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 youtu.be/TljvXtZRerY 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

Wild About Vancouver and More…

I am on the Steering Committee of a group called Wild About Vancouver, brainchild of our fearless leader, Dr. Hart Banack, UBC.  This is a particularly good opportunity because I get together with people who experience the concept of #GetOutdoors on so many different levels.  Our conversation started with a goal of organizing an outdoor festival to get people of all ages out as participants and stewards of our amazing city, Vancouver, British Columbia.  Yes, Canada for those of you familiar with another Vancouver, south of our border.   Vancouver in itself provides many opportunities for outdoor activity and is widely known for the active lifestyle of it’s residents.  The outdoors provides many possibilities to enhance mental health, physical well-being, environment awareness and action, as well as curricular instruction.

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I am writing this blog on the deck of my father’s cabin in the Eastern Sierras at the doorstep of Yosemite.  Just like my first visit at 9 years old and ever after, I am awake before anyone else.  This was one of my favorite places to be when I was a little girl on visits with my older sister down south to see my father, step-mother, and later younger siblings.  I could get up and out.  No burglar alarm to be dis-armed.  There were discoveries to be made and other early risers in the world.  And I had energy to expend.  Lots and lots of energy.  Cabin life allowed for that to be a natural part of life.  We hiked beyond the waterfall.  Rowed.  Played “Kick the Can” endlessly with the other cabin kids.  Tried to steer the motor boat clear of the dangers of pipes hidden in reeds, sand bars and trees in the lake and on the “jungle cruise” aka stream.  Fishing was a challenge for me unless we were casting and then reeling those rainbow trout in.  I was a high activity kid.  As an educator and a Mom, I had a personally tested strategy of using the outdoors as a way to increase focus in the classroom and to get kids to sleep at night.

I carried the habit of running, biking, hiking, and physically challenging myself into adulthood.  I learned as an adult that no one actually cared how you did at something.  Sometimes just trying was a victory.  I did my first Terry Fox 10 km Run for Cancer Research at the urging of my husband.  I believed passionately in the cause.  I watched Terry run on the nightly news and my Mom had already suffered her first bout of breast cancer.  I hit the 9 km mark and thought I was going to have to stop when a volunteer on the sideline yelled “good form”.  That carried me to the finish line with renewed energy, through many Sun Runs, My First and only Triathlon at Cultus Lake, and getting back to running after pregnancies and injuries.  Experiences skiing during my high school years, made learning to snowboard achievable.  Familiarity on my bike made the bike trip through the Prince Edward Island a glorious adventure.   A willingness to try some new physical challenge frequently ended with an increased sense of pride.  When that didn’t happen, it resulted in a good story, frequently filled with laughter.

When I graduated from the University of British Columbia, it was the 80’s and very difficult to get a teaching job in Vancouver.  I did another year at UBC to get a diploma in English Education while continuing to worked in a daycare / out of school care centre.  My quest “to teach” was infused with my supervision responsibilities.  I got my Class 4 driver’s license and we took those pre-schoolers all over the lower mainland of Vancouver to explore.  School aged kids were welcomed to Sparetime Fun Centre after school and organized into clubs.  We went outside to collect materials for arts and crafts.  We ran. We danced.  We played.  We learned.  By the time I got a full-time job at 22, learning through play indoors and outdoors was a well-established part of my understanding of how you establish rapport and create bridges between experience and curriculum.

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I did my mandatory “out of town” practicum in Abbotsford, British Columbia, because I could stay for free with my paternal grand-parents.  When I had my son, I wanted to be closer to home  and started working in Coquitlam, where we had purchased our first home.  When our youngest daughter went off to Queen’s University, my husband and I promptly moved back to Vancouver where I grew up and both of us lived, prior to kids.   The place I was teaching, determined how I went about teaching the curriculum.  In Abbotsford, background experience of students included experiences with gardens, cows, berry picking, farms and the ever-present smell of manure from spring to fall.  In Coquitlam, salmon spawning in streams, raccoons in garbage, bear awareness when hiking or running in the park, and deer wandering on roads was common place.  In Vancouver, walking and biking as a preferred mode of transportation, many local mountains for skiing and snowboarding, beaches, seagulls, crows and ethnic cuisine permeates life.  This awareness of place has increasingly become part of education as we have reflected on how we incorporate understandings that are implicit in the Indigenous cultures that were present long before Canada emerged as a country.

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The location of the school in British Columbia impacts how many Indigenous students attend.  This sometimes provides a block for staffs trying to authentically incorporate Indigenous teachings into the curriculum.  However, the sense of place provides an entry point for all students to gain insight into Indigenous ways of knowing.  Examining how the place we live impacts our experiences, lends itself to going outdoors and considering our present and historical context.  Many things in life cannot be anticipated or guaranteed with confidence.  If you live in Vancouver, I can guarantee that it will rain and I can even tell you what that smells like.  As a 6-year-old in Venice, my daughter looked up at me and smiled and said “It smells like home, Mummy”, when it started to rain.  These understandings over time are the things we can learn from the stories from our local Indigenous people. Medicine Wheel teachings that have been incorporated into many Indigenous cultures have much to teach about how we make decisions, resolve conflict and achieve mental health.

My mother was in the hospital awaiting a procedure when I was called into the room to calm her down.

