Early Experiences in the Neurosequential Model in Education

By Shawna Walter


Shawna Walter has taught all grades, Kindergarten to Grade 12, over the past 24 years and worked for four different school boards as both a French as a second language teacher and homeroom teacher. She moved into administration three years ago and is currently a Vice Principal in Sturgeon School Division. She recently completed a Masters in Education in Educational Studies through the University of Alberta.

Over the past 24 years, I have watched society, teaching, and students change. Families often do not sit down to eat a meal together and children frequently eat in front of the television or while playing on a digital device. Because television and gaming are used as babysitters, children today watch or play video games unsupervised and consequently are exposed to violence or inappropriate acts. Many parents see bedtime reading as a chore, find it difficult to set boundaries for their children, or follow through with consequences. I have witnessed an increase in the number of children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, an increase in cases of child abuse and neglect, and an increase in disruptive behaviours in the classroom.

When I first started teaching, misbehaviour in class consisted of a child blurting out of turn, a child with a squirmy seat, or a sarcastic or inappropriate comment. Today, I witness biting, spitting, kicking, hitting, swearing, throwing furniture, and defiance just to name a few. As an administrator, I deal with student behaviours that negatively impact the learning environment all day long. I am saddened to see staff continually struggle with misbehaviours that disrupt learning, to watch them seek guidance about how to handle these students and not get results. Teachers are frustrated; budgets are tight; and classrooms desperately need extra support.



The purpose of this qualitative research was to explore experiences with the early implementation stages of the Neurosequential Model in Education (NME).The question guiding the inquiry was: What were the experiences of three homeroom teachers and one educational assistant in the early implementation of the NME?  To address this key question, the following sub-questions were explored: (a) What is the NME? (b) What does the NME look like in the homeroom classroom? and (c) How has the NME impacted teachers, educational assistants, and students? Findings indicated that participants experienced a change in classroom management philosophy and a new lens for looking at behaviour. The NME model increased teacher, educational assistant, and student knowledge about the brain, brain development, and the impact trauma has on the brain, and provided tools to help with student self-regulation, preparing the classroom atmosphere for improved learning. 


Review of the Literature

Each year in the United States, approximately five million children experience some form of traumatic experience (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006). “Experiencing loss, trauma, intense fear, or terror erodes a child’s sense of safety and creates a physiologic effect on a child’s brain function” (Oehlberg, 2006, p. 5). Research shows that, by the time children reach the age of 18, the probability they will have been touched directly by interpersonal or community violence is approximately one in four (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006). A traumatic experience can have a devastating impact on a child, altering his or her physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development. Trauma may negatively affect a child’s interpersonal communication skills, ability to form relationships, and academic achievement (Bennett, 2007; Jaycox, 2006). Traumatic events in childhood increase the risk of neuropsychiatric problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorders, and conduct disorders (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006; Terr, 1991).

Few systems designed to care for, protect, educate, evaluate, or heal children have solved the multiple problems posed by maltreatment or trauma (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006). Perry and Szalavitz (2006) developed the Neurosequential Model in Education (NME), a spin off of their Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT), to help educators act on key principles of development and brain functioning to create optimal learning environments. Maltreated children require relational health and rhythmic activities to help them regulate their emotions and behaviour so they can learn at their full potential (Hiebert, Platt, Schpok, & Whitesel, 2013). Awareness of the key principles of child development, brain function, and how the brain changes due to maltreatment can help educators understand the repercussions of maltreatment and develop strategies for effective intervention (Perry, 2006; Perry, 2009; Perry & Hambrick, 2008).


The Effects of Maltreatment on a Child’s Learning Capacity

Children who grow up in chaos and children exposed to neglect, humiliation, threat, violence, deprivation, or degradation often do not know how to self-regulate, relate to others, or communicate effectively (Perry, 2006; Perry & Hambrick, 2008). In certain cases, maltreated children present with emotional, physiological, cognitive, and behavioural problems (Perry, 2006; Perry, 2009; Perry & Hambrick, 2008). “Traumatic and neglectful experiences during childhood cause abnormal organization and function of important neural systems in the brain, compromising the functional capacities mediated by these systems” (Perry, 2006, p. 29).

Educators must understand how the brain develops and changes so they can better understand how or why a child behaves in a certain way and implement an intervention to act on that understanding.


Child Behaviours in the Classroom

Many teachers today are discouraged by the inability of children to cope within the classroom (Oehlberg, 2006). Often, children who struggle to cope display disrespectful and explosive behaviours, which are a challenge for teachers to manage (Fecser, 2015; Oehlberg, 2006; Sutherland, McLeod, Conroy & Cox, 2013). Too often these challenging behaviours are a result of exposure to violence, neglect, or loss (Bennett, 2007; Oehlberg, 2006). Maltreated children often display hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal, as if they were constantly walking through a haunted house waiting for something to happen (Fecser, 2015).

