involved in communicating the state of the body to the brain, allowing us to feel and interpret what the body is feeling through sensory experiences – tactile, visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, vestibular, proprioceptive, interoceptive, and neuroceptive (Porges, 2011). Having decreased vagal tone impacts the sensory processing of individuals with ASD. For example, individuals with ASD have shown dampened transitory heart rate responses to a variety of incoming sensory stimuli, including auditory stimuli (Zahn, Rumsey, & Van Kammen, 1987) and socially relevant speech (Palkovitz & Wiesenfeld, 1980). The Polyvagal Theory helps us understand how the sensory component of the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria of ASD connects to other areas of the diagnosis (such as social communication) by understanding ASD as founded in nervous system functioning. The Polyvagal Theory allows us to see that the nervous system processes are disrupted in ASD, and that individuals with ASD have difficulty recruiting the neural circuits responsible for communicating body–brain information through the social engagement system (Porges, 2011). Not being able to regulate this body– brain information results in decreased engagement when the individual processes incoming sensory information as threatening, and it can also lead to fight-or-flight responses that inhibit the natural learning process. This accounts well for some of the developmental challenges that can change someone with ASD’s learning trajectory.

Social Engagement and Behaviours

The Polyvagal Theory examines the brain structures that regulate social and defensive behaviours, known areas of difficulty for individuals with ASD (Porges, 2011). The theory proposes that a person’s neurophysiological state affects their “range of emotional expression, quality of communication, and the ability to regulate bodily and behavioural state” (Porges, 2011, p. 118). Because the theory examines the development of the autonomic nervous system involving “affective experience, emotional expression, facial gestures, vocal communication, and contingent social behaviour” (Porges, 2011, p. 118), it provides an explanation for the communicative, emotional, and social characteristics defining ASD, through the social engagement system.

During embryo development, several cranial nerves develop together through the vagus to form the social engagement system. This system involves a control component in the cortex which regulates the brain stem to control the face and neck muscles responsible for looking, emotional expression, differentiating the human voice, eating, vocalizing, and head-turning for social orientation and social gestures (Porges, 2011). These coordinated muscles determine engagement with the environment and social experience; they allow us to scan for safety cues in the people and things around us and to remain calm so that our bodies can rest, restore, and recover from stressors and thus maintain the social engagement process. Engagement behaviours such as looking at people, emotional expression, and differentiation of the human voice are connected within the social engagement system. The neural pathways that allow us to raise our eyelids are the same ones that tense the stapedius muscles in the inner ear facilitating the ability to hear the human voice (Borg & Counter, 1989). This neural regulation of the inner ear muscles (shown to be necessary for listening to the human voice) is known to be defective in individuals with ASD (Smith, Miller, & Stewart, 1988; Thomas, Mcmurry, & Pillsbury, 1985). The observed difficulties in ASD may be connected to the same system involved in facial expression as well (Porges, 2011); we can see that individuals with ASD have great difficulty recruiting the neural circuits regulating the social engagement system.

Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (a measure of neural functioning as discussed above) is linked to positive social- cognitive function (Bal et al., 2010; Van Hecke et al., 2009) in children with ASD, and correlates with joint attention, use of social gestures, and receptive language ability (Patriquin et al., 2013). Recent studies have confirmed that RSA correlates with social functioning in children with ASD; children with ASD who have higher baseline RSA show better social skills and fewer behaviour challenges (Van Hecke et al., 2009), and they are better at recognizing emotions (Bal et al., 2010). However, children with ASD have been shown to have lower RSA overall than their typically developing peers (Guy, Souders, Bradstreet, DeLussey, & Herrington, 2014), indicating a lesser ability to regulate their state via the nervous system, which is so critical to later stages of development and learning.

ASD seen through this lens is not a lack of social skill development, but a withdrawal from social contact as an adaptive mechanism (responding to perceived or real environmental threats), which is behaviourally expressed as limited facial expressions, head gestures, ability to discriminate the human voice, and prosody, all elements or diagnostic characteristics of ASD. In other words, our ability to use social cues from the environment helps us calm our bodies and inhibit fight-or-flight responses to learn, but this is not always possible for individuals with ASD. Using social cues to signal safety allows us, from birth forward, to develop neural control of the facial and vocal muscles required for social communication and to engage calmly and more readily with our environments without having to expend our energy on protective fight-or- flight mechanisms. Developmentally, because of this deficit in the social engagement system as shown by measures of vagal tone, children with ASD have difficulty learning from their environments because their nervous systems have deficits which keep them in a state of fight-or-flight rather than calm and alert social engagement. Thus, by targeting the social engagement system as an upstream intervention during development, we open the door to a developmental trajectory where children are socially engaged, and thus learn as their typically developing peers do through their own intrinsic curiosity and engagement with their environments, rather than downstream behaviourally based skill development interventions.

Impact of a Neurobiological Understanding of ASD on Intervention

The vagus nerve “directly supports the behaviours needed to engage and disengage with the environment” (Bridges & Porges, 2015), which are a foundational element of any type of ASD understanding and intervention. When we understand ASD to be a disruption of the nervous system and not a conscious control of behaviour, our approaches and interventions become based on supporting self-regulation rather than on controlling behaviour and teaching concrete skills. Further, we change our approaches when we consider that some of the maladaptive behaviours inherent in ASD are most likely the result of coping with heightened stress. Rather than responding with behaviour modification strategies which may focus on how best to avoid or respond to the behaviour, we can take the approach of reducing stressors as a prerequisite to trying to reduce the unwanted behaviour (which will likely lead to reduction in maladaptive behaviour anyway). A self-regulation approach, where self-regulation is defined as the process of responding to and recovering from stress, prompts us to focus on the child’s ability, as part of their development from infancy on, to self-regulate. The ability to self-regulate is a foundational ability serving as a precursor to social engagement and later learning and behaviour (Greenspan & Shanker, 2004). The brain–body connection inherent in self-regulation contributes to lifelong development and not just present behavioural repertoire.

Because deficits in the social engagement system create challenges in spontaneous social behaviour, social awareness, affect expression, prosody, and language development, improving neural regulation should help address the challenges of ASD (Porges, 2011). Interventions founded on relevant philosophies of neurodevelopment are gaining momentum in the research as families and clinicians seek alternative approaches to publicly funded behaviour therapies. DIRFloortime (Greenspan & Wieder, 2006) is one such model used to support individuals with ASD through developmental, individual, relationship- based interactions centred around play. Beginning with a foundation of self-regulation, the intervention builds to expand on where and how a child feels safe and engaged, gradually helping him/her to remain regulated through increasingly complex interactions. It is evidence- based, and this area of research is continuing to grow (Casenhiser, Binns, McGill, Morderer, & Shanker, 2015; Casenhiser, Shanker, & Stieben, 2013; Solomon, Necheles, Ferch, & Bruckman, 2007). Another developmental and relationship-based intervention for ASD is Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), which is a parent-based, cognitive-developmental approach where caregivers are taught to provide specific daily opportunities for successful functioning in increasingly challenging ways (Gutstein, Burgess, & Montfort, 2007). RDI purports to create developmental, neurocognitive changes, and includes key aspects of self-regulation and co-regulation which allow the child to engage with his/her environment and those around him/her, and thus to learn more effectively on his/her own in the future. RDI shows some preliminary evidence of success (Gutstein et al., 2007), though more research is needed. Beyond these intensive interventions, simply reframing ASD – seeing it from its neurological foundations, and not from its behavioural symptoms – encourages parents, educators, and others who support individuals with ASD to take an approach to learning and intervention which sees self-regulation as the foundation for child development. Working on self-regulation as a critical foundational skill to learning and development leads to better developmental trajectories and more natural learning across learning domains in the future.


