Self-regulation seems to be a hot topic amongst educators, particularly in British Columbia and Ontario where several school boards are focusing on self-regulation. In fact, some theorists feel that self-regulation is more important than IQ when predicting educational performance (Shanker, 2012). So what exactly is self-regulation?
Self-regulation1 is defined as the ability to attain, maintain and change the state of one’s arousal level to be able to attend to the task at hand (Shellenberger & Williams, 1996). Baumeister and Vohn state that self-regulation also involves the ability to monitor, evaluate and modify one’s emotions, sustain and shift one’s attention and ignore distractions, understand the meaning of social interactions and how to engage in them appropriately, and to connect with others and understand how others may feel or think (as cited in Shanker, 2012).
Today’s elementary school teachers are faced with the challenge of meeting the myriad needs of their students, many of whom have challenging behaviours due to different diagnoses and needs. Students with poor self-regulation may be part of this challenge. A few examples will help further understand the impact of self-regulation.
Johnny returns from recess and is unable to stay focused on the math problems he is working on. His body is constantly moving, his voice is loud, and he is unable to stay on task. Sarah has difficulty at the lockers and in line. She tends to lash out physically and yell at her peers, telling them to leave her alone and to stop touching her. Although quite bright, David participates little in class, is frequently late, works very slowly, and occasionally falls asleep in class. Although their behaviours are different, Johnny, Sarah and David all have self-regulation issues.
As a teacher, interpreting a student’s behaviour is not always clear-cut. Self-regulation issues do not necessarily jump to mind when a student exhibits challenging behaviours or difficulty learning. Johnny may be seen as hyperactive and be referred for medication; Sarah’s hitting may be interpreted as bullying or aggressiveness and she may be reprimanded for her behaviour; David may be called lazy or his parents may be blamed for not putting him to bed early enough and not getting him to school on time.
If we put on our self-regulation lenses, we can better understand certain student behaviours that do not respond to the usual behaviour management strategies. Using the Alert Program’s (Shellenberger & Williams, 1996) example, we view the body as an engine; sometimes the engine runs too fast and the student may be overly active. This fast or high engine will not match the demands of the task to sit and trace letters or complete a puzzle. A student with a fast/high engine may speak too loudly, interrupt, fidget continually and disrupt peers. Whereas this engine speed may be appropriate for recess or at a party, it is not conducive to learning in the classroom.
On the other hand, a slow or low engine may appear lethargic, inattentive and lazy. These students may be lying on their desks looking uninterested. They are slow to get their work done and participate minimally. Like the high or fast engine, a slow or low engine is not bad. This speed is good when it’s time to relax or go to bed but this engine speed is not conducive to learning in the classroom.
A “just right” engine is what a student needs in the classroom. Being able to self-regulate one’s own engine to meet the demands of the classroom task places the student in an optimal zone for learning. Unfortunately, not all students can self-regulate and maintain or even attain a just right engine.
So what can be done to help these students?
Understanding self-regulation is an important step for the teacher. Looking at what we do to help us self-regulate can give us some insight about the needs of others. What do you do to help your engine get to “just right” and stay at that level to meet the demands of your daily life? Do you start your day with a cup of coffee and a shower? Do you need loud music on your way to work? When you feel tired during the day, do you reach for something to put in your mouth? When you correct assignments, do you need complete silence or do you prefer noise in the background to help you focus? Each individual has a preferred way of staying alert. Watch your colleagues during the next staff meeting. Who is tapping a pen? Who is swinging a leg under the table? Who is doodling or chewing gum? They are doing what they need to do in order for their brains/ bodies to stay attentive. Try telling them to stop and observe what happens. They will resume their pen tapping or leg swinging shortly after; the behaviour is a strategy to stay attentive. To stay attentive, they need to resume the behaviour.
The same thing may be happening with your students. Some chew their pencils, while others rock on their chairs in order to stay on task. Do you have students who need to hum or chew their clothing when they work? Like Johnny, Sarah and David, some students have a hard time attaining or maintaining a just right level of alertness with strategies that are acceptable in the classroom.
Johnny is easily over stimulated and runs on high engine most of the day. Sitting down calmly after recess to attend to a work sheet is a challenge. Giving him some heavy work before he sits down in class may be beneficial to changing his engine level. He may be responsible to hold the heavy door while his peers enter the school after recess, he may deliver a box of books to the class down the hall before sitting down in class, or do a few chair push-ups before he starts the work sheet.
During transitions, Sarah gets anxious. She is overly responsive to unexpected touch, and the proximity of her peers in line or at the lockers puts her engine on high. The touch input from the others is so uncomfortable that she can lash out in defense. Sarah can easily be mislabeled as a bully. Having some understanding of her neurological system is the first step to helping her change behaviours. Then what? Modifying the environment such as placing her locker on the end rather than in the middle of the group can decrease the chances of being accidentally touched by her peers. At lunch time, sitting at the end of the table also offers a “safer” space for Sarah. In line, being the last one is often easier since no one touches her from behind; she can see everyone ahead of her so the fear of unexpected touch is decreased. Avoid touching Sarah with light touch or unexpectedly, use a firm pressure and approach her so she can see you coming.
David has a low engine. He could benefit from a few strategies to get going. Before coming to school in the morning, he could jump on his trampoline, drink sour lemonade or listen to some lively music. In class, having David sit on a Disc ‘o Sit could offer alerting input for him to change his engine from low to just right (Pfeiffer, Henry, