“Self-regulation” is a hot topic right now in Ontario as well as in international education. Government publications such as, “With our Best Future in Mind”, “Every Child, Every Opportunity” and “Supporting Minds” clearly set out expectations and strategies to address this topic. The theory behind this trend is that the better a child can self-regulate, the more prepared they are for learning.
We live in a culture of consequences and rewards. While often effective in changing behaviour, implementing consequences and rewards does not help us to understand the reasons behind a person’s behavior.
I am a strong believer that all children want to do well and that when they don’t succeed in school, it is certainly not because they are trying to be “bad” or even because they are trying to seek attention or get out of doing work. To understand the reasons why a child might be having difficulty paying attention, inhibiting impulsiveness, regulating emotions, getting along with others and overall, being “ready to learn” we need to understand what “stressors” may be playing a role. When a child (or an adult for that matter) is not performing to the best of their ability, often a combination of biological, emotional, cognitive and social factors come into play.
Regulating one’s emotions is a skill that is not innately present, and just as we teach math and language, we must teach these important life skills, both at home and at school. One of our school goals this year is to implement a school-wide focus on self-regulation. We are teaching our students to use tools to help them monitor and improve their emotional states so that they are able to optimize their ability to learn. In other words, we want our students to recognize how they feel, and if they aren’t feeling good, we want them to identify what is making them feel that way and what can be done about it.
There are many formal programs as well as informal strategies that can be used to teach self-regulation in schools. “Zones of Regulation” by Leah M. Kuypers is a program that many Simcoe County District School Board schools are currently using. It’s a curriculum consisting of 18 lessons aimed at teaching self-regulation strategies. Although it is intended to be implemented one-on-one or in small groups, many educators have adapted the program to meet the needs of whole classes, and in our case, school wide.
Using this framework, students develop their own personal “toolkit” of strategies to use during different situations to bring them back to the “green zone” where they “do their best learning”. These self-regulation tools are individualized for each person but may include strategies such as using breathing techniques, stretching, exercising, listening to quiet music, or simply getting a drink of water.
Understanding the Zones
Within this program there are four “Zones” that correspond with different colours. If a child is in the green zone, they are calm, happy and ready to learn. If someone is in the blue zone they are in a low state of alertness where they may be sad, tired or bored. In the yellow zone, a student is experiencing a heightened state of alertness where they may be frustrated, worried, nervous or excited. In the red zone, students are in an extremely heightened state of alertness and may be angry or out of control.
It is normal for everyone to experience times in the blue, yellow or even the red zones but our goal at school is to try to help students to be in the green zone where they are “ready for learning”. This is not always an easy task, even for adults. Consequently, some of our classes are framing this work around the slogan “It’s not easy being green.”
As you can see, our school has taken “Zones” and is developing additional school wide strategies like “it’s not easy being green”. Some classes are also implementing classroom “workshops” where students can perform different learning activities with and without the use of various “tools” and then determine what tools work best for them and in which situations. Student leaders then run these workshops for younger students.
Around our school, all school staff use the common language of “Zones” and we also use this language with parents. Parents are kept informed about school-wide Zones programming through brochures that have been sent home as well as updates through the school newsletter. Families can support their children by using the same language at home. They can also help their children to label their emotions and help them come up with coping strategies that they can use in and outside of the home. Parents can also model this by labeling their own emotions and demonstrating how they use “tools” to get themselves back into the “green zone”.
I hope that by now you have developed an understanding that self-regulation doesn’t simply mean to sit and be quiet in class…that is called compliance…it is also called boredom! Compliance is often based on punishment and reward but, unlike compliance, self-regulation increases the ability to cope with greater and greater challenges. It means that students understand what conditions help them work best and begin to self-advocate to implement those conditions.
When I was in school, like many students, I had difficulty sitting still for lessons and blocking out distractions. A few years ago my mother gave me some of my old elementary school report cards that she had found and they made very clear mention of these difficulties…I mean embarrassingly clear mention. In reality, I still have these challenges; but as I got older, I learned to use my “toolkit” more frequently to help me to be successful at school and work. I knew that I had trouble staying still and needed to keep busy. Luckily, by late high school and university, I had developed a very positive coping strategy that involved keeping my mind and body engaged in learning by keeping very detailed notes. Even as an adult, people who sit next to me at professional development sessions will notice that my hand is always moving, whether I am typing, writing or doodling. This strategy helps me to remain focused for longer periods of time but also helps me to retain information. If I was not taught this strategy, in this case by my parents, I may not have learned socially acceptable ways to have success in school and my life could be very different today.
I believe that one of our goals, as parents and as educators is to teach children and young adults to implement self-regulation strategies so that as they get older, they can function in the real world as adults who are able to make responsible decisions, support themselves to the best of their ability and contribute productively to society.
Alison Golding is Vice-Principal at W.H. Day ES in Bradford and a regular contributor to Sharing Simcoe. Read her bio here.