TEACHERS ARE ASKED to play many roles. They must be creators of engaging lessons, leaders who can motivate students to learn, operation managers, administrators who report and document increasing levels of paperwork, and compassionate counsellors caring for an increasing array of students’ needs. Teaching is also a unique profession as you are “on” all the time. You cannot hide behind a computer screen when you are having a bad day. No wonder a teacher is considered stress-hardy if she remains in the teaching profession for merely five years! Teacher well-being has to be viewed as the essential ingredient to the overall well-being and learning success of students.
Over the period of 2014-2019, I consulted on self-regulation initiatives in two similar northern educational jurisdictions, and observed the resulting relational wellness between student and teacher. I promoted “self-regulation” as an alternative to the traditional cognitive or motivational view of student behaviour. Helping teachers shift the lens through which they view their most vulnerable students can foster both student and teacher wellness.
Both jurisdictional staffs were already acquainted with the concept of self-regulation as introduced by Stuart Shanker and Chris Robinson;1 my task was to translate an abstract understanding into accessible and tangible classroom tools, behaviours, language and wellness actions. The interventions I provided combined social-emotional components promoting self-awareness, social relationships, restoration practices, and self-regulation of optimal energy levels of functioning.
What is self-regulation?
Stuart Shanker2 describes self-regulation as a physiological or energy state that is constantly responding to stressors, both internal (sleep, nutritional, sensory) and external (cognitive tasks, emotional upheavals, social discomforts). It is not self-control, which is a cognitive skill to control an impulse. Rather, it is learning to maintain an optimal level of energy functioning. When stressed, we are affected by an increase in chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol, and we try to reset ourselves back to a state of equilibrium. We may choose healthy self-soothing options such as exercise and talking with others, or resort to unhealthy choices such as addictions, anger towards others or deep withdrawal. Self-regulation fosters your ability to take pause and recover when feeling stressed.
If teachers want students to act differently, then they must model, co-regulate and guide students towards alternative ways of behaving. To do this, self-regulation must occur within teachers first. This is the premise and philosophy I sought to instill in the teachers with whom I worked.
Two approaches to a wellness program
It should be noted that we began our self-regulation journey in Jurisdiction A, experimenting with what self-regulation in a school setting could look like, and took the lessons learned into Jurisdiction B. Both the infrastructure and delivery of the self-regulation projects were radically different in these two jurisdictions, with one jurisdiction choosing a more comprehensive approach in terms of both depth and breadth. Some key differences are described below:
Leadership and participants
In Jurisdiction A, a single senior executive at the Department of Education who had a personal interest in self-regulation championed the initiative. The file was assigned to me, with other departmental consultants informally involved, responsible to lead three enthusiastic pilot schools. External consultants were also hired to provide an advisory role.
In contrast, in Jurisdiction B self-regulation became a strategic initiative collaboratively discussed among the entire senior leadership team. Every regional area in Jurisdiction B selected its own pilot school, with expansion to include additional requests by individual schools, making a total of approximately 15 schools. A committee of department consultants that I mentored was formed, and the union was invited to informally partner on the initiative with the entire jurisdiction, making self-regulation and wellness a priority for all its members.
Finances and target audience
Funding in Jurisdiction A was modest and drawn from the senior leader’s budget. Funding was unknown year to year, and required schools to supplement from their own budgets. Each pilot school selected one vulnerable or dysregulated student as the focal point for programming support. The program targeted the class or student, and did not incorporate teacher wellness.
In Jurisdiction B, the self-regulation initiative was assigned a more substantial and sustained five-year budget as a pillar of their overall strategic plan. The target audience included the entire teaching staff and student population of each pilot school.
Communication and program delivery
Communication in Jurisdiction A was top-down and limited to those directly involved. To start the program, the external consultant provided webinar training to the pilot schools focused on the neuroscience and physiology of self-regulation. I provided classroom consultations to each of the pilot schools, as well as consulting on strategies to support the one dysregulated student. The pilot schools also received a classroom observation, accompanied by environmental and sensory recommendations (e.g. decluttering, lighting, seating options). I handed out sensory tools and program materials on mindful breathing, self-regulation, emotional literacy and movement. A number of schools, beyond the pilot schools, applied separately for funding for structural equipment such as stationary bikes.
Unfortunately, program delivery was a bit haphazard. Further, the uncertainty of funding left pilot schools questioning the overall direction and frankly losing enthusiasm. It was dependent on individual teacher interest if self-regulation became a supported practice in a classroom or school.
Jurisdiction B adopted a comprehensive 4-step program communication and delivery approach:
1) Details of the initiative were widely dispersed. From senior leadership to front-line educators in pilot schools, all were exposed to both theoretical concepts and implementation practices for self-regulation, for both students and teachers. All schools, not just the pilot schools, had access to teacher mindfulness webinars and an online self-regulation book club.
2) We started with a kickoff presentation for program specialists, classroom teachers, and administrators in all pilot schools. Subsequently, a group of consultants joined me for a dedicated week in each pilot school, offering both leadership and classroom support.
3) We took teacher wellness as the starting point. This delivery sequence is espoused by social-emotional author Linda Lantieri,3 who after the 9-11 tragedy insisted that work be with teachers – not students – acknowledging that it’s the teachers who must model for the students. Each school visit began with professional development dedicated to teacher personal wellness, including personalized and doable self-calming and up-regulatory tools.
Some examples of teacher-specific training goals include:
- Learn how to satisfy personal regulatory needs in the classroom, as teachers cannot leave the classroom.