By shifting our focus from the downstream behavioural symptoms of ASD to their underlying upstream etiology from a developmental, neuroscientific perspective, we are led in a promising new direction of intervention based on children’s neural development rather than behavioural milestones. Certainly, we can teach skills and behaviours using behavioural theory, but reframing ASD prompts us to consider how to set the stage developmentally and neurologically as a prerequisite for even more effective skill development. When we focus on self-regulation as the foundation of child development, and see that self- regulation precedes social engagement, learning, and later skills, we allow the nervous system to develop in a way that enhances social engagement and natural learning of critical developmental milestone skills. Further, it decreases maladaptive behaviour by creating a safe environment which supports a calm and adaptive nervous system primed for social engagement, creativity, and natural learning. The prevalence of ASD continues to increase, as does the need for classroom support, developmental skill building, and later adult services, despite the implementation of evidence-based behavioural interventions. Perhaps this is a revolution in thinking that is well overdue.


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Reframing High Math Anxiety: Avoiding the Perils of a Victorian Paradigm
Stuart Shanker, Self Regulation Institute, The MEHRIT Centre, York University

This paper reframes the Victorian view that the failure to succeed in math is due to a lack of perseverance. Instead the author explores the multiple stresses that lead to high math anxiety and how, by using Self-Reg, a student no longer sees math as a threat.

Keywords: Stress, cognitive stress, High Math Anxiety, self-regulation, self-control, hyperarousal, tension

Reframing High Math Anxiety: Avoiding the Perils of a Victorian Paradigm Stemming the Divides

A fascinating initiative was launched in the United States a year ago, encouraging scientists to run for public office so as to “Bridge the Divide between Science and Politics” (Kaplan, 2017). The goal is to ensure that government policy is based on current scientific knowledge, rather than what politicians tend – or would like – to believe. The Self- Regulation Institute could be said to be engaged in a similar mission: in our case, the goal is to bridge the divide between what science is learning about learning, and how educators teach. But then, to stem any divide we must first clarify why it exists. Is it simply due to a lack of knowledge, or are there deeper factors at play: a clash between paradigms?

There is an understandable fear that we are witnessing a revival in government circles of not just a denial of science but even an antipathy to it. Yet our concern is not with the latest clash between Flat Earthers and empiricists (for example, over environmental policy). Our brief vis- à-vis education concerns the divide between a teaching philosophy based on an ancient self-control paradigm, and an approach to teaching that is grounded in the modern science of self-regulation.

There have been major advances over the past decade in our understanding of the complex reasons why students find certain topics difficult to master and how to help them. It is never a lack of effort that is the problem but rather biological and sensory issues, processing constraints, and social-emotional challenges. Self-Reg is forever asking why a student is struggling in a particular area, and constantly seeking to identify and reduce the various stresses that are impeding learning. But those who believe that a child’s problems are due to a lack of character will never go down this path, for they have already decided on the answer.

In practical educational terms, the divide we are concerned with is between those who are succeeding in their schooling and those falling ever further behind. Educational stratification starts early. It is already evident by Grade 3, if not in Junior Kindergarten. And the question we need to address is to what extent the “achievement gap” is the child’s fault, or our own. Without an answer to this question, anxiety and frustration only grow – at every level: for students, parents, teachers, administrators, and policy- makers who must decide whether to turn to science or custom to address the problem.

The perfect illustration of this point can be found in the current debate over the decline in Grade 3 math scores on Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) test. Here we are confronted with a divide that is not just frustrating but, in many quarters, alarming; for what we know about math instruction is already considerable, and yet results not only continue to disappoint, but are actually going in the wrong direction!

This slide has prompted the knee-jerk reaction that children – and perhaps their parents and teachers – need to work much harder. Complacency and lack of grit are seen as the heart of the problem. The unspoken conviction here is that “If students choose not to try harder, they must live with the consequences of that choice.”

This Victorian paradigm – the apotheosis of perseverance – is epitomized by what Samuel Smiles wrote in his highly influential Self Help (1859):

The maxim that “Labour conquers all things” holds especially true in the case of the conquest of knowledge. The road into learning is alike free to all who will give the labour and the study requisite to gather it…. In study, as in business, energy is the great thing…. It is astonishing how much may be accomplished in self-culture by the energetic and the persevering, who are careful to avail themselves of opportunities, and use up the fragments of spare time which the idle permit to run to waste. (p. X)

In other words, the State can offer all children an education, but it cannot force them to persevere. And if a 10-year-old has already fallen behind in math and doesn’t make the effort required to catch up, he has no one to blame but himself.

But no child chooses to be left behind, and if it seems that way, it is because you have not dug deeply enough. Those wedded to Victorian thinking find this principle deeply unsettling; for it highlights the need for an entirely new approach to teaching, based on self-regulation rather than self-control.

High Math Anxiety

The influence of inherited biases tends to wax and wane depending on how much stress an individual or society is under. The greater our anxiety, the more polarized and paralyzed our thinking becomes. Traditional nostrums suddenly become compelling.

Back in 1983, when Britain was undergoing a disturbingly high level of societal unrest, Mrs. Thatcher gave a speech celebrating the “Victorian values” on which she had been raised by her grandmother (Samuel, 1992). This attitude has surfaced again in the debate over the decline in math scores. Success in math, according to the perseverance doctrine, depends on hard work, discipline, and self-reliance: not mollycoddling (another classic Victorian term).

With the resurgence of this Victorian outlook, there has been a corresponding increase in the number of students with high math anxiety (HMA). HMA is used to designate a condition of acute emotional distress observed in a great many of the young students who are struggling with math; but it also describes a societal condition. In fact, the two phenomena are more than just correlated, and the crux of our Self-Reg Reframing of high math anxiety lies in unpacking the relationship between them.

There are many reasons why the decline in Grade 3 math scores has become a matter of great societal angst. To begin with, there is research showing how important the early years are for downstream math development, and how hard it is to catch up. There is also research showing the importance of competency in math for dealing with the demands of modern life and, not surprisingly, its impact on long-term socioeconomic status. It has become increasingly clear that math skills are a foundation, not just for later academic success in STEM, but for success simpliciter. But the major source of “societal HMA” is what The Economist dubbed The Other Arms Race: the international battle over math standings.

Children must now compete, not just with their peers at the local level, but also with children from around the world. Following his State of the Union address in 2013, then president Obama told the students at the P-Tech school in Brooklyn that in previous generations, America’s standing economically was so much higher than everybody else’s that we didn’t have a lot of competition. Now, you’ve got billions of people from Beijing to Bangalore to Moscow, all of whom are competing with you directly. And they’re – those countries are working every day, to out-educate and outcompete us.

In other words, children in the West have to compete with families in developing nations who see education as their only chance to escape from poverty and are willing to pay virtually any price to seize this opportunity.