Teachers need to know how to manage these disruptive and challenging behaviours because these behaviours lead to attention and learning difficulties for the child (Fecser, 2015; Giallo & Hayes, 2007; Lopes, Mestre, Guil, Kremenitzer, & Salovey, 2012) and adversely impact the child’s peers, teachers, and school administrators (Bennett, 2007). Children who have experienced neglect or trauma are more likely to struggle in school, have more difficulty staying on task and managing their behaviour, and are more likely to have lower grades than peers who have not experienced neglect or trauma (Manly, Lynch, Oshri, Herzog, & Wortel, 2013).


Neurosequential Model in Education

Children who grow up in chaos, neglect, and threat do not have the developmental experiences needed to self-regulate, relate, communicate and think (Perry, 2006). “While trauma impacts the brain, fortunately, the brain can rewire itself to develop new ways of coping” (Fescer, 2015). When dealing with “trauma-reactive behaviour” (p. 21), we must first regulate the lower brain or the intense emotions. Once the child is calm, we can then move to the higher brain functions, relate emotionally and reason with the child. By implementing the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics strategies into schools, educators can alter the child’s brain to allow healing, recovery, and restoration of healthy brain function (Perry, 2006). The purpose of the NME is to help educators, caregivers, and students better understand some of the most important concepts related to how the brain develops and changes (Perry, 2006). Understanding and acting on these concepts will lead to more effective and pleasurable learning experiences.

The NME is a multifaceted approach to provide a “picture” of a child’s brain-mediated strengths and weaknesses in relation to same-grade peers (Perry, 2006). The process maps a child’s reading/verbal skills, math/logic skills, reactivity/impulsivity, communication skills, relational skills, regulation, coordination, threat response, fine motor skills, and attention/distractibility (Perry, 2006).


Method and Data Analysis

            This qualitative research explored the early experiences encountered by three elementary teachers and one educational assistant in the Neurosequential Model in Education (NME). It was conducted from a constructivist/interpretive approach. Participants were selected from three different schools within one school division in north central Alberta, Sturgeon School Division, who had recently implemented the model. Participants were purposefully chosen because they had begun implementation around the same time and had similar amounts of time working with the program.

Participants shared their lived experiences in the NME through one initial individual 45 minute semi-structured interview, post interview emails and follow up interviews. Data collection and data analysis were simultaneous. Interview transcripts were compared and analyzed as completed and chunked into smaller meaningful parts to identify underlying themes. Transcripts were member checked for validity and participants were sought out for further information if warranted.

            The small sample size in this research, the time constraints of data collected within a short time frame, and the use of a single form of data collection limited the findings. Further research is needed to exemplify experiences in the NME.


Research Findings

Participant data revealed that the NME model increased teacher, educational assistant, and student knowledge about the brain and brain functioning, the impact trauma has on the brain and provided tools to help with self-regulation. Data gathered revealed three categories surrounding the central phenomenon of early experiences in the implementation of the NME: (a) conceptualizing the NME, (b) initiating the NME, and (c) experiencing the NME. These categories arose out of the process of the experience rather than the fundamentals of the NME.


Conceptualizing the NME

Participants indicated that their reading and study of the book The boy who was raised as a dog: And other stories from a child psychiatrist's notebook (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006) were vital to their conceptualization of the NME.  The book was the starting point for implementing the model. In the book, Dr. Perry recounts his patients’ stories. Stories of the children he has treated over the years who survived unspeakable horror: genocide, the murder of a parent, being raised in a closet or cage, and family violence. He tells their stories as he explains what happens to the brain when children are exposed to such trauma and discusses his innovative methods to help them.

All participants expressed that reading the book was the first step in their awareness of the great number of children who have experienced trauma, the impact these events have on children, and that there are ways to help. After reading the book in its entirety, participants then revisited each chapter working case by case through the book study. Participating in the book study enabled them to delve deeper into specific child case studies of traumatic experiences, examine the effects of trauma and the treatment processes, and draw correlations to current students in their classrooms.


Initiating the NME

            The NME helped teachers and others working with children to act on principles of development and brain functioning to foster an optimal learning environment. The model enabled participants to see behaviours through a different lens and helped them gain knowledge and awareness of brain function and self-regulation.

