Voice, the vagus nerve and co-regulation: Could they be a solution to supporting children?
The Sector > Quality > Professional development > Voice, the vagus nerve and co-regulation: Could they be a solution to supporting children?

Voice, the vagus nerve and co-regulation: Could they be a solution to supporting children?

by Nicola Russell

November 10, 2022

Children’s behaviour is a perennial topic in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings. From children not listening, to children hurting others, running away from adults, withdrawing, showing anger and becoming destructive, in my many visits to settings of all types and sizes one thing is the same – children’s behaviour is on the top of the discussion list


Dysregulation in children can stem from many situations such as environmental settings, trauma, feeling unsafe, lacking self-awareness, having inconsistency in their life, not having the opportunity to use their gross motor skills very often and even being disconnected from nature.


One of our roles as educators is to learn more about regulation in all of its many layers. 


When educators have  a greater understanding of why children behave in certain ways it gives them better opportunities to work in a more supportive manner alongside the child. 


Children are affected by the behaviour of the adults around them and how those adults respond to them. They are more likely to develop better coping mechanisms and regulation skills if the adults around them are also regulated. 


This concept of being regulated in order to support others is called co-regulation. It’s a simple concept to acknowledge but often not so simple to actually understand or implement.


While there are many ways to develop co-regulation skills, understanding prosody and the relationship of voice with the vagus nerve is one way educators can enhance their own regulation and create better emotional support for children. 


Prosody is something many educators may already be doing without being aware that it is a highly effective regulation tool. 


What is prosody?


Prosody is the rhythm, stress and intonation of speech which provides important information beyond the literal meaning of words. It provides clues about attitudes and the affective state of children. 


A good example of prosody is when a nurturing parent soothes their newborn baby with a gentle higher pitched voice, calm tones and even soft singing or a humming sound. At this point the parent is regulated and their voice responds accordingly. This higher pitched sing-song voice creates an innate sense of safety and security for the child. Humans are hardwired to be attuned to these sounds. 


On the other hand, deeper, growling sounds are often associated with danger. When people are angry, even if they try hard not to show it, voices will respond with deeper intonations. When the nervous system reacts to a situation involving a child and adults feel themselves moving into a sympathetic or fight response, voices will respond accordingly.


Essentially, voices get deeper as people feel more angry or frustrated, and children sense this. 


How are prosody and the vagus nerve linked?


The vocal cords are linked to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a large part of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) that regulates the physiological body. It is a mass of nerves that loop from the belly, through the heart and up each side of the neck to the brain. 


80 per cent of the vagus nerve fibres communicate from the body to the brain and only 20 per cent communicate from the brain to the body. This demonstrates how well the human body is in tune with the environment and why developing interoception is really important. 


In the context of this article the connection of the vagus nerve to the vocal cords is the focus, and specifically, how this can assist in developing co-regulation.


Listening to a person’s voice allows the listener to learn to become more attuned to what they may be feeling and to adjust to act more appropriately. The pitch and tone of a child’s voice can also give clues as to how dysregulated they may be.


Being aware of prosody also allows people to become better co-regulators. Awareness of prosody helps individuals to check in with themselves to see if they are feeling regulated, to use their voice more consciously and with awareness to help those who may be in a heightened state. 


When people are in tune with their nervous system the presence of prosody implies “you are safe with me and I’m here for you.”


People who are in a state of stress will express this in their voices, which will become more constricted with a strained and high pitch. In a more balanced state, vocalisations are more in tune with the Social Engagement System. When in this state people feel more primed to have a calmer connection and have more ease and flow when communicating. 


Before attending to a child, check in with yourself


Being a co-regulator begins with developing an understanding of regulation and how to be more attuned to the nervous system.  


There are some simple things educators can do to check in to see whether they are in a good place first, before supporting a child who is feeling challenged emotionally.


  • Check in with your posture: Being stooped or crouched over affects the vagus nerve function so open your body up. Drop and release tension in your shoulders, open up through the chest, lift your chin slightly. This allows the body to function better and sends signals to the brain that you are safe and in control.


  • Take in some deep breaths focusing on a slightly longer exhalation than the inhalation: The parasympathetic nervous system (rest, digest, freeze) is activated through breathing out more deeply.


  • Either hum or sing! This activates the vagus nerve and helps to regulate your nervous system. Also, sing or hum when you are comforting the child, this is a great way to increase trust with the child.


  • Use softer and slightly higher pitched tones as if you are interacting with a newborn. This creates a feeling of safety for the child you are talking to.


  • Repeat a positive statement out loud, such as ‘I am safe’, ‘I am in control’ or ‘I can handle this’ a few times to yourself. Repetitive mantras or chants may help to increase vagal tone. This would also work for the child who is slowly coming down from their fight or flight response. Repeating a calming mantra together, such as “I am safe” or “I am kind to myself” will help the child create a more regulated state.


How does prosody calm a child who is dysregulated?


When educators are able to approach a child in a regulated state, using soothing tones, the child gradually builds a sense of security and trust. Over time, children may respond within shorter time frames, allowing educators to reach out to them more quickly. 


When children recognise their educators as people who can help them feel safer this leads to a decrease in their sympathetic response or dorsal vagal state and helps to move them into a more connected state (Social Engagement System). 


If a child is already in a semi heightened state they are less likely to hear the caring adults around them due to a branch of the vagus nerve being impacted within the ears, therefore educators need to respond to the child’s nervous system which has become unbalanced. If the child is able to do some co regulated breathing with their educator, this will help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is the body’s rest system. 


As mentioned above, repetitive phrases or humming and singing can also assist in this process, as can a hug. This will allow the child to settle and to hear better as the adults around them use their regulated soothing tones to provide the child with a sense of security. 


Is the idea of prosody and the vagus nerve new?


It may take awhile to self reflect and check in while developing better interoceptive skills to assist in regulation. The first step to learning more about managing self regulation starts with noticing body sensations. Interoception is also fundamental when learning to become more self aware.


The more that educators are able to practice these interoceptive skills and the tips listed, the more likely they will be able to respond in a matter of seconds to the child who needs it in a much more aligned way. 


With a deeper understanding of the concepts above, educators will be able to respond from a strong position of co-regulation which means the child feels safer and develops a greater sense of trust in the presence of true calm. 


Once educators have a deep and sustained knowledge of how co-regulation and self regulation works, they are more effectively able to regulate their own nervous system. When educators are regulated, the magic of the vagus nerve will help stimulate the vocal cords in the appropriate manner so your voice helps the child feel safer. 


The human body is an incredible machine. In part of their role as developing themselves as professionals, educators must continually learn how to improve their own knowledge and understanding of how the body and mind reacts to stress, so that they can better support children who need it. 


Nic Russell, the writer behind this piece, offers professional development for the early childhood sector. Email [email protected] or contact via Facebook @southeastyogaandwellbeing 

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