In recent years, a number of important voices have warned about the perils of placing global competition in education ahead of children’s well-being (see Seth, 2002; Allison, 2013; Zhao, 2014). Math has become the battlefront in this massive international war. It is bad enough that the same countries keep dominating the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) standings; to make matters worse, replicating these countries’ teaching practices does not produce the same results in different national settings.

Math education has been caught up in a violent stress storm, with mounting pressures coming from above and below: politicians and trustees inundated with reports about how we are falling behind; alarmist media reports; parents worried about their children’s future; teachers and administrators struggling to deal with the demands being placed on them, not least of which are the constant changes to the curriculum; researchers struggling to understand why the “fixes” aren’t fixing; and a constantly growing number of young learners with HMA (Ramirez, Gunderson, Levine, & Beilock, 2013; Boaler, 2015).

It is this last factor that is the most worrying of all, insofar as HMA fuels itself. HMA seriously impairs a student’s comprehension and performance, leading to avoidance, which leads to further falling behind, and so on (Ashcraft, 2002; Hembree, 1990). But lack of effort is not the problem here; it is the lack of understanding as to when and why a student has HMA. The question is: to what extent is societal HMA a factor possibly pivotal – in student HMA?

The Cognitive Roots of HMA

Scientists have been looking carefully at the emotional, social, and prosocial causes of HMA: for example, negative math experiences, poor self-esteem and self-confidence, and gender and racial stereotypes. The biggest problem is that anxiety breeds anxiety. The more anxious the student, the more drawn to maladaptive coping strategies (for example, avoidance), which results in still greater anxiety down the road; the more anxious the adult trying to teach the child, the more anxious the child becomes, and vice versa; the greater the societal anxiety, the more all of the above are exacerbated.

HMA can occur in the absence of a generalized anxiety disorder, although the question of its impact on simmering anxiety, and the reverse, remains a significant issue. But what is most important about HMA is the fact that it is subject-specific (Rubinsten & Tannock, 2010). There is something unique about math that explains why we are seeing so many children developing HMA.

The root of the problem is that math is a cognitive stress. Indeed, it is a paradigmatic example of a cognitive stress. Western educators have intuitively known this fact for well over a thousand years, if not considerably longer (Friesen, 2010; see also Jardine, Clifford, & Friesen, 2006). But only recently have cognitive psychologists begun to understand why this should be the case.

Math makes considerable demands on working memory, and much more for some children than others. Common among students with HMA are problems in mathematical cognition: for example, number sense, counting, subitizing, and mentally comparing the magnitude of two numbers (Maloney, Ansari, & Fugelsang, 2011). These cognitive deficits have a direct impact on working memory and thus on math performance (Moore, Rudig, & Ashcraft, 2014).

According to the “dual-task” explanation, an HMA student’s working memory is divided between math task and intrusive thoughts. The contents of working memory are said to be “tainted” by worries (Stout, Shackman, Pedersen, Miskovich, & Larson, 2017). Stress in particular has been shown to exacerbate sensory issues and to reduce working memory–related activity in the DLPFC (Qin, Hermans, van Marle, Luo, & Fernández, 2009). Hence, the reason why reappraisal or mindfulness exercises improve math scores in older students with HMA – if and when they do – is that these practices reduce intrusive thoughts and thereby increase working memory capacity.

But none of this need bother those who believe that the student’s difficulties with math are caused by a lack of effort; on the contrary, “self-controllers” can argue that this only strengthens their point, which is that what is different today is simply that children are too lazy or unmotivated to tackle their problems. After all, as just noted, we have known for a long time that math is stressful, and there is nothing to suggest that we are seeing a jump in the number of children with impaired mathematical cognition. But what is different, according to those who emphasize the need for grit, is that children are much less willing to make the effort needed to overcome a challenge.

This reaction reflects precisely the point that Smiles makes in Self-Help and in Lives of the Engineers (1862). All of the cases that he cited were meant to show how highly successful individuals in all walks of life were able to overcome their obstacles “by dint of sheer industry and perseverance” (p. 112). This is the crux of the Victorian view of perseverance – and the point of intersection where it clashes with a paradigm based on the science of self- regulation.

The Self-Reg “Why?”

To say that math is a “cognitive stress” is simply to say that learning math burns energy. A lot of it. And to say that, for biological reasons, math is an intense cognitive stress for some children is to say that they expend inordinate amounts of energy compared to their peers.

In The Myth of Laziness (2003), Levine makes the point that when a young child “gives up” on a simple problem in arithmetic, this is a sign that he has been working far too hard (Shanker, 2017, May 10). A child with developmental dyscalculia – a numerical processing deficit that is not related to low IQ, sensory deficits, or social factors – presents just such a case. But what exactly does it mean to say that the child is “working too hard”?

There is some research that bears out the idea that “brain work” burns great amounts of glucose (Scholey, Harper, & Kennedy, 2001). But the findings in this area have been mixed (Kurzban, 2012). While the brain consumes an inordinate amount of glucose relative to its size (Swaminathan, 2008), the amount of additional glucose consumed in a challenging cognitive task is fairly negligible (Messier, 2004) – except when one especially pertinent factor is involved. That further factor is stress (Chaput, Drapeau, Poirier, Teasdale, & Tremblay, 2008).

The more stressful a task, the more glucose consumed (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011); and the child with poor numerical processing finds math stressful in much the same way that a child with poor motor control finds Phys Ed stressful. This is not simply a working memory – that is, a Blue Brain – issue, although, to be sure, the dual- task explanation has numerous cognitive-load studies to back it up (Moore et al., 2014). HMA introduces a further dimension into the mix in addition to the effect of intrusive thoughts on working memory: namely, the physiological costs of hyperarousal (Ashcraft and Krause, 2007).

Hyperarousal is the quintessential Red Brain phenomenon. Engaging in a difficult cognitive task when not hyperaroused (for example, working on a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle) does not significantly affect blood glucose. Add in hyperarousal, however – as has been shown to happen in writing the SATs – and blood glucose can drop sharply: not because of the added cognitive load, but because the task triggers strong negative emotions, which elicits a powerful sympathetic nervous system response. We see a leap in tension, and thus, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, faster breathing, sweating, and higher levels of cortisol (Jabr, 2012).

This point is pivotal to understanding student HMA. A child with developmental dyscalculia quickly slips into Red Brain when trying to master the basics of arithmetic. This does not happen when asked how many objects are in a group of less than 5 items; but increase the group to 10 items and this triggers a limbic response as the child shifts from subitizing (perception) to counting (working memory). Other domains of stress are layered on top: emotional, social, and prosocial. The child is caught in a “math-centric” (Shanker, 2016) as he or she lags behind other children or fails to meet their teacher’s – or their own – expectations (Ramirez et al., 2013).

In short, the reason why children with problems in numerical cognition find math “a source of huge anxiety is because they must exert tremendous effort to understand what is obvious to their classmates” (Rubinsten & Tannock, 2010, p. 3). We think of math as a purely mental exercise (whatever that means). But what we learn from Porges’ (2011) “evolutionary lens” is that working on a mentally challenging problem triggers an ergotropic shift; for concentration is a full-body phenomenon.

