The ideas in this article are based on the work of Dr Stuart Shanker and if you find this interesting I encourage you to read more of his books and publications and to watch videos of his presentations which are available for free online! This presentation is a great place to start http://www.runforlife.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Shanker1.pdf. The website for the Canadian Self-Regulation Initiative (CSRI) is available at http://www.self-regulation.ca and has many further inspirational stories and resources, including these free webinars http://www.self-regulation.ca/webinars.html.
So what is self-regulation?
It is NOT self-control, inhibition or compliance, it is NOT being good. It is not about punishments and rewards, coercion masks the inner reality of the child, and while it might produce the results we want immediately bribes and threats will not create the inner attitude of a relaxed, inherently motivated and engaged child. Behaviour management does exactly that, it manages behaviour, managing someone else behaviour is exhausting and unsustainable, unless it is accompanied by deep changes in the child which address the root causes, it can also damage relationships between children and carer and teachers and children.
Self-regulation IS how efficient and effectively a child deals with stressors and recovers from them. It is connected to resilience and it begins in the body before birth, see DIR Floortime stage 1 for information on how this basic foundation can be assisted, http://www.icdl.com/DIR/6-developmental-milestones/stage-1-self-regulation-interest-in-the-world.
Essentially we can ‘up-regulate’ and ‘down-regulate’ young children and with enough skill older children and adults, until they can regulate for themselves. It is something we can model and give as a bodily felt experience. Language doesn’t help so much as we are actually communicating neurosystem to neurosystem. We know that gentle music soothes and exercise wakens us up, it follows that principle.
Self regulation in the Montessori environment
As busy teachers and carers we are accustomed to notice when children need ‘down-regulating’, the children we see first are the ones going fast and chaotically, according to Shankar’s ‘Arousal Continuum’ they are ‘hyperalert’, but it is just as important that we focus on those who are ‘hypoalert’, those who are day-dreaming to excess, the children who are quiet, still, sleepy. As Montessorian’s we know that children must make the use of their time to fully experience each Plane of Development, the children who are ‘calmly focused but alert’ are going to be able to access the learning available to them, while both the ‘hyperalert’ and the ‘hypoalert’ are missing out on chances to develop physically, socially, emotionally and intellectually. It becomes no surprise that a child with developmental problems often has a whole cluster of difficulties, lacking self-regulation they lack availability for so many other learning experiences.
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So we need to help children to manage stress so that they are not ‘hyperalert’ but just as importantly increase children’s energy so that they do not fade out and become ‘hypoalert’. If a child finds learning difficult because of a Specific Learning Difficulty it makes sense that this will drain their energy and make them less available for learning experiences, this is another reason why we want to help children with dyslexia, dyscalculia etc to find strategies to help them manage tasks and give them work which is challenging but, for instance, has less examples and is delivered in smaller chunks. As Montessorian’s we have long observed how children take a piece of demanding work followed by simpler practical life, snack, or soothing art and music tasks. A child doing this is self-regulating well, it is necessary to make work suggestions to those who struggle to self-regulate so that they can ‘up-regulate’ and ‘down-regulate’ and reflect on this.
The Canadian Self-Regulation Initiative (CSRI) offers this model of self-regulation, it is available on their website.
It might be useful to see how well your environment meets these four areas. I am interested in the Body & Behaviours area marked, “Whole body listening”, which sounds very much like Focusing, which I mention in the Self-care section of my Montessori Commons. Focusing is a taught technique for listening deeply and sensitivity to the whole body experience. It would certainly be a helpful skill for an adult leading a classroom and teaching it to children would help children to realise when they are ‘hyperalert’ or ‘hypoalert’ so that they can make a conscious choice to ‘up-regulate’ or ‘down-regulate’, they can reflect on what activities help them to do this to inform their future choices and take control over their own learning.