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Self-Regulation Update

An interview with Stuart Shanker

Dr. Stuart Shanker is best known as Canada’s leading expert on the science of self-regulation. Dr. Shanker is a Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology and Philosophy at York University and CEO of The MEHRIT Centre, an educational network that focuses on translating current knowledge about self-regulation into practice. He is the author of Calm, Alert, and Learning: Classroom strategies for self-regulation and Self-Reg: How to help your child (and you) break the stress cycle and successfully engage with life. His 2010 Education Canada article, “Self-Regulation: Calm, alert and learning,” remains one of the most widely read articles on the CEA website.

John Hoffman met with Dr. Shanker during a week-long Self-Regulation Symposium at Trent University last year to discuss how his understanding of self-regulation has evolved and to explore his vision for self-regulation-based practice in schools.

What has changed in your thinking since you wrote “Self-Regulation: Calm, alert and learning” for Education Canada in 2010?

At that time I was still training under Stanley Greenspan, and his whole approach was about a child’s emotional functioning. So I saw emotional regulation – which essentially means learning how to regulate your strong negative emotions and enhance your strong positive emotions – as the key to self-regulation. When I talked about things like hyperarousal, I saw that mainly in emotional terms. Now I see the root of self-regulation more in physiological terms.

I had been familiar for quite some time with Steve Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, which provides a lot of insight into what we call the biological (or physiological) domain of self-regulation. As I developed a deeper understanding of Steve’s ideas, I began to see that there were deeper physiological mechanisms involved in emotional regulation. Now I have a much stronger conviction that we really have to understand what is happening in the biological domain of self-regulation, because that drives what is happening in the other domains: emotional, cognitive, social and prosocial.

I also came to see how all five domains in the Self-Reg model can get bound up in a stress cycle, resulting in a sort of “multiplier effect.” So invariably when we do Self-Reg we have to look at several domains, and not just work on the most glaring issue.

 We don’t believe there is one single right way to do Self-Reg. We want to see Self-Reg evolve in ways that we can’t possibly predict or try to control.

The way you define self-regulation has changed. Before it was about managing one’s state of arousal – the ability to stay calmly focused and alert in learning situations. Now you define self-regulation as the ability to manage stress: to be able to deal with a stressor and then recover. Why the emphasis on stress?

I used to talk to people about hyper- and hypoarousal, which I still think is very important. But I found that model wasn’t very effective because teachers and parents weren’t familiar with the terms. So instead of having a truly experiential understanding, it seemed like they were often just memorizing the terms. They knew the definition of self-regulation was to recognize when you are hyper- or hypoaroused and get back to calm – but in some ways these were just words. But when I talked about self-regulation in terms of the energy it takes to deal with stress, I could see that it had a more intuitive meaning for people. So now I’m trying to help people understand the effect stress has on our functioning in all of these five domains. The key idea is that dealing with stress burns energy and therefore reduces the amount of energy children have available to help them concentrate, take in information, handle social interaction, control their behaviour and emotions, experience empathy, and, ultimately, to learn.

It is important for teachers to approach their job with the conviction that if a child is having trouble learning, then there is some stress going on, and that is changeable. So a key part of a teacher’s job becomes tuning into what is stressing the child – not only major or “toxic” stress, but also everyday stressors and hidden sensory, social and cognitive stressors – and reducing the stress so the child can get into “learning brain.”

Are there any other changes in your thinking that you’d like to highlight?

I’ve done a lot of thinking about what the hidden stressors might be for children in the different domains. Here’s an example. For children, pattern recognition is a hugely important factor in reducing the stress of engaging with their world. Some children have trouble seeing different kinds of patterns, often because of a deficit in one of the sensory modalities. This is particularly important in the cognitive domain, because the roots of cognition are the ability to take in and process information from the senses and to recognize patterns. When the child doesn’t see the patterns, he doesn’t know what to expect. School becomes very stressful for a child who has problems in these areas. The learning brain shuts down to avoid the stress. Poor pattern recognition is often at the root of inattention. So if we can help children improve their pattern recognition, we can do amazing things for their higher cognitive skills.

What are some aspects of self-regulation practice that educators have been able to experience success with fairly quickly?

Our experience is that teachers who have developed a certain level of understanding about biological self-regulation are often fairly quick to learn ways to adjust the classroom environment to reduce subtle stressors. This includes strategies like noise reduction (carpets on the floor, tennis balls on the feet of chairs etc.), reducing visual clutter (less artwork, posters and student work on classroom walls, use of curtains to hide items stored on shelves) and creating micro-environments – alternative spaces for children such as standing desks or tents designated as a quiet place where students can go to withdraw. This often makes a noticeable difference fairly quickly.

