Emotions have energy. To be specific, each emotion has a slightly different kind of energy, and therefore will benefit from a different co-regulation approach. As the co-regulator, your first goal is to look at the person’s body and evaluate what kind of energy they have.
Polyvagal theory talks about four main energy states. Throughout the day, we shift through these distinct states, each with a different level of alertness. Responses to the environment, or ourselves, can cause our energy to change. Our body is constantly evaluating the environment and matching our energy level to what is required (Deb Dana, The Rhythm of Relationship). These responses are in sequence, first accessing our newest system and then using the older structures as needed.
Safe + Social
Safe and Social is a state that is exactly what it sounds like - feeling content, focused, and ready to play. It might look like unlocking eye contact, a full range of voice, and being able to engage and collaborate with others.
When our energy is Safe and Social, we want to keep it there! Remember, this is where some of the best connection and learning happens. Hearing the human voice is dependent on being in a safe state. To help kids keep their energy relaxed, think of movement and balance. Challenge their brain and body with an activity that requires strong body control. This might be balancing on a rolled up blanket or doing a quick flow from Cosmic Kids Yoga. Remember that a slow, steady rhythm is ideal to maintain this energy state.
Some learning or sensory comfort tools can help us stay in Safe and Social. Think of using a rocking chair, standing to learn, or chewing gum.
We come into the world wired to connect.
- Deb Dana, The Rhythm of Relationship
You may have heard of a 'fight or flight' reaction to stress, but we actually all do both. First comes flight, and if needed, fight.
Flight comes with big energy! Muscles get tight, breathing is fast, and the body is being mobilized. More specifically, the muscles of the lower body and legs. Think of excitement, silliness, or anxiety and how that feels in your body. Flight is ideal for short bursts of energy, but not designed for long-term engagement.
Once you've recognized that you're seeing flight energy, it's time to help them discharge some of it. Focus on the lower body: jumping, running, or a dance party. Instead of asking children to "calm down," respond to an excited body with a game of tag or 'the floor is lava.' When some of the energy has been released, try some deep breaths or another favourite organizing activity.
Next for the nervous system: if flight didn't work, here comes FIGHT! Fight energy is pretty clear; it's high energy and it is commonly tied to frustration or anger. You might also notice fight energy with elation (think of winning the Showcase Showdown), or fear.
When you see fight energy, know that the muscles of the inner ear are only on the lookout for danger cues, meaning that they are definitely not listening to your sweet voice.
BIG energy needs BIG intervention. When a person is in fight state, the upper body tends to be engaged. Think of fist pumping in joy when you win the big game or of pushing a sibling who took your toy. Our intervention for fight needs to discharge energy from our upper body.
One of my favourite activities is Safe Square, where you throw soft items against the wall (at a target) as fast and as hard as you can. Pushing or pulling games are great options too.
When all else fails, we use our oldest system. Our last energy state is Shutdown. Typically, we see this when we are feeling overwhelmed or helpless. Shutdown comes with an urge to hide (cover your head/face) and minimal talking. It might also look like daydreaming or being 'zoned out.'
The energy is low, which means that participation and connection are also low. Some people refer to shutdown as the frozen state.Responding to shutdown energy can be tricky. Getting kids to transition back into having more energy often involves slow, gentle intervention.
This is a time when sensory comforts and tools can be helpful. Giving people a slow, steady visual or touch input can bring the brain and body back online. After that, you might notice a big swing in energy (which might require more co-regulation).
Think about that person's preferences; would they respond best to a rotating light or having bubbles blown? Would they find a small fidget cube or playdoh most helpful?
You might see more than one energy level at a time; respond to the one you see the most.
The goal isn’t to not have emotions, the goal is to stay at the top of the safe + social ladder for a bigger portion of the day.