Tuesday, April 4, 10:15am-11:30am U.S. Central Time Zone | VIRTUAL

Harnessing the Resilience Within:  Supporting Online & Digital Learning through Plasticity, Sociality, and Meaning


In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama, in conversation with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, invites us to develop our “Mental Immunity,” the skills we need, individually and collectively, to help ourselves and our communities guard against chronic stress so we may continue to learn and thrive. A key to developing such pivotal skills is understanding how our brains perceive and react to stressors and what enables us to self- and co-regulate.  

Our understanding of the human brain—its development evolution—has inspired cognitive psychologists and behavioral neuroscientists to describe the brain as a social organ. Indeed, our reliance on social connection with others is a matter of survival not preference. Meaningful social connections inform our sense of safety and serve as the underlying basis for our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. In order to cultivate digital learning spaces where such connections are possible, we must intentionally and explicitly design our learning communities and experiences to reflect and promote such vision.

In this session, we will examine polyvagal theory, which describes the nervous system as having a hierarchical organization. At the top of that hierarchy is our social engagement system which helps us connect and navigate relationships. In addition, we will consider the science of biological and behavioral resilience and the three factors that give rise to resilience: plasticity, sociality, and meaning. We will examine practical implications for how we can empower ourselves and our students to “befriend” our social engagement nervous system so we can continue to engage, learn, and thrive. Throughout, we will underscore the reality that “befriending” and regulating the nervous system, and by extension wellbeing, is not merely an individual responsibility but a societal one as well. Our intrinsic interconnectedness and interdependence equip us with the power to witness, uplift, and elevate the humanity of others and in doing so, we can begin to heal ourselves and others. 

By the end of this session, participants will:

  1. Define polyvagal theory and its application in the context of teaching, learning, and higher education.
  2. Examine the scientific basis of emotional regulation and resilience.
  3. Consider practical examples of polyvagal-informed teaching and learning practices.
  4. Define the relationship between culturally-responsive teaching and successful student engagement and learning.
  5. Articulate the intimate relationship between equity, radical hospitality and trauma-informed education. 

We will begin the session with a mindfulness exercise grounded in the arts. That will be followed by a community check in using Mentimeter.  Throughout the session, the audience will be invited to engage with each other via the chat or Mentimeter.  There will be at least two opportunities for questions, answers, and discussion.  Participants will be encouraged to engage with the materials and their colleagues through a series of playful invitations.  Finally, we will conclude with a closure activity that connects to the opening mindfulness exercise.

Suggested Reading:

  • Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman
  • What does it mean to be human in the aftermath of historical trauma? By Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
  • The Myth of Normal by Gabor Mate
  • Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory by Deb Dana

Mays Imad received her undergraduate training from the University of Michigan–Dearborn where she studied philosophy. She received her doctoral degree in Cellular & Clinical Neurobiology from Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan. She then completed a National Institute of Health-Funded postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Arizona in the Department of Neuroscience. She joined the department of life & physical sciences at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona as an adjunct faculty member in 2009 and later as a full-time faculty member in 2013. During her tenure at Pima, she taught Physiology, Pathophysiology, Genetics, Biotechnology, and Biomedical ethics. She also founded Pima’s Teaching and Learning Center (TLC). 

Mays is currently teaching in the biology department at Connecticut College and conducting equity pedagogy research. 

Mays is a Gardner Institute Fellow for Undergraduate Education and an AAC&U Senior Fellow within the Office of Undergraduate STEM Education. Dr. Imad’s research focuses on stress, trauma, self-awareness, biofeedback, and self-regulation, and how these impact student learning and success. A nationally-recognized expert on trauma-informed teaching and learning, she passionately advocates for institutions to make mental health a top priority and to systematically support the education of the whole student. 

In addition to her work on trauma, emotional regulation, and mental health, Mays received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for her work on critical thinking in STEM courses. 

Outside of the classroom, Dr. Imad works with faculty members across disciplines at her own institution and across the country to promote inclusive, equitable, and contextual education–all rooted in the latest research on the neurobiology of learning.  Through her teaching and research she seeks to provide her students with transformative opportunities that are grounded in the aesthetics of learning, truth-seeking, justice, and self-realization.