My response, “Breathe, Mum…No.  Not like that.  Into your abdomen…  You know…Yoga, breathing.  No.  Not like that.”

My mother’s exasperated response:  “You mean I’ve been breathing wrong my whole life?”

The poor nurses came running when we both burst out in uncontrollable laughter with tears running down our faces.  They thought they had lost us both.  However, there is a reason that the Japanese have taken the world by storm with “Shrin-yoko” or “forest bathing” since the 1980’s, yoga practices have become common place for people of all religions, and Indigenous teachings to improve physical and mental health are being considered.  They teach contemplative practices and breathing that is very much centred on experience in nature.  As a special education teacher and school principal, much of my work has been teaching students how to self-calm BEFORE problem solving.  The first step is always to slow down breathing and learn what strategies work for you.  My first go to strategy is physical activity but all of my students can tell you that a pot of Earl Grey tea works wonders for me.  The trick is to have more than one strategy that works for you.

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We have many amazing educators on the Wild About Vancouver Steering Committee.  Although I have many years of experience in education from kindergarten to the university level, as a classroom teacher, administrator and university instructor, I am constantly learning from our committee members who come with varied experiences and approaches to how they get children to pay attention to the nature around them.  Although I can’t prioritize what is most important about experiences outdoors, I strongly believe it is our success in getting children to pay attention that has the most significant impact on teaching curriculum.  When we closely consider something, we come up with the best questions.  The best questions result in the deepest learning and meaningful discovery.  Engaging with nature is a catalyst for curiosity and the learning that comes with it.

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Wild About Vancouver Committee members have all come together because we love Vancouver and want to fully engage people of all ages outdoors in all our city that has so much to offer.  What we believe is most important varies with who you are talking to on the Steering Committee or what participant.  Our ideas and suggestions are very contextual in that we are sharing what we know as Vancouverites.  We have a one week long Wild About Vancouver Festival every year with a grand WAV event in the city.  However, the learning and the application of this learning is relevant in any context.  I have learned so much from participating in twitter chats and blogs originating in England and Germany.  I have also taken from Reggio Emilia early education teachings with roots in Italy by doing lots of reading and visiting the Opal School in Portland, Oregon.  And I’m pondering Wild About Vancouver at my Silver Lake playground in the East Sierras on the California – Nevada border.  This model of celebration of outdoor activity takes place in many cities.  The Wild About Vancouver model takes it one step further by incorporating a celebration of the outdoors with a striving to deepen the learning we take from nature in all aspects of our lives.

Please include us in your you tweets about Outdoor learning @WildAboutVan and tag us with #getoutdoors and #outdoorlearning in all social media posts.  For you Vancouverites, we are always looking for participants and Steering Committee members if you are so inclined.  Check us out at https://www.wildaboutvancouver.com/

Enjoy the day and #getoutdoors

Have a Hyggelig Day

I inadvertently learned a new word today.  I was following the array of posts and articles on happiness and gratitude.  Long ago, my husband noted that he had never met anyone who worked so hard at being happy.  It was a hard-fought learning from my childhood that has become as natural as breathing, albeit sometimes breathing with a harsh chest cold.  The morning reading included yet another article on how the Danish have a long standing record as being the happiest people in the world.  Hence the new word – hygge (hue-gah).

The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking, CEO of The Happiness Research Institute, is one of the bibles of this Danish word.  Yet, another internet discovery.  I was taken through a you tube walk through the homes of both a self acclaimed 100% Danish expert returning from a hard day at work and Scottish Diane in Denmark who is married into the expertise.  Apparently life’s simple pleasures really are the best.  Wiking lists 10 things that can be found in the typical Danish home to create the comfy, cozy context to induce this relaxed sense of security and contentment.  It includes everything from candles (or a fireplace), lamps, blankets, books, hot beverages, to wood furniture, comfy clothes and thick, wooly socks.  Apparently I am well on my way to developing my own hygge expertise.  I am certainly committed to doing the research.

Fostering Self Regulation and Emotional Control

“Fostering self-regulation and emotional control” have become as much a part of instruction as reading and writing.  Kids that are not able to understand and manage their emotions are not able to learn and frequently make it difficult for others to learn.  Before this book was published, I used the graphic of a stop light to teach kids about how to define and consider their feelings and discuss strategies to keep from getting overwhelmed and making choices that created a whole new layer of problems for the classroom community.  The Zones of Regulation:  A Curriculum Designed To Foster Self-Regulation and Emotional Control (2011) by Leah M. Kuypers develops a solid approach to exploring these topics in a far more comprehensive way.  Adding a blue zone to talk about when you are sad or sick or tired or bored or moving slowly helps kids to understand their feelings with far more depth.  I was introduced to this book by a behaviour intervention support worker and have it reintroduced by ever other STIBS worker who I have crossed paths with in Vancouver.  It is generally proposed for use with a student struggling to manage their behaviour in the classroom and readily embraced by classroom teachers for use with the whole class.  The support poster is pricey at $12.00 but worth it because you can use dry erase markers and help students create personalized toolkits to manage the emotions listed in the four zones.  The reproducibles included in the book are well thought out and included on a CD.  I have just bought another copy of this book for my current staff because it has been wholeheartedly embraced by two of my teachers.  It isn’t a book to borrow, it’s a book to have on hand for your own reference.