Jul 24 / Dr. Erin Parkes

Research to Practice: Polyvagal Theory, Behaviour, and Applications in Music Learning

Our research to practice blogs provide a summary of current research and best practices on specific topics in adaptive music education, with practical applications to music teaching and learning.

Managing and supporting student behaviour is an integral part of teaching, with any population and in any educational setting. It can be a particularly significant issue when working with students with exceptionalities who have developmental differences that lead to unexpected behaviours or difficulty following classroom norms. The conversation regarding whether or not classroom norms need to be followed is one worth having, but in this article, we will explore one aspect of differences in nervous system development that can greatly impact behaviour, particularly fight or flight responses. 

For decades, behaviourist approaches have been the most prevalent and empirically reviewed methods for managing behaviour in students with special needs. In particular, behaviourist approaches based on applied behaviour analysis (ABA) and positive behavioural support (PBS) have been seen as the gold standard in special education, including in special music education. Behaviourist approaches focus on modifying behaviours through conditioning, specifically through repetition and reinforcement. While there is certainly empirical evidence that behaviourist approaches can be successful in modifying behaviours, new approaches have emerged that put greater emphasis on truly understanding the dysregulation leading to the challenging behaviour rather than focusing on modifying behaviour. These approaches often emphasize compassion as a basis for creating connection and relational safety (2; 3). 

Neuroception and Polyvagal Theory

First introduced by Dr. Stephen Porges (1), polyvagal theory posits that faulty neuroception can lead to dysregulation and an overreactivity to the environment. The vagus nerve is the primary pathway for the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which calms your body after a stressful situation. Neuroception is the subconscious scanning of the environment that we do at all times to determine whether or not there are any threats. Polyvagal theory suggests that dysfunction in the vagus nerve can lead to the perception of threats where there are none. When we perceive threats, our body is primed to react. When our parasympathetic nervous system is not working for us, we can experience anxiety or chronic stress. In extreme cases, we can have a fight or flight response, or a freeze response or shutdown.

What does this mean for behaviour? Quite often, behaviours that we see as problematic in a learning environment are the result of stress or anxiety responses. Understanding that those stress responses may be due to dysfunction of the PNS will change the way that we approach the issue. Traditional responses to behaviours like consequences will not get to the root of the problem, which is that the student does not feel safe in their environment. The acronym PACE (playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, empathy) is a great motto to put in place in your studio or classroom, and has been shown to create relational safety in educational settings (4).

How to Trigger the PNS

In addition to creating a safe space through PACE, there are exercises and activities that you can do to trigger the PNS and help your student come to a place of calm. The reason that these techniques work is that they trigger to the nervous system that everything is ok, that the body can relax. There are more and more resources out there that incorporate polyvagal theory-informed practices in educational settings (for a great one, see reference 5). Here are a few suggestions that can be easily incorporated into music lessons:

Slow, deep, rhythmic breathing. To incorporate it into musical activities, try breathing along with a slow count while listening to relaxing music. This will calm the body, but also allow a physical connection to the meter of the music.
Movement. Try moving to music in a way that uses the whole body in sweeping movements. Avoid sharp or jerky movements, focus instead on movements that create a feeling of calm.
Humming. Learn the pitches of a new piece by humming, or have your student hum a rhythm they’re working on from one of their pieces.
Listen to relaxing or uplifting music. This can be incorporated into your student’s repertoire, or put on some music while doing theory or other activities.
Incorporating these techniques can go a long way towards reducing stress and anxiety, and resulting behaviours that may interfere with your student’s learning. Rather than just addressing the behaviour, by taking this approach we can truly support our student’s needs and create a comfortable environment for them that will allow them to relax and enjoy music learning.

Happy teaching!

Want to learn more about student behaviour and music education? Check out our mini-course!



Porges, S. W. (2009). The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic journal of medicine, 76(Suppl 2), S86.
Delahooke. (2019). Beyond behaviours: using brain science and compassion to understand and solve children’s behavioural challenges. John Murray.
Purvis, K.B., Cross, D.R. & Sunshine, W.L. (2007). The connected child. McGraw Hill.
Hughes, D. and Bomber, L.M. (2013). Settling to learn: Settling troubled pupils to learn: Why relationships matter in school. Worth Publishing.
Healy, G. (2023). Regulation and co-regulation: Accessible neuroscience and connection strategies that bring calm into the classroom. National Center for Youth Issues.
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