Self-regulation is a term given to the ability to stay calm, focused and alert. In a classroom setting, having strong self-regulation skills allows a child to get along with others, to control their behavior and to attend to lessons being given.
When children struggle with self-regulation they begin to have difficulty learning, regulating their emotions and developing friendships. These are the children who may have not been able to listen to a lesson and complete the assigned seatwork, they may become so overwhelmed by the sounds of the classroom that they may begin to rock and hum distracting themselves or others in the process or these are the children who have friendships break down at lunch or recess and end up being excluded from groups. Stuart Shanker, one of Canada’s experts on self-regulation has noted that, “IQ was the predictor of success in the 20th century. In the 21st century, self-regulation will be the predictor of success.”
Self-regulation in the classroom
With this new emphasis on the need to develop self-regulation skills there are many different strategies being used in classrooms. Exercise is one of the main strategies teachers have been utilizing as it is a great way to both increase alertness or decrease extra energy, depending on need, in order to improve focus. Students may be seen completing a simple set of jumping jacks and push ups in the classroom or maybe taking a walk around the school yard to wake up their brains before math.
Walk by a classroom and you may also see a room where typical desk chairs have been replaced by stability balls, which helps students wiggle and focus as they work. Desktops can be replaced with either standing desks or desks with bikes to encourage motion and movement while working. Other classrooms may have a variety of fidgets (little cubes or squishy balls that allow children to do something with their hands as a way to encourage focus on the teacher or an activity) available for children to “play” with during lessons.
Some classes may have tennis balls placed on the bottom of chairs or ambient music playing as a way create a healthy sound environment. Some teachers teach lessons dedicated to emotional mindfulness and self-regulation skills like deep breathing or brain breaks, which is when a child identifies the need to take time away from an interaction in the classroom or from their work to refocus themselves.
What parents can do at home to help kids with self-regulation
At home, the most important thing for a parent to do is to embed the language of self-regulation into the day to day activities of family life. With the families I work with, we often talk about the brain as a car engine and that it can run “too fast”, “too slow” or “just right”. The parents and I work with the child to encourage him or her to identify which mode their brain is in and to respond accordingly.
When their brain is “just right”, things are moving along well; homework is getting done, they are playing well with siblings or friends and their chores are being completed to age appropriate expectations. If their brain is “too slow”, and they are having a hard time getting an activity started, a solution may be listening to upbeat music, dancing or doing jumping jacks, in order to wake up the brain so that they are ready to go.
If their brains are running “too fast”, a child may take a warm bath to relax, cuddle with a favourite toy, use a weighted blanket to apply light pressure that can help calm their nervous system or do some deep breathing to help their brain calm down. I talk to children about how they are the “boss of their brains” and then when they can learn to identify how they are feeling, they can learn to choose what to do.
Teaching children to understand what self-regulation means and develop a bank of skills to identify and adapt their focus, alertness and resulting behaviour are some of the most powerful tools we, as teachers and parents, can give to our children. Learning to be the “boss of their brain” is truly a lifelong gift.