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How to "Teach" Self-Regulation

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

"Saying I taught it but they didn't learn is the same as saying I sold it but they didn't buy." -Thomas Guskey

What is self-regulation

Self-regulation is the name of the game in education these days. A large portion of our students have the basic skills and intelligence to do their school work and learn at a reasonable rate but are hindered by the lack of skills in the area of "self-regulation". There are many definitions of this term that you can find but here's the gist: It's the ability to control one's emotions and behaviours in order meet the challenges of day-to-day life. Dr. Stuart Shanker defines it more specifically as thus:

"Self-Regulation refers to how people manage energy expenditure, recovery and restoration in order to enhance growth. Effective self-regulation requires learning to recognize and respond to stress in all its many facets, positive as well as negative, hidden as well as overt, minor as well as traumatic or toxic."

From our very first screams in the delivery room we enter the battle arena that is the human condition. It is stressful and we are born with a very rudimentary ability to deal with said stress. This is why new-born infants require external stress relief. We as parents, caregivers, and I suppose in theory the entire world in some ways, become the go-to for regulation of discomfort. Mother regulates daughter's mood primarily through nursing but father and other caregivers contribute significantly through any caring physical interaction and touch. Children continue their reliance on external soothers (both figurative and literal), all while incrementally gaining the psychological and neurological capacities to begin soothing themselves. This capacity building happens at different rates and stages for different children depending on a number of factors, the greatest, in my opinion, being the level to which the child has the opportunity to try it on their own to begin with. If children receive external relief without stop then there is no need for the development of self-soothing. By observing our society's unhealthy dependency on food, drugs, and other external regulators we can make a fairly safe hypothesis that we are not very good at completing our development of self-regulation into adulthood.

How Self-Regulation Works and Doesn't Work

As best as I understand it, self-regulation begins with the interpretation of environmental stimulus through the five senses. A cool breeze, a lick of ice cream, the smell of chocolate chip cookies burning in your oven. Every thing we sense and experience is interpreted on a spectrum that ranges from soothing to stressful. When that input is interpreted we make automatic (although sometimes deliberate) decisions on how we are going to react in the form of thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. The best analogy is that of the thermostat. We sense the "temperature" of our surrounding environment and we make the appropriate adjustments; heating up or cooling down.

There are a few ways that this feedback system can go wrong. First, each of us through our unique life experience and neuro-biology have different thresholds for different input. For example, some people may take great offence from the middle finger and fire up their emotional furnace in response while others are immune to the power of the bird. In working with children I have seen a vast range of emotional thresholds. It can be difficult to predict how a child will react to a certain situation or stimulus to begin with, and then throw in the fact that what works with one child may not work with another as their gauge could have a completely different factory setting. In practice this means that while the "go-to" interventions of deep-breathing and grounding techniques are a good place to start they often fall short because we are not addressing the stimulus that is causing the thermostat to adjust. For example, if seeing a clown causes an anxious reaction then it doesn't matter how many deep breathing or visualization exercises I do if I'm still seeing a clown every time I open my eyes. This also proves difficult because most people, let alone children, are often unaware of the stimuli that causes their reactions because it happens below the surface of consciousness.

So let's say you know your child well enough that you can identify the majority of his thresholds and triggering stimuli. You research self-regulation strategies and find out that by using a fidget he is able to channel his energy and focus, regulating his nerves and bringing him to the optimal psychological setting for him to do his school work and succeed socially. This is great, but you will find that the same intervention may not work twice. This is because, internally, a person's gauge can vary throughout the day depending on what is happening physiologically (ie. sleep, nutrition, neurochemistry etc.); what is happening in the environment (ie. social surroundings, routines, or literally the temperature in the room); and how any stimulus interacts with cultural/personal beliefs (ie. self-image, religious beliefs about well-being etc.). So, what works at 9:00 am might not work at 6:30 pm.

Where most parents and teachers fall short when it comes to teaching self-regulation is that they forget that it is called SELF-regulation. Their behaviour plan ends up looking more like external management rather than self facilitated internal management. "Ok, Claudia. If you stay in your desk for 30 minutes you get a sticker and if you get 5 stickers in a day you get chocolate." I should say that I'm not against these types of behaviour plans but let's not call it self-regulation (I will concede that plans like these could help facilitate a scaffolding of sorts so that the child can practice self-regulation but it is not self-regulation in and of itself).

How to Teach Self-Regulation

Let me start out by saying most of what we are doing (or at least what I have been doing) is presenting self-regulation rather than teaching it. We present strategies that can work but when the intervention is a singular contained 20 minute lesson it is less likely for any technique to really make a significant difference in a child's ability to cope and thrive in a school setting. But let's start with what we can PRESENT in terms of self-regulation skills.

The main idea when presenting self-regulation techniques is that you want to empower the student to take regulation into their own hands. Hopefully they will be able to recognize their triggers (hungry stomach, loud noises, lack of sleep, match etc.) and then we can try and reduce the stress. Sometimes we can make very simple accommodations to make their environment less stressful and that's the end of the story (ie. sound canceling headphones, a snack, a quick break etc.). Outside of environmental accommodations you can then demonstrate grounding technniques that help them reconnect with their bodies and let go of the emotions that have taken them siege.

Here are some tried and tested grounding techniques that, paired with focused, non-judgmental awareness, are useful to present to children who have difficulties self-regulating:

  • Clench and release your fists

  • Run cold water over your hands

  • Notice your body and how it sits in your chair

  • Eat something and describe its texture and taste in as much detail as possible

  • Grab tightly onto your chair

  • Walk slowly paying attention to every step, saying 'left... right'

  • Stretch and roll your head around gently

  • Focus on breathing

Then there are soothing strategies that can be presented (some of these can't be done at school). Try these:

  • Use a warm beverage (tea, cocoa, etc.)

  • Wrap yourself in a heavy blanket

  • Shower or bath

  • Play soothing music

  • Cool washcloth to the face

  • Engage in rhythmic activity like knitting, biking, swimming, etc.

  • Play

The idea of self-soothing is that you would use stimuli that are pleasing and calming for each of the five senses. It is important for children to know which soothing devices work the best and when. I use the analogy of a starting line up for a basketball team (because there are five of them). Consider it an All-Star soothing team.

Here is the real trick to TEACHING self-regulation. The best way to truly teach it, or in other words, transfer the knowledge so that there is a level of comprehension to the point of being able to apply it, is by modeling those strategies yourself as the teacher or parent. We tend to be fairly closed off when it comes to admitting our own issues regarding self-regulation with our students and children. The more we portray ourselves as masters of self-control the less capable they will feel. We can normalize and model self-regulation by labeling and identifying our own self-regulation strategies in real time, during regular day-to-day activities. Such as when the class is being too noisy and you get heated. You can take that moment to point out that you were feeling overwhelmed and that you used the strategy of clenching your fists and mindfully breathing in order to get back to an optimal state to continue teaching. The students need to make the connection themselves by observing what YOU did to regulate yourself and YOU have to point it out to them. When the adults that are with the children the most (teachers and parents most likely) continue to take the time to illustrate and model self-regulation, students then see it in action and can more easily conceptualize the process of self-regulation.

The last thing to consider is that while we want the children to improve in this skill, they will have already learned on their own how to do this to some extent. From the 6 month old that sleeps on her own through the night without a soother, to the 18 year old that can finish ALL of his chores before he plays X-Box, kids can do it already. We just need to show them how. And we do that by literally showing them how it is done, when it is being done, not in theory.

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