We have adapted a primitive survival mechanism – one that involves tensing our muscles when hyper-focusing or striving to keep up with a group – to the task of learning math, which is far more demanding for children with numerical processing deficits. Facial and eye muscles, jaw, neck, shoulder, trunk, skeletal, and even leg muscles are strained much longer than occurs in the student for whom working on math is invigorating. The former child ends up in a very different arousal state from the latter. Because of differences in numerical processing, the one child finds the activity negative and aversive while the other finds it positive and rewarding (Maloney, Sattizahn, & Beilock, 2014). In terms of the Thayer Matrix (see figure 1), the struggling student sinks deeper and deeper into the bottom right quadrant, while the successful student swings effortlessly between top right and top left (Thayer, 1999).

Figure 1, Thayer Matrix

But this explanation still leaves us with a triad of Self- Reg questions:

  • Why should hyperarousal lead to HMA?
  • What can we do about this problem before it reaches HMA proportions?
  • What can we do about this problem once it has reached HMA proportions?

Just why is it that a child – any child, and not just one

with developmental dyscalculia – should come to dread daily math class? What are we doing wrong? What do we need to do differently?

A Kindled Alarm

In a seminal article on HMA, Mark Ashcraft (2002) tells the story of an undergraduate in one of his studies who became so distraught while working on a simple problem in arithmetic that she burst into tears. But why would a problem such as “46 + 18 = ” cause anyone, let alone a university student, to have acute distress? The mere thought of doing math has been shown to cause the same neural response in HMA students as actual physical pain (Lyons & Beilock, 2012).

Of all the discoveries that cognitive neuroscientists working in this area have made, the most remarkable is that HMA in children aged seven to nine is associated with hyperactivity in the right amygdala and anterior hippocampus and reduced activity in the frontoparietal systems associated with mathematical and numerical reasoning (IPS and DLPFC) and emotion regulation (vmPFC) (Young, Wu, & Menon, 2012). What this means is that HMA students exhibit a threat response to problems in arithmetic, with a corresponding reduction in working memory and numerical processing (Qin et al., 2009).

But why would a young child see math as a threat?

Even more puzzling is when it is only math among school subjects that the child sees as a threat. Why does having trouble learning the basics of arithmetic render a child hypervigilant: even send a child into fight-or-flight, or indeed, freeze?

The Self-Reg answer to these questions lies in the consequence of persistently overriding a child’s limbic brakes. Ashcraft (2002) found that, on a test that becomes increasingly challenging (the basic IQ test design), university students with HMA often do well on the first part of the test, but as their anxiety mounts their accuracy begins to plummet, which further intensifies their anxiety. They reach a point where they suddenly stop. That is the point where their limbic brakes have kicked in.

The same thing is happening to the young child with a numerical processing deficit. The child is under a tremendous amount of tension trying to keep up with the rest of the class. The limbic brakes kick in at the point when blood-glucose drops below a certain threshold. And here is the critical point: if that child is then pressed to persevere – pushed past the peak of the inverted-V energy/arousal curve – the memory is registered (Shanker, 2017, April 24). The hippocampus and amygdala keep a meticulous record of experiences that exhausted energy reserves without a big compensating (neurochemical) payoff. The mere cues associated with that experience (for example, pulling out the math books) are then enough to trigger a state of “neuroceptive overdrive.”

A child in neuroceptive overdrive starts looking for and seeing threats everywhere, which we readily misconstrue as heightened distractibility. Startle reactions are misconstrued as heightened impulsivity. The anticipation of unpleasantness and the impact this has on concentration is misconstrued as poor attention. Halting mastery is misconstrued as limited “mathematical intelligence.” Limbic brakes kick in, which is misconstrued as oppositionality. This is the “dyadic nexus” that leads to math becoming an ongoing threat.

So, our Self-Reg reframing of HMA ultimately leads us to ask: Why are we pushing so many young children to override their limbic brakes – without realizing that we are doing so? How can we avoid or turn off a “kindled math alarm”?

The answer to the first question lies in the effect of societal HMA on our attitudes towards cases of “laboured learning.” Empathy turns off; old biases kick in. The answer to the second question lies in overcoming that reflex.

Bridging the “Unbridgeable”

The essence of the Victorian view of perseverance as articulated by Smiles is that when students fail it can only be because they did not try hard enough. Smiles was not denying the fact that some children have much more serious impediments than others. But he insisted that the greater the liability the greater the effort needed, because “there are no difficulties so great that the student of resolute purpose may not surmount and overcome them” (Smiles 1859, p. 384). To be sure, the obstacles that Smiles was thinking about were primarily physical, social, and economic. But it was no stretch to apply this way of thinking to cognitive deficits as well – as, for example, Winston Churchill (another of the great proponents of the Victorian view of perseverance) did when he suggested – misleadingly, as it happens – that he was able to overcome his cognitive deficits through sheer willpower (Churchill, 1977).

This Victorian outlook leads us to automatically assume that children lagging behind their peers for whom arithmetic comes more easily need to be pushed to make a greater effort lest they fall behind right at the start. The greater the societal angst around math, the more this Victorian mindset takes hold. When it does, we fail to read the signs that the child is rapidly approaching an energy/tension peak (for example, in pupil dilation, changes in prosody, facial complexion, restlessness, heightened “distractibility,” avoidance). We misread resistance as lack of effort, see anxiety as non- compliance. We persist in pushing or punishing when we should be pausing and probing: Why is this child, who is so active and interested in other school subjects, having so much trouble with math?

The first Self-Reg step in helping such a student is to reframe: where the Victorian paradigm sees straightforward misbehaviour, Self-Reg sees stress-behaviour in all its subtle forms. The hard part is the second step: identifying the reasons why math is such a significant cognitive stress for an individual student. This is where we need to be constantly asking “Why?” and reflecting on what we are learning about the student’s processing. Instituting such measures as a classroom makeover, mindfulness and exercise breaks, or providing stress-relieving manipulatives may help as a third step. But in the case of HMA this will never be enough. It will be essential to work on reducing the cognitive stress, not just through executive function coaching, but in some cases, through exercises that address underlying (for example, sensory-motor) deficits (infra).

It is no less essential that students become aware that and why they find math so stressful (the fourth step of Self- Reg). They need to internalize that this is not a reflection of “innate inadequacies,” but an example of the different kinds of processing deficits that modern science is learning how to address. (Bear in mind that there was a time, not so long ago, when myopia was seen as a weakness and wearing glasses a form of indulgence.) And finally, students need to develop “pre/post” strategies to maintain or restore balance in all five of the Self-Reg domains (the fifth step of Self-Reg). They need to learn how to self-regulate, not just in math class, but in all aspect of their lives; for the student who doesn’t know what “calm” feels like will find it impossible to remain calm when faced with a sharp stress, such as math.

The better we can understand math stresses and how they interact with the other stresses in a stress cycle, the better we can alleviate how hard a student must work. The techniques that Roman-Lantzy and the American Foundation for the Blind (2017) developed to enable students with cortical visual impairment to read are highly instructive in this regard. She experimented with making printed information more visually salient by adjusting font size, contrast, and colour (text and background); using coloured borders to highlight the text; and eliminating peripheral “visual noise” on the page (for example, illustrations). By enhancing the salience of visual information, she reduced the effort needed to process it, and the impact this has on energy and tension. Just consider how tense you become as you strain to absorb an important email that has been sent in a much smaller font than you are accustomed to reading.