- Manage personal stressors to model effective problem-solving techniques when stressed through self-examination and self-awareness.
- Understand how co-regulation guides students to recognize their stressors, and discover effective self-regulatory options.
Subsequent training focused on individual supports for dysregulated students, as well as classroom-wide observations on the physical environment and student-teacher interactions. Teachers had the opportunity to leave the class for immediate follow-up coaching with the consultant. There were classroom demonstrations where I modelled lessons such as:
- Learning our body signals when stressed (do you feel tension in your shoulders, stomach, jaw?) and belly breathing (feeling your belly expand when you breathe in)
- Determining individual emotional and sensory soothing tools (e.g. take in air at the window, walk around the school, drink of water) to reset back into an optimal zone of energy
- Learning how assertiveness draws boundaries, protects personal integrity and reduces resentment and stress.
Parent evenings at each school used experiential activities to explain self-regulation.
4) At the end of each school visit tour, the team consulted on lessons learned and we followed up with schools on action items. There were pre-and post-surveys.
Feedback I received during the school visits, sustainable or long-term behaviour and language changes I observed over a five-year period, and the collected surveys, all informed the following learnings.
Size matters. By sheer numbers, there were more Jurisdiction B schools exposed to the self-regulation initiative (15 schools versus three in Jurisdiction A), and thus there was overall more uptake and success in terms of student and teacher understanding and application of self-regulation. The entire school region was aware and supportive of the initiative, from senior level to front-line staff. At the same time, having more dedicated funds allowed Jurisdiction B to have some quick wins, with schools visibly seeing environmental changes such as lighting, alternative seating, and program resources.
Level of intervention matters. In Jurisdiction A, the level of intervention were brief school visits targeting one dysregulated student. In Jurisdiction B, one week of dedicated time, with substitutes provided, were allocated for us to model practical classroom interventions and debrief with staff.
School culture matters. In Jurisdiction A, the initiative was relatively short-lived. The schools in Jurisdiction B that found observable, sustainable, success with this initiative could envision the potential benefits of self-regulation because the concept aligned with their whole-school orientation toward students. In these schools, leadership held power with staff and the staff was a cohesive community. Self-regulation became another part of their culture, with teachers explicitly expressing their own energy levels and need for daily breathing and movement breaks. Schools that adopted self-regulation already recognized the critical prerequisite of positive relationships with teachers for students to achieve, and school staff and leaders accepted a longer-term perspective on behavioural and academic changes.
Teacher wellness is a necessary component of self-regulation. Schools in Jurisdiction B that integrated self-regulation into school practices also prioritized teacher wellness, beyond yoga workshops or other one-day add–ons. Teacher wellness was understood as necessary to student success and supported with concrete stress reducers such as decreased photocopying, time between classes to just breathe, and streamlined reporting systems.
Reduced stress was most notable in Jurisdiction B, where there were directed self-regulatory supports for both students and teachers. The self-regulation lens invites more compassion for dysregulated students, and teachers reported this reduced their own stress levels. Also, when teachers were self-regulated themselves, they were able to co-regulate the students. A teacher noted, “The self-regulation work was one of the most influential pieces of professional development that I have been a part of in my career. First, and most importantly, it had a profound impact on my professional and personal well-being.” When self-regulation resonated with the teachers’ own sense of well-being it was more likely to be integrated into the classroom for students as well.
Some gains with both approaches. An overall win in both jurisdictions was that there is now more acceptance of the belief that children are doing the best they can and that relationships with students are critical to success. Sensory circuits, the use of movement, and stationary bikes have become standard school tools. Unfortunately, where stationary bikes were placed in classrooms without explicit rationale, they sometimes became glorified coat hooks.
Not a quick fix. Neither of the jurisdictions found the widespread transformational change in student self-regulation and overall achievement levels that they hoped for. While improvements were seen in this student population, a self-regulation initiative alone cannot quickly shift the outcomes for dysregulated children, as school is only one part of their overall life experience. I believe self-regulation is a viable initiative to lead to such success, but it requires a long-term and multidimensional approach.
Leadership is key. The vast differences in the two jurisdictions’ approaches certainly impacted the reach and level of success. However, I believe the most profound ingredient necessary for the widespread success of any educational initiative is the priorities of all leadership and whether they themselves integrate and model the change they wish to see.4 Sustainability of an initiative comes from leadership enthusiasm.
SELF-REGULATION is not easy to adopt into practice. A significant philosophical change is required in how teachers and administrators view students’ behaviour. It requires enhancing our own self-awareness and it requires the belief that student-teacher relational health is a prerequisite to engaged learning and student academic success. Teachers need to work in a safe, supporting culture to begin self-examination of their practice. Moreover, it takes time to see changes. Given that schools work on a yearly basis with limited timed academic objectives, it is not always feasible to look beyond the academic demands nor at long-term initiatives.
The larger net cast and more comprehensive supports provided in Jurisdiction B led to more in-depth exposure to the concept, and thus greater probability of reaching the right, enthusiastic leaders and teachers who deeply integrated self-regulation into their personal lives. Seeing positive changes within themselves, they were positioned to model and translate it at the school level. As one school administrator reported, “We are able to use language that helps to diffuse rather than exacerbate difficult situations, and we have a better appreciation of our own need to self-regulate.” Teacher wellness must be an integral component of any self-regulation initiative for students.
First published in Education Canada, September 2020
2 Stuart Shanker, Calm, Alert and Learning: Classroom strategies for self-regulation (Toronto, On: Pearson Canada, 2015).
4 S. Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why some teams pull together and others do not (New York: Penguin Random House, 2014).