Scanlan Center for School Mental Health
teacher working with student

The Compassionate Classroom: Supporting Students with Vulnerable Nervous Systems 

written by

Tyler Gray, M.Ed

Skill Development
Teaching & Learning

Everyone experiences being the “new kid” at least once; children with experience in the Foster Care System have this experience often.

In Iowa, approximately 425,000 children are in the Foster Care system. These students can frequently move homes, schools, families, and friend groups, and this may occur multiple times per school year.

This impacts the student’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) experiences, which may result in behavior challenges, communication struggles, and problems with emotion regulation. The ANS is a network of nerves throughout your body that control your body’s automatic functions (such as breathing for example) without even being aware of doing it. Sometimes, a person’s ANS can be in a state of reaction.

While many of these students find school their only safe place, they often face the classroom in a state of emotional dysregulation, indirectly impacting the entire class.

So, how can we as educators and school leaders better support these students and still balance the needs of the rest of the class?

Here are 5 tips to help you advocate for students in the foster care system as well as for those with vulnerable nervous systems:

#1 Teach students about how the nervous system works

Help them understand how their bodies work and how physiological reactions happening underneath the skin’s surface can impact behavior. So much is explained once behaviors are perceived through an ANS lens. Often, students in survival mode don’t understand that their ANS is incapable of bouncing between states of activation.

Students can intellectually know that they are in a safe enough environment, but their ANS may not feel that and continue to be on alert, keeping them from truly being present in the moment.

By students discovering how their body influences their behaviors, you can begin the conversation for how to help them re-wire their ANS.

Check out this video to see a way to explain the ANS to your students:

#2 Know the power of co-regulation

Often, children with vulnerable nervous systems have problems with self-regulation, and this can be supported through co-regulation. Most students who have experience with the foster care system do struggle with emotional support skills.

Co-regulation happens when the grownups can identify when children are struggling with self-regulation skills and create a nurturing, safe space to practice and learn regulation skills by taking a step towards the mistakes and working to reframe them as opportunities to practice new skills.

Check out this video on the power of co-regulation:

#3 Implement emotion regulation techniques in the classroom for all students

These can be simple techniques (check out a previous blog post on mindfulness for some stellar suggestions) that help students regulate their nervous system by co-regulating with you! This is a fancy way of saying you recognize what contributes to the behavior and take a quick moment to say “Let’s all pause, take a breath, and come back to center TOGETHER.”

#4 Be their advocate within the school

As an educator, you are the trusted adult who spends the most time with your students during the day. If you identify a student who has experienced the foster care system or struggles with regulation, reach out to your school counselor to help build an extended village of supports. Being the advocating voice for the student can help minimize the chances that they slide through the cracks and are missed.

#5 Have a one-on-one conversation

In terms of students who have experienced the foster care system, often the most effective thing to do is the simplest. Make them know you care through conversation.

Ask the question:

“What do you need to feel safe enough and seen in this setting to succeed, and what can I do to support you with that?”

Many times, these students know exactly what they need but are not allowed to practice speaking up for their needs and feel like their voice doesn’t matter. By allowing the students to have a conversation with you, not only are they practicing co-regulation with you, but they are also given a voice and the opportunity to see the beginning of a secure relationship.

If you feel like you or your students need help practicing self-regulation skills and require support to build skills for their regulation toolbox, we are here to help! The Scanlan Center for School Mental Health (SCSMH) clinic is currently accepting referrals for our free telehealth counseling services for students aged 10+, educators, and school staff.

Tyler Gray is currently a student clinician at the Scanlan Center for School Mental Health Clinic and a doctoral student in Counselor Education and Supervision at the University of Iowa