We need to look at similar ways of reducing the effort required from HMA students by enhancing their numerical processing. We might begin with exercises that promote kinesthetic, proprioceptive, and vestibular awareness ; or exercises that work on visualization (Brown, 2017). Abstract mathematical concepts need to be made personally relevant and meaningful (Sperber, Cara, & Girotto, 1995). Engaging ways to make executive function strategies more engaging should be explored (for example, card and board games). And it is essential to minimize temporal, social, and prosocial stresses (Barkley, 2012).

By enhancing the salience of the information and reducing the stress load, we reduce the physical strain that the HMA student is under. We soothe amygdalae. Only when a limbic alarm is turned off and the student is calmly focused and alert can we begin to increase the cognitive stress load: slowly, and incrementally.

But there is still a deeper divide that needs to be bridged here: namely, the idea that working on math skills is a completely different matter from working on a student’s social-emotional skills. The two are inextricably conjoined. Just imagine how empowering it must have been for Roman-Lantzy’s students once they understood the nature of their visual processing deficits and the manner in which they could take control of their reading: for example, by adjusting the layout of text on a handheld reader or using a multi-modal reading system to bootstrap. And, of course, by working on their self-regulation across the board: for when we talk about “restoring balance,” we are referring to all five domains and not just the one where problems in dysregulation stand out (for example, in the case of student HMA, emotion).

The anxiety that a child with HMA experiences may be subject-specific, but the ramifications are not. The fact that math plays such a big role in a child’s academic life – short- term as well as long-term – is all the reason that we need to take this issue so seriously. But to overcome an ingrained threat-response and the negative bias this evokes the student must feel safe. Math must cease to be seen as a threat.

A big problem with the Victorian paradigm is that it sees anxiety as a weakness that requires fortitude to be overcome (“With WILL one can do anything,” [p.7] as Smiles puts it). This attitude is definitely a major concern. But an even greater problem with the Victorian mindset is its fatalism: the divide between those who do and do not succeed is seen as fixed, either by the child’s character (Smiles, 1859) or genes (Galton, 1869). Neither is true. But just as we will never know how fast a car can go when it is held in check by a governor, so too we will never know what a student’s academic potential might be when that child is being held in check by limbic brakes.

If we truly believe that we need to stem the ever-growing divide in early math learners, we need to think hard about why a student has developed HMA and how we can change that trajectory. Where the self-control paradigm sees the problem as one of motivation, Self-Reg sees this issue as an opportunity to learn more about learning – and about ourselves! Our ultimate goal here, however, is not to raise the child’s scores, but to help the child discover (Strogatz, 2012). That is the greatest cost of all of societal HMA: namely that we turn into a penance what should be a source of personal pleasure and enrichment.

I am deeply indebted to Caitlin Gordon Walker for the remarkable work she did on an earlier draft of this paper. It goes without saying that the errors and omissions are mine; but without the thought and care that she put into this article there would have innumerably more.


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On the Brink of Peril and Promise: Renewing the Moral Imperative for Transformation in Education – The Ontario Context
Stefani Burosch, The MEHRIT Centre

The challenges facing humanity in the 21st century place us on the brink of great peril and great promise. This position paper provides a brief and non-exhaustive overview of the rapidly expanding collection of local and global voices calling us to action, with a focus on the Ontario context. Those of us advocating for educational transformation to support human flourishing through social justice and ecological sustainability are presented with an incredible window of opportunity to effect social change. In order for us to seize this moment, we will be required to learn from one another and to break down the silos that have hindered a unified vision for moving forward. If we are to achieve our vision for human flourishing, we must leverage recent advances in neuroscience and embed a neurophysiological concept of safety, reflected across all levels of the ecological system from the individual to the societal, into our discussions about equity, well-being, and social and ecological health.

Keywords: education transformation, social justice, ecological sustainability

On the Brink of Peril and Promise: Renewing the Moral Imperative for Transformation in Education – The Ontario Context

The future of any society depends on its ability to foster the healthy development of the next generation. – Center on the Developing Child, Toxic Stress

As a global society, we are currently poised at the tipping point of a critical time in human history. As a species, we face perils associated with climate change as increasingly severe natural disasters devastate human populations around the globe (McMichael, 2014). We face the alarming loss of biodiversity and large-scale impacts on world ecosystems (Ainsworth et al., 2016; De Vos, Joppa, Gittleman, Stephens, & Pimm, 2015). We face humanitarian crises as people flee persecution and the ravages of wars fought over ideological differences (Haynes, 2017). We face growing threats to sustainability as we see sources of clean drinking water poisoned and food insecurity increasing as a result of ecological changes spurred on by shifting weather patterns (Haile, Wossen, & von Braun, 2017; Nidal, 2017). And we find ourselves once again on the precipice of global conflict and the threat of a nuclear arms race.

We are living in a moment in time shaped by paradigms that have given rise to social, cultural, economic, and environmental disenfranchisement around the world (Haynes, 2017). As a result, we have witnessed the rise of both a real and perceived lack of safety, in many senses of the term, that pervades our experiences as individuals and as communities situated in local and global contexts. Primitive brain responses rule the day – perpetuated by anxieties and fears that cause mistrust of our fellow human beings (Shanker, 2015). These conditions are the breeding grounds for prejudice, discrimination, and hate, as evidenced by the current resurgence of protectionism, neo-Nazism, and the threat of domestic and global terrorism (Enderwick, 2011; Haynes, 2017).

And yet, as we stare into the abyss of the unprecedented perils facing the human race today, we are also poised on the brink of unimaginable promise. We can reference the enormous leaps in technological advances over the last century, which have led to astonishing accomplishments in every field of inquiry from medicine to engineering to the arts. Or we can reference our expanding exploration of our universe. But underlying all of these feats is a common truth – a truth that is evident in some form or another in almost all cultural and religious traditions around the world, and a truth that recent advances in neuroscience are illuminating with a new beacon of understanding. The truth is this: human potential, rooted in our biological imperative for social connection, is absolutely dependent on our ability to create a sense of safety and belonging for all (Center on the Developing Child, 2007; Shanker, 2017).

Stated another way, safety, in all senses of the word, is a non-negotiable precondition of human growth, development, and flourishing. This necessary precondition acts across and within all levels of a dynamic ecological system. Risk and protective factors related to the social determinants of health, and the conditions that create them, impact the well- being of individuals, families, communities, and societies on local and global scales vis-à-vis their influence on human growth and development. When we have a sense of safety, in the neurophysiological sense, we can explore, take risks, and innovate. We can experience and sustain a deep sense of connection and belonging through the relationships in our lives. In short, safety allows us to experience what it is to be fully human and to realize our highest potential as individuals, communities, and societies (Center on the Developing Child, 2010).

Our understanding about the effects of psycho-social and physiological stressors on human behaviour and optimal functioning has developed due to the work of many great thinkers and scientists, including Dr. Stephen Porges. Porges proposes a hierarchical model of the human stress response system based on a growing understanding of the evolutionarily designed brain. This model is explored in his work on Polyvagal Theory (Porges, 2011).

