“When you see a child differently, you see a different child.” This is a quote from Stuart Shanker’s book entitled Self-Reg, one of the books that I believe has truly transformed my teaching practice in recent years. In this post, I’m going to attempt to explain a few fundamental ideas about self-regulation.
What neuroscience has learned in the past 2 decades
The prefrontal cortex of the brain is used for language and thinking. We use this part of our brain to understand people, make inferences, draw conclusions, and make decisions. Underneath this part of our brain is the mammalian and reptilian brain, or the parts of our brain that make up the limbic system, viewed as the brain’s “master control system” because of the critical role it plays in our immune system, temperature, emotions, metabolism, digestion, thirst, fatigue, and stress.
When our limbic system is disregulated due to stressors, either internal or external, the prefrontal cortex is essentially immobilized as energy in the body is diverted to regulate the body’s limbic system.
Stressors can be biological, emotional, cognitive, social, or prosocial. This explains our impaired capacity to “think” while we are experiencing stress, or extreme hunger, or pain. If you are a parent or a teacher, you have no doubt seen this in action. Think about a child who is upset and crying and no matter what you say, it’s like they “just aren’t hearing you.” You explain the situation to them again, but your words have little effect in calming them down.
Now I am going to let you in on a secret: The reason they can’t understand what you’re saying is because they can’t understand what you’re saying. This is important for you to really grasp. They CAN’T understand what you’re saying. They can’t understand because the part of their brain that “understands” isn’t working at the moment, because they are really upset. Game changer.
This simple knowledge transformed my teaching practice and my relationships with children. Every child comes to school each day from a different set of circumstances, and each child is inherently different. Some are tired, some are feeling under the weather, some didn’t eat what they wanted for breakfast. Some are skilled at playing with others, some struggle with trusting others, some have attachment issues. Some speak clearly, some struggle to be understood, some know a lot of their classmates, some feel anxious in large groups. When I try to get to know children, I am trying to figure out what biological, cognitive, emotional, social, and prosocial stressors exist in their lives. Some stressors are ongoing, some occur according to the situation and the environment. I often alter the situation and the environment to help the child learn how to self-regulate , so that the cumulative effect of the stressors doesn’t impair their “thinking” brain.
Children can learn self-regulation skills like choosing to move to a quiet area to rest if they are feeling tired or overwhelmed, choosing to get themselves a drink of water when thirsty, or choosing to play a quiet game with 1 person instead of participating in a group activity. They can choose to share a story in a morning meeting one day and the next day, choose to listen quietly while others share.
They choose. What feels right. What feels good. What they need.
This is how they learn to self-regulate. By doing it themselves.
Dedicated teacher for the past 15 years. Lifelong learner. Newbie blogger. Follow me on Twitter @Baker1973Cathy