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Self-Reg as a Process not a Program

By: Valerie Gray

Recently I have been given some support in my classroom for one particular student where we’ve identified a need for some self-regulation.

This has been a great opportunity for me to teach and learn from another educator, and to watch the student interact with somebody who is not me. This child has been in my class for the past three years consecutively and we have worked extensively on self-regulation. She has come a very long way but is getting a little older and she absolutely needs more support.

The educational assistant approached me yesterday and asked me if it was time to put this child on a sticker chart to reward her for positive behaviour. I’ll be honest, I had to take a deep breath and reframe my own thinking for a second, because I got very frustrated when she asked me that question. However, moments later, I recognized that I just needed some time to prepare my response to her.

As a psychology major, I myself have always been very interested in human behaviour and have studied most behavioral theorists at length. I can understand a lot of where our current practices have come from and I respect them immensely. I understand why they work, why they don’t work and how self-regulation has evolved due to these theories.

It's important to first acknowledge the educational assistant, because she recognized that this child needed something. She was digging a little deeper to understand that she needed to make a change for the child so that she could help her. The recommendation for a sticker chart was actually an act of caring, so that’s a great start. This educator understands that behaviour is communication, and that is still true. This particular student is suffering from trauma however, so connection is the real sticker per se.

Some people might argue that we live in a token society, and a sticker chart is like a token. That is true on a lot of accounts, but I think it’s important to recognize that there’s so much complexity within why we do what we do every single day, and it’s always about a feeling that we might not even recognize. It’s the feeling of being valued, connected to something, the feeling of satisfaction, personal achievement, giving to others, and a feeling or a sense of completeness.

If anyone has ever been fortunate enough to really feel fulfilled in their job or career, you might be able to pinpoint the feeling that I’m talking about. It’s that feeling of yes I get paid to do this, but I also have developed a passion and drive within myself that gets me up in the morning, gets me excited and makes me really want to do more in my occupation.

So, thinking about that feeling, we need to think about how students can feel that same way at school and in their lives every day. They also are looking to feel valued, heard and connected to their peers and their community. No sticker chart can give us that. So how do we get there now that we’ve taken sticker charts off the table?

We need to start to reframe the behavior that we are seeing. In that moment of recognizing that this child is communicating through a particular behaviour, we now need to reframe it by asking “why this, and why now?” Through that process we begin to see a different child. I think it’s also important to recognize before we move on from step one, to remind people that no child wakes up in the morning thinking, “I would really like to trash my classroom today and terrify all my friends.” Just like as adults, we don’t wake up and say, “I would love to have a negative confrontation with a colleague today and be worried sick over it for a week.” Nobody wants that and everybody genuinely wants to feel accepted, valued and connected to their peer group and community. There is no one way to reframe so it is not a program that can easily be described. It is a process that happens within, it can be a response in the moment and changes every time you reframe a behaviour because you continue to see a child differently.

After we have reframed the behaviour and we realize that this child is asking for our help because it is something that they cannot do for themselves at this time, we now need to start to recognize the stresses that the child is under. For example, there are stressors within five domains that are hidden stressors that are not super obvious. We of course can always try to reduce the most obvious ones first; for example changing the environment, reducing the noise, changing itchy clothing or feeding a hungry belly. But then we start to dig deeper and look at stress within the five domains:

Biological: body

Cognitive: academic stress

Emotion: the feeling of loss, sadness, happiness

Social: intense interactions between peers and adults

Prosocial: when that child looks around them and recognizes that everyone else is getting rewarded and praised for how wonderful and amazing they are and that’s not happening to them.

After we recognize the stress, we then can look at reducing the stress in our environments and really start to change things permanently for students. I want to mention that it’s important to recognize that changing one stress for one child does not mean that will work for everyone. It is important to recognize that every child is incredibly individual. While reducing stress might look like calming music for one, it may be incredibly stressful for someone like me who has a hard time with calming music. So reducing stress is very individualized and there’s many examples of what can be done to reduce the stress.

The fourth step is reflect. Reflect is probably one of the most important steps in my own opinion and it really is a teaching point and how we can move forward. We move forward by helping a child start to recognize what happened in their body, what action or situation caused this reaction in their brain and body, and how we can start to recognize that within ourselves so that we can help ourselves next time it happens. For example, starting to speak to a child about a situation and asking them how their brain felt, how their tummy, arms, legs, feet felt at that time. They might respond by saying something like, “I felt like I needed to run away” or they might say, “my tummy was so tight” or they might say, “my fists were very strong” or, “my head was very loud” or “my head was very hot.” From this point, we need to start recognizing what they’re saying to us, and help them use those as clues so they can become their own stress detectives the next time they feel like this is about to happen again. These are big, long conversations, and they happen often. The more they happen and the more we talk to kids about recognizing bodily cues, the more the child develops an understanding of their body/brain connection.

The final step is Restore/Respond. We need to prepare our bodies for stress that’s going to happen, because stress is inevitable. Knowing that there is good stress and there’s bad stress, it's all energy expensive. We need to find ways to help ourselves mitigate it. We need to work restorative practices into our lives so that we can prepare ourselves to handle upcoming stress. Without restoration, we run on empty and never have enough gas to get through the ups and downs of the day.

Restorative Practices: Finding restorative activities that are personalized are best. For example, yoga is very restorative to me however it is not restorative to others. Going for a run is also often restorative to me and it resets me, but again is stressful for others. I have recognized that a good play session with Lego or Play-Doh is restorative for my son and he also finds coloring or drawing a restorative practice because he can quiet his mind to reset. He has articulated that reading, snuggle time with a trusted adult or a bath or a shower is helpful for him.

Restorative practices are unique to everyone and can include exercise, outdoor time, play, music, quiet time etc. For example, we know that the outdoors is very rejuvenating to the mind, body and soul. It really helps to get a good breath of fresh air and the sights and sounds of nature are relaxing. I find that nature is definitely my biggest reset button so I make sure that I build in outdoor time every day. When I do not, I just do not function the way I should. I also find that eating healthy foods so my body isn’t craving sugar all the time allows me to think clearly.

It is our job to really help students recognize what the most restorative practices are for them, and to encourage them to do these practices daily and then check in with themselves to see if it has been helpful for them. These are big conversations to have with little brains and bodies, but it is incredibly amazing to see how responsive and interested they are. Watching the Self-Reg application process of a child is a life-changing experience for all parties involved.

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1 Comment

Aviva Dunsiger
Aviva Dunsiger
Apr 12, 2022

Thanks for sharing this story! It really makes me reflect on some similar experiences, and how I maybe needed to take more time than I did. I think I’ll need to return to this post again as a good reminder about adult reframing. I wonder if others feel the same.


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