The model proposes that humans have evolved four mechanisms for responding to stress. The first is social engagement, which is the most recently evolved mechanism. It is the basis for empathy and human connection. When social engagement is not available or when we are in an energy-depleted state, the brain defaults to older mechanisms of survival – fight and flight. In such circumstances, a whole neurophysiological cascade of changes occurs to prepare the body to deal with a threat. When the threat, real or perceived, overwhelms our capacity to either fight or escape, we go into freeze. Freeze is an event wherein the brain shuts down non-essential functioning in an attempt to conserve energy should there be a moment to escape.

We see these ancient evolutionary mechanisms for safety and survival at work on all levels – from the personal to the societal. The key point here is that a lack of safety creates the conditions for fear and fear drives disconnection. When safety does not exist and when we don’t have social engagement available to us, we turn to flight – run, withdraw, escape, avoid; fight – attack, defend, protect; or freeze – shut down, numb, disconnect. When looking at the rates of mental illness and chronic disease around the world, social isolation, loneliness, and the widespread health and environmental problems facing societies today (Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2014; Kessler et al., 2007; Ross, Oliver, & Villeneuve, 2013), I cannot help but see these things as being connected to a lack of safety, which I suggest underlies a general loss of hope, meaning, purpose, and belonging throughout modern day societies, created by social and ecological injustices.

The work of Stephen Porges, and others in the fields of neurobiology and neuropsychology, provides us with a growing explanatory framework for understanding how the neurophysiological concept of safety impacts health and well-being from the individual to the societal level. This growing body of work helps us to understand the conditions that can lead to a lack of empathy and social discord. However, it also helps us to understand the conditions that engage our biological mechanisms for prosocial behaviour and social cohesion (Shanker, 2015). Given the challenges facing humanity today, it is vital that we begin to rigorously apply these new understandings to areas of study and practice positioned to promote human health and well- being through social solidarity and healing (Shanker, 2018). Nowhere do I see this work as being more important than in the realm of public education.

The Moral Imperative for Educational Transformation

A vast body of research, recognized in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, has demonstrated the power of education to lift groups experiencing vulnerability and marginalization out of social, economic, political, and other forms of oppression (Kulild, 2014; United Nations, 1990). Education is one of the most powerful tools that we possess to address the complex challenges facing humanity in the 21st century and beyond.

So what is the moral purpose of education today and what is the moral imperative for educational transformation? Is it simply to ensure achievement or success for every student, whatever that means? Is it to contribute to long-term health and well-being outcomes for every child? These are certainly worthy causes. However, in light of local and global threats to safety and security, perpetuated by social, political, and economic inequities, I would suggest that we need to extend our thinking about educational transformation even further.

A scan of the literature and practice landscape in Ontario related to educational transformation and leadership reveals an apparent knowledge and practice divide between leaders in education advocating for improved student learning outcomes and those advocating for enhanced equity and student well-being. In the student achievement sphere, the work towards improved student learning outcomes has been led by giants in the field such as Michael Fullan and his work on “new pedagogies for deep learning” (Fullan & Langworthy, 2014), and John Hattie, whose research focus is on high-yield instructional and assessment practices (Hattie, 2009). More recently, Simon Breakspear has added to the discussion of educational transformation with his approach to developing agile leaders of learning “with capabilities to improve learning and teaching, and navigate change, within the complex relational environments of contemporary schools” (Breakspear, Peterson, Alfadala, & Khair, 2017, p. 1).

In the equity and well-being sphere, the work has been led by thought leaders such as Dr. Stuart Shanker with his work on self-regulation (Shanker, 2016a), Dr. Jean Clinton with her work on early childhood learning in Ontario (Clinton, 2013), Dr. Patrick Carney with his work on a model for resilient, active, and flourishing students (Carney, 2015), and Dr. Kathy Short, leader of Ontario’s School Mental Health ASSIST team, who takes a systematic, implementation science approach to embedding everyday practices for mental health into Ontario schools (Santor, Short, & Ferguson, 2009). These sorts of well-being initiatives have focused primarily on well-being in education at the level of the individual student or at the level of the student in relationship with caregivers, educators, and communities.

Indeed, the Ontario Ministry of Education defines well- being as “that positive sense of self, spirit and belonging that we feel when our cognitive, emotional, social and physical needs are being met” (Ontario Ministry of Education [MOE], 2016, p. 1). It further states that promoting well- being is one of the four interconnected goals of Achieving Excellence, Ontario’s renewed vision for education. This goal is based on the principle that our education system needs to help students build the knowledge and skills associated with positive well-being so that they can become healthy, active, and engaged citizens.

Current Barriers and Opportunities in Educational Transformation

From my perspective as a social worker and as the Mental Health Lead in an Ontario school board, the two worlds of educational leadership and school well-being have largely been, and seem to remain, fairly disconnected. Recent efforts and commitments by the Ontario Ministry of Education spark a great deal of hope that this relationship is changing and that these silos are being dismantled. It

is for this reason, in this moment of opportunity, that I would like to humbly add my voice to a chorus of voices that are suggesting that the fields of both educational leadership and school mental health and well-being could be further strengthened by learning from one another and by reorienting ourselves to a renewed moral imperative to transform educational institutions into havens that promote human flourishing through a focus on social justice and ecological sustainability.

The term “haven” was adopted by Dr. Stuart Shanker (2016b) as a way to describe schools as places that promote well-being through physically and emotionally nurturing environments. This term is a fitting one because it speaks to the neurophysiological conceptualization of safety, in all senses of the term, as an existential need that each and every one of us shares. Within a renewed moral imperative, I propose that it is essential that we think about a neurophysiologically based conceptualization of safety at all levels of the ecological system, including the personal – social support networks and other social determinants of health impacting on the individual; the familial – access to health and social services and supports; the community – social capital and civil society institutions that support and uphold safety and well-being; and the societal – addressing issues related to power, social and economic fairness, democracy, and hope, on local and global scales.

As Canada works towards decolonization and reconciliation through dialogue and action with Indigenous communities, we see the essential truth of our biological imperative for human connection, and our shared existential need for safety, reflected in Indigenous worldviews and ways of knowing about human and environmental health and prosperity. The First Nations Wellness Continuum Framework (Health Canada, 2015) states that well-being is a balance of the mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional. When we experience mental well-being, “we have purpose in our daily lives, hope for the future, a feeling of belonging and connectedness, and a sense of meaning as we understand how our lives are part of creation and a rich history” (p. 4). This example highlights the critical importance of understanding individuals’ sense of safety and well-being as being located within social, cultural, and historical contexts.

Towards Human Flourishing through Social Justice and Sustainability

Voices for a renewed moral imperative in education, with a focus on social justice and ecological sustainability, are emerging on local and global stages from both mainstream and non-mainstream individuals and groups. The WellAhead Project is one such voice. WellAhead is a private philanthropic initiative of the J.W. McConnell Foundation that aims to improve child and youth mental health by integrating social and emotional well-being into K–12 education. WellAhead provides funding for projects that “focus primarily on systems change: shifting culture, structures, priorities, and practices of schools and the education system at-large to better incorporate social and emotional well-being as a key role” (WellAhead, 2016).

The Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED), an international knowledge forum consisting of over 100 schools of education in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand working collaboratively to improve professional preparation in education at the highest level, also contributes to the conversation on educational transformation. The vision of the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate is “to inspire all schools of education to apply the CPED framework to the preparation of educational leaders to become well-equipped scholarly practitioners who provide stewardship of the profession and meet the educational challenges of the 21st century” (CPED, n.d.). Further, the program design is framed around questions of equity, ethics, and social justice to bring about solutions to complex problems of practice.