Teachers are also finding ways to build activities that support self-regulation into classroom routines. One of the most important ones is physical activity, which increases the heart rate, decreases tension in the body and supports optimal brain function.

Another thing we hear a lot from teachers is that when they learn to make the shift from seeing children’s behaviour as willful non-compliance to looking for the stressors behind the child’s behaviour, it’s like having a weight lifted from their shoulders. There are various reasons why this might be the case, but I suspect a reduction in the teachers’ stress is part of it. If you can improve children’s behaviour by lowering their stress levels, that reduces the energy you have burn battling to get kids to comply.

What developments have taken place in Canadian education around self-regulation practice that you are excited about?

The biggest thing is the way interest is building. When we come into a district we might start out working with 25 or 30 teachers. Then we’ll go back the next year to work with the same group and go deeper. But we often have to change the venue because so many more people want to attend. That happens to us everywhere. For me this is the most important aspect. We did nothing to solicit work or advertise it, until we launched the MEHRIT Centre (TMC) website last year. Before that it was entirely word of mouth.

What is your current thinking about the best or ideal way to incorporate knowledge about self-regulation into educational practice?

I have really agonized about this. The obvious model was to develop a program and then persuade provincial ministries to adopt it. And we had profound interest from ministries across the country. But I began to feel that this was the wrong model.

First of all, a program is too compartmentalized. It’s just an add-on to what you’re already doing. What we’re trying to accomplish is more of a paradigm revolution. We want to fundamentally change the way people think about children’s development, behaviour and learning, to spark a new set of questions about the impact of stress on children.

The other thing I don’t like about the program model is that in a program model you tell people exactly what to do and how to do it. We’re looking for something broader and more interdisciplinary than that. We have developed a method for understanding and enhancing self-regulation that we call “Self-Reg,” but we don’t believe there is one single right way to do Self-Reg. We want to see Self-Reg evolve in ways that we can’t possibly predict or try to control. So teachers are going to have a huge influence on how Self-Reg practice unfolds, but so will parents and elders and so on. And I’m seeing it happening. Now that we have more people involved contributing ideas and experiences, one of the things that excites me is that I’m starting to lose track of how much of this is me and how much is what I’m absorbing from other people.

The MEHRIT Centre should not play the role of oracle. We want to be more a sort of voice or medium, where we try to synthesize and share what we’re learning from a number of sources.

Have you encountered any pushback or opposition to the idea that self-regulation can transform educational practice?

I haven’t, but I know it’s out there. It comes from people who think what kids need is discipline and what schools need is zero tolerance policies. My answer to them is, “How’s that working for you?”

Want to learn more about how to incorporate self-regulation strategies in schools and classrooms?

The MEHRIT Centre (TMC) website (www.self-reg.ca) has lots information and learning resources about self-regulation and the Shanker Self-Reg Method, including:

  • a Knowledge Series (short printable articles that can be used as hand-outs)
  • online courses and webinars
  • an online Self-Reg community called Peersite

TMC’s annual Self-Reg Summer Symposium is held at Trent University, Peterborough, Ont., where TMC is based.

Dr. Shanker’s new book (June 2016), Self-Reg: How to help your child (and you) break the stress cycle and successfully engage with life, reflects his current thinking on self-regulation.

En bref: Stuart Shanker est le plus grand expert canadien en science d’autorégulation et le chef de la direction de The MEHRIT Centre, un réseau éducatif mettant l’accent sur la conversion en pratiques des connaissances actuelles en matière d’autorégulation. John Hoffman s’est entretenu l’an dernier avec le professeur Shanker lors d’un symposium d’une semaine sur l’autorégulation à l’Université Trent, discutant de l’évolution de sa compréhension de l’autorégulation et explorant sa vision des pratiques fondées sur l’autorégulation à l’école.

L’interview du professeur Shanker aborde sa nouvelle compréhension du fondement biologique de l’autorégulation, le travail réalisé pour découvrir les « stresseurs cachés » susceptibles d’affecter la capacité d’apprentissage d’un enfant, ainsi que sa vision d’un grand changement interdisciplinaire du paradigme de notre conception du développement, du comportement et de l’apprentissage des enfants.

Photo: courtesy Stuart Shanker


First published in Education Canada, March 2016

Meet the Expert

john hoffman

John Hoffman

John Hoffman is a freelance writer and researcher specializing in child development, parenting and children’s mental health. He has worked with Stuart Shanker on several projects, including the parent booklet Calm, Alert, and Ready to Learn, published by Pearson School Canada.

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