What’s the Deal with Self-Regulation? Part 1 – Social Emotional Learning

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Self-regulation is a term at risk of getting lost in the world of educational buzz words. I believe clarity about this concept is mandatory because it is so foundational to how we function in our homes, our schools, and the world we move in.  Simply stated self-regulation is how we manage our emotions, behaviour and thoughts in order to achieve our goals.  How we learn and teach self-regulation is an extremely complex endeavour.

The most well-developed conversation around self-regulation is in the arena of social-emotional development.  We are seeing too much stress compromising the brain/body regulatory systems that support thinking, emotion regulation, and social engagement in communities of people.   Dr. Gabor Mate tells us this is coming from an increasing sense of alienation being experienced in society as a whole.  Dr. Stuart Shanker (on Twitter @StuartShanker ) states it is due to the overt stressors causing dysregulation in the behaviour, mood, attention and physical well-being of a child, teen or adult.

One key focus in the school is helping students to manage emotions so that students are able to learn, develop relationships and maintain friendships.  If students are going to be included in the social fabric of the school, they need to be able to make good choices around identifying their feelings, developing a bank of calm down strategies to use as needed,  to problem solve, repair relationships and come up with a plan for next time.

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I particularly like The Zones of Regulation program developed by Leah Kuypers.  It provides the materials to instruct our kids how to identify and understand our emotions.  Many children over the years have told me that anger is a “bad” emotion.  It often takes reteaching that emotions and thoughts do not make you a bad person.  Hitting or swearing in the midst of being angry represent poor choices not a statement on your character.  It is very liberating for children to learn they have to power to make good choices even if they are tired or sad or angry.  I also love the Zone of Regulation chart available at Odin Books on Broadway in Vancouver, that facilitates the development of  class banks of possible strategies to cope with being in the four identified colour “zones” that reflect basic emotions commonly experienced.  This allows kids to learn in a very tangible way that different people experience a range of emotions throughout any given day and have different ways of coping with the emotions they feel.  It also provides a diverse range of options that can be tried to self manage emotions.

The most powerful strategy to teach kids to self-calm is to slow down their breathing.   It is an accessible strategy that can be used in any context.   When students are having a biological fight or flight response to stress in their environment, slow breathing actually triggers the brain to calm down the body. This is why yoga has been popularized as a relaxation exercise.  Kids can also be prompted with the good ole’ count to 10 backwards.  A tool like opening and closing an expandable sphere from the dollar store or a chime are also frequently used with success.

It is our responsibility to support students with a range of spaces and places to support their ability to self-calm.  Classroom teachers have a range of tools and spaces within the classroom to support students.  At our school, we have open library times where students can get the support required to self calm if they are struggling with transitioning into the classroom at the beginning or the day or after lunch time.  It is a natural addition into the student’s schedule.  Students go to the library for a variety of purposes, to self calm, to engage in lifeskills programs, fulfill monitoring duties or check out books.  There is no stigma around leaving the classroom and going to another program.

Currently we have an Active Learning Room with mats and tools as a possible option to support students requiring a physical outlet.  This space is also a place to develop sensory integration skills and motor skills, as well as kineathetic awareness.  We are fortunate to have trained staff in The Ready Bodies Learning Minds program and are hoping to expand this program ,as it is a universal program recommended by physiotherapists.

Students are encouraged to explore physical outlets that may be successful in helping them to manage their emotions in a variety of contexts.  It may be as simple as walking to the water fountain or changing activities.   Going outdoors invites physical activity.  A great playground with swings, sports equipment that can go outside, and a field to run or walk around are all possible ways to self-calm that are accessible to the students at our school.  Big deciduous trees with falling leaves and a school garden is another avenue for students to re-direct their attention to assist in self-calming and outdoor learning.  We are fortunate to have a school garden with several garden beds, a perimeter of established plants, a little orchard, a Mud Kitchen for digging, and a bench for sitting and watching the garden, bugs and the visiting birds.  It is also overlooks the two mountain peaks know as The Lions or The Two Sisters for thousands of years.  The legend is of two twin sisters who are immortalized in the mountains as a reward for creating lasting peace between two nations who were traditionally enemies.  Not a bad place to learn, self-calm, problem solve and repair relationships.

Coming Soon –

What’s the Deal with Self-Regulation?

Part 2 – Managing Learning in School