Recognized as a leader in education around the world, the Ontario Ministry of Education, with the recent release of Ontario’s Education Equity Action Plan (MOE, 2017a), the What We Heard: Well-Being in Our Schools, Strength in our Society document (MOE, 2017b), and a monograph titled What Works? Research into Practice: Facilitating Activist Education (Niblett, 2017), has made a strong statement about the future direction of the moral imperative for education. The Ministry states in the Equity Action Plan that “ensuring equity is a central goal of Ontario’s publicly funded education system. It stems from a fundamental principle that every student should have the opportunity to succeed personally and academically, regardless of background, identity or personal circumstances” (p. 3). Further, the plan sets out a roadmap for “identifying and eliminating discriminatory practices, systemic barriers and bias from schools and classrooms to support the potential for all students to succeed” (p. 4).

The What We Heard report highlights the Ministry’s vision of promoting well-being, achieving excellence, ensuring equity, and enhancing public confidence in education. In addition to reaffirming a holistic definition of well-being, the findings of the What We Heard document discuss five general categories of prototypes based on common features for promoting well-being in Ontario schools: teaching, learning, and assessment practices; supportive spaces; skill-building for well-being; peer mentors and caring adults; and targeted programming. Three key areas for promoting and supporting well-being are also discussed: access to social and health services; supportive relationships and a sense of belonging; and an education system that prioritizes student well-being, with a focus on mental health. Finally, the document recognizes that achievement, equity, and well-being must be “closely interwoven in this development of the whole learner through day-to-day interactions” (p. 18).

In the What Works? Research into Practice: Facilitating Activist Education monograph, the Ministry makes another clear statement as to a renewed moral imperative for education: “With its focus on social and ecological justice, activist education helps to connect student action with ideas regarding power, fairness, democracy, and hope, in developmentally appropriate ways” (p. 3). The monograph further suggests that activist education can promote student achievement, equity, and well-being by intellectually engaging students in enactments of activism about issues connected to students’ lives, providing exposure to instances of equity and inequity within local and global communities, and offering opportunities for focused self- reflection on well-being.

Research is also emerging from Canadian universities related to a renewed moral imperative for education. Dr. Catherine O’Brien, professor at Cape Breton University, developed a course on the concept of sustainable happiness, the first post-secondary level course on the topic. Her book Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well- Being proposes a way for “the leading recommendations for transforming education to be integrated within a vision of well-being for all” and explores “how aspects of this vision are already being realized as well as the potential for accelerating education transitions that enable people and ecosystems to flourish” (O’Brien, 2016, synopsis).

At a local level, communities are mobilizing around these concepts of sustainable and activist education as a moral imperative for human flourishing within a context of social and ecological justice. For example, the Pathway to Stewardship & Kinship: Raising Healthy Children for a Healthy Planet project emerged in Peterborough, Ontario, as a collaborative endeavour between Trent University and a broad collective of organizations representing mainstream and local First Nations communities in the areas of health, education, recreation, and economic development (Dueck & Rodenburg, 2017).

The Pathway project, funded by an Ontario Trillium grant, poses the questions, “How do we raise engaged and concerned citizens in our community? How can we teach children to care for each other, for the land and water and all the beings who share the earth with us?” (p. 1). The project’s proposed solution is a developmental framework for fostering stewardship and kinship in children from birth to age 17, developed through qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews with key informants throughout mainstream and local First Nations communities. The project, which is entering the pilot phase this fall, defines stewardship and kinship in the following way:

A steward is someone who takes responsibility for the well-being of all community members, both human and non-human alike. A healthy ecosystem is the very foundation of human health. Our shared journey begins by re-discovering and respecting the deep ties that connect all things on the planet. The will to nourish these relationships emerges from a sense of belonging to a place and a sense of kinship with all who live there. (p. 2)

These examples represent a sample of the voices drawing attention to the need for innovative and disruptive social, economic, technological, and political solutions to the complex array of challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. I propose that these solutions must promote human flourishing within a model of social and ecological justice, informed by our growing understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms that underpin our collective capacity for empathy and social cohesion, to ensure human health and ecological sustainability in the centuries to come. Education is a critical tool to create deeply systemic social change, liberation, and empowerment. In this moment, educational leaders are faced with a window of opportunity – one that we must seize.

A Renewed Hope

In writing this position paper, I hope to inspire dialogue about the present barriers and opportunities for renewing the moral imperative for education at this moment in time when accelerators to systemic change are desperately needed. This paper provides a brief and non-exhaustive overview of the rapidly expanding collection of local and global voices calling us to action. Those of us advocating for educational transformation to support human flourishing through social justice and ecological sustainability are presented with an incredible window of opportunity to effect social change. In order for us to seize this moment, we will be required to learn from one another and to break down the silos that have hindered a unified vision for moving forward. If we are to achieve our vision, we must start to leverage recent advances in neuroscience and embed a neurophysiological concept of safety, reflected across all levels of the ecological system, from the individual to the societal, into our discussions about equity, well-being, and social and ecological health.

In the mental health world, we speak about the concept of post-traumatic growth, which is defined as “positive change that occurs as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life crises” (Tedeschi & Lawrence, 2004, p. 1). It is suggested that such struggle can act as a powerful catalyst for personal and social transformation (van der Kolk, Macfarlane, & Weisaeth, 1996). As the Ontario Ministry of Education states, “activist campaigns often emerge when groups identify a particular threat to their well-being and organize to resist that threat” (Niblett, 2017, p. 3). Movements such as Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, and the Women’s March are examples of local and global acts of resistance that have emerged in response to racism, threats to Aboriginal rights, and issues of gender inequality, respectively. The work of Stephen Porges and others provides a framework for us to understand the critical role of safety in promoting healing and social solidarity as we engage in this work. Indeed, there is much hope and opportunity for growth in this time when humanity finds itself poised on the brink of great peril and great promise. By reorienting ourselves to a renewed moral imperative to transform educational institutions into havens that promote human flourishing through social justice and ecological sustainability, and by applying a neurophysiological conceptualization of safety to this work, we stand to change the world for the good of all.


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Guiding SRI An Interview with Executive Director Dr. Lisa Bayrami:

Brenda Smith-Chant

After a strong start in 2016, Self-Regulation Institute began 2018 with the exciting news that Dr. Lisa Bayrami would be joining the SRI team as Executive Director. Already she has worked to invigorate the young research institute towards its vision of “enhancing the health and wellbeing of children, adults, and communities through integrative research steered by the innovative Self-Reg model.”

In order for us all to get to know our incredible new leader, Senior Researcher, Research Advisor, and Chair of the Board at SRI Dr. Brenda Smith-Chant sat down with Lisa this past spring. Here is what they shared:

Brenda: SRI is delighted to have you come on board and we are all really excited to see what next steps SRI will take under your direction. What inspired you to come and lead the team at SRI?

Lisa: I have always been inspired by and passionate about research that is focused on the roots of development because it has the potential to have the deepest impact on an individual’s life and trajectory. I have been equally inspired by Stuart Shanker’s brilliant mind and heartfelt approach to ensuring that research truly benefits children, adults, and communities. I conducted school-based research for many years and what became very clear to me was that often there was something else going on that was having an impact. Whilst exploring all of this, I began to immerse myself in learning more about Stuart’s brilliant and innovative Self- Reg model. My experience was that his model provided a rich lens for understanding what was going on – what was having an impact – at the foundation. All to say, SRI was the perfect place for me to land. I am extremely passionate about and dedicated to carrying Stuart’s vision and ideas forward into the future. My vision is for SRI to become an international hub for self-regulation research and to ultimately empower individuals and communities to enhance their health and well-being. I absolutely love SRI’s commitment to making research accessible to all and working with communities to develop research that is relevant and meaningful. As you can see, there were multiple sources of inspiration.

Brenda: Tell us about your experiences with Self-Reg?

Lisa: I was doing research in the area of self-regulation already and I was intrigued by Stuart’s innovative Self- Reg framework. I decided to dive in deeply and learn more about it in order to enrich the work that I was already doing, with the intention to share that knowledge with others. However, unbeknownst to me, as I was going through the Foundations courses I experienced a profound impact deep within myself. It was a game-changer! It truly changes your perception and thinking as well the dynamics of your relationships. It also empowers those around you in the most wonderful way. I’ll share a cute story with you. My toddler son has even embraced all of this. He tells me that his “brain is red” when he is demonstrating stress behaviour (upset or tired). For those not familiar with Self- Reg language, we refer to being in Red Brain when the limbic system has taken over and the prefrontal cortex has been dimmed down. I’m a huge advocate of experiential learning and this was no different. Having experienced the positive impact of Self-Reg personally, and having been immersed for many years in research in the area of self- regulation, really came together for me in a very rich and meaningful way.

Brenda: What about research has led you to dedicate your life’s work to it?

Lisa: I think it was percolating for quite some time. I always enjoyed diving in and learning more about human development but there was a defining moment for me. Believe it or not, I still vividly remember the very moment. At the time, I was volunteering at a centre for children with various developmental challenges. There was a child with autism at the centre who I worked with and there was this one particular moment when she was sitting across the room and there was something in her gaze – there was so much that she wanted to say but just couldn’t verbalize. It was palpable. She was sad and frustrated of course because she couldn’t communicate verbally and that touched me profoundly. I thought to myself in that moment that what I most wanted to do in my career was to support children like her in being their best and their happiest. That is why I am so passionate about Self-Reg. I think it truly holds the key to unlocking everyone’s capacity.

Brenda: You have known Stuart for some time. Tell us about your relationship to Stuart and MEHRI?

Lisa: I first met Stuart when I approached him about being my graduate advisor. Fortunately for me, he agreed. I think anyone who knows Stuart can relate; he has a way of igniting one’s curiosity and empowering us all to reach for the stars. I remember I would always leave after a meeting with him just bubbling over with more questions to explore and feeling incredibly optimistic about the positive impact that it all could have on children and their families. Our work at MEHRI began while I was being mentored by Stuart and continued well after that time. We still collaborated on research projects together even after our work at MEHRI was finished. I don’t think I have ever shared with Stuart that he has always been my inspiration.

Brenda: How has Stuart shaped your work as a researcher and as a research leader?

Lisa: Stuart is truly one of a kind. He is absolutely brilliant, incredibly kind, and has his finger on the pulse of the communities. As a researcher, he has taught me to formulate and explore the important and relevant questions, remain open to possibilities, and to immerse myself in lifelong learning. As a research leader, he has influenced me tremendously with respect to sharing knowledge with others in a very accessible way and he has inspired me to dream big. He has also taught me about the importance of empathy and kindness when it comes to building and nurturing relationships – by modelling it. And that is the way I have led and will continue to lead; empathy, kindness, and collaboration.

Brenda: Who else has strongly influenced your work?

Lisa: Stanley Greenspan. He taught me the art of observation and about the importance of experiential learning. He was so passionate about helping children and families. I remember we would watch videos together and he would patiently guide me, by asking questions, to observe beyond surface behaviours so that I could get to the roots of what was going on. He was incredible when it came to steering you gently toward those a-ha moments. I am so grateful for what Stanley shared with me.

Brenda: What is one dream Self-Reg/self-regulation research project you would like to see SRI embark on?

Lisa: That is a great question and a challenging one to respond to because there isn’t really one project that I would like to see SRI embark on – there are many. I would like to see SRI embark on research projects that will ultimately elucidate how the Self-Reg model enhances the health and well-being of children, families, educators, healthcare providers, and communities – everyone really. Given the dynamic nature of Self-Reg, this will evolve in different ways in different contexts for different individuals. That’s what’s really exciting about all this. What is really pivotal though is to ensure that the research is relevant for the communities.

We are continuously learning from our communities. It is also central for SRI to disseminate relevant research about self-regulation in an accessible way. We want everyone to benefit from the ongoing learning.

Brenda: Outside of this important work at SRI. What inspires you most?

Lisa: Children. My son; he fuels my passion for helping children who will become the citizens of tomorrow.

Brenda: Finally, is there anything else you want to add?

Lisa: I feel very grateful that I get to work with the incredible team at SRI. Everyone is deeply dedicated to our vision and passionate about the work that we do. It’s truly a pleasure to wake up every day and collectively lead SRI into the future. Words can’t describe the level of excitement that I feel when I think of the journey ahead of us.

Reframed: The Journal of Self-Reg
Empathy Issue Call for Papers

Empathy is dyadic and a key component of Self-Reg relationships. It involves the prosocial response to another’s feelings that can be helpful when the empathetic responder is regulated and supportive. However, when the responder becomes dysregulated, the impact can be utterly damaging. Dr. Shanker wrote in Self-Reg that “a child’s brain is primed for empathy, which develops more broadly and deeply as a result

of nurturing child-rearing practices that have been passed down from one generation to the next” (196). What are the results of positive empathetic interactions, how can this “empathy primed brain” be grown to encourage self-regulation, and what is the result when there is a breakage in the intergenerational inheritance of nurturing empathy?

Volume 3 of Reframed: The Journal of Self-Reg is currently seeking abstracts for papers that consider the relationship between empathy, stress, Self-Reg, and self-regulation.

Reframed: The Journal of Self-Reg is a peer reviewed, open-access, semiannual online and in print journal that publishes rigorous research that is grounded in strong questions and solid methods. To submit a proposal for Reframed: The Journal of Self-Reg Volume 3, please e-mail your abstract (200 words) and title to on or before August 15, 2018.

For more information about Reframed: The Journal of Self-Reg please see our website at:

Reframed: The Journal of Self-Reg
Call for Papers

Dr. Stuart Shanker, Science Director at SRI, was inspired to develop Reframed: The Journal of
Self-Reg as a truly accessible vehicle for sharing innovative and rigorous academic research about stress, Shanker Self-Reg®, and self-regulation. Reframed is peer reviewed, open-access, and published twice a year both online and in print.

The editors are currently seeking abstracts for upcoming issues of the journal that explore, develop, and work to better our understandings of stress, Shanker Self-Reg®, and self-regulation.

To submit an abstract and title or full text article for Reframed: The Journal of Self-Reg, please e-mail

For more information about Reframed: The Journal of Self-Reg please see our website at:

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