            Philosophy. Learning the NME meant adopting a new philosophy. It led to a change in how participants looked at behaviours in the classroom. It was a new mindset, to see behaviour as a form of communication instead of something that needed a consequence. All children come with a story and educators must learn that story and dig beneath behaviour to understand it before they can change it. The NME was an effective tool for classroom management to make participants realize that regulation rather than punishment could be a more useful approach to unwanted behaviours.

            Knowledge. Participants cited the importance of learning the six core strengths of healthy childhood development—attachment, self-regulation, affiliation, awareness, tolerance, and respect—and how to foster them in their classroom. All four participants identified the importance of learning about the brain, brain development, the impact trauma has on the brain, and self-regulation for students and all those who work with them, the importance of implementing regulatory exercises and providing regulatory opportunities for children. Participants unanimously reported the value of learning the NME regulation strategies and providing students with their own “toolbox” of strategies to effectively self-regulate.

            Student knowledge. It is important that children understand how their own brains work, why they have difficulty in certain situations, what their triggers are, and why they act the way they do in certain situations. With the NME, students learn how to take their heart rate and identify each state of arousal and about the areas of the brain. Students who are reactive can learn to recognize their triggers, ask for help when needed, and use tools they have been given to self-regulate before a “blow up” occurs. Teachers must teach students that they are permitted to have feelings; it is how they react that matters, and give them the tools to handle them properly.


Experiencing the NME

Participants agreed that, when teachers, educational assistants and students learned how to work with the NME fundamentals—regulation breaks, regulation tools, mini-mapping, journaling, heart rate monitoring—the classroom proceeded more smoothly; teachers had an effective process to prevent disruptive behaviour; and disruptive behaviours decreased.

Fundamentals. Participants attested to the importance of brain/regulation breaks and using the NME metrics on children who struggle with behaviours in the class. The metric called Mini-Map is a quick and visual picture of the global brain-mediated functioning of a child in relation to same-grade peers. The Mini-Map metric looks at reading/verbal skills, math skills, reactivity/impulsivity, communication/language skills, relational skills, self-regulation, threat response, coordination, fine motor skills and attention/distractibility. Participants brain-mapped the “frequent flyers,” one teacher’s name for children who are disruptive on a regular basis. The brain-map helped participants better understand behaviour and implement specific targeted regulatory strategies.

All four participants used heart rate monitors with students to help them build awareness of their heart rate during different situations. One teacher felt that, when a child measured his or her heart rate, he or she was inclined to “stop, think, and reflect” rather than act out immediately. It can be empowering for students to have the heart rate monitor on their finger when they were in a state of “fight or flight”, because they can watch the number and purposefully slow their heart rate down using NME regulation strategies.

Journaling was incorporated into the daily routine for students to reflect on what made them worry, what upsets them, how they felt in tight situations, and what helped them feel better. These reflections gave students self-awareness and helped them to understand their reactions.

Classroom management. Participants concluded that learning the NME and implementing the fundamentals had a positive impact on student behaviour. One elementary teacher noted, “I have gained a huge tool in discipline, looking at behaviour rather than seeking a consequence,” to explain why she had noticed an improvement in classroom management. The four participants noted their classroom felt calmer since implementing the NME. One teacher described her classroom this year as having some “tricky” students with “a lot of behaviours.” At the beginning of the year, these behaviours were disruptive to the classroom environment and she worried about how she was going to manage. However, since implementing the NME, her classroom has been quite calm and she has not had classroom management issues. She loved how the “NME works for all kids, not just those who have experienced trauma.”

Participants used the NME classroom management tool “Regulate>Relate>Reason” to respond to student challenges by providing regulatory opportunities first, then relating to the student, and finally reasoning with the student. “Regulate>Request>Reward” was used effectively by participants when students demonstrated difficulty responding to staff requests by providing regulatory opportunities before attempting the task, then once the task was completed, offering the reward. Participants reported that providing consistent, patterned responses to students and giving students consistent regulation choices decreased the disruptions caused by misbehaviours in their classrooms. Under the NME, participants became more proactive, watching for cues that a student is dysregulated or becoming dysregulated, and understanding a student’s triggers. One teacher loved to watch students use the tools to pre-empt an explosion, remove themselves from the situation, go and self-regulate, and then return to class.


In this research, three teachers and an educational assistant shared their early experiences with the Neurosequential Model in Education (NME) implementation. Findings indicate that through implementing the NME, participants experienced a change in philosophy and a new lens for looking at behaviour. The NME program increased teacher, educational assistant, and student knowledge about the brain, brain development, and the impact trauma has on the brain, and provided tools to help with self-regulation, preparing the classroom atmosphere for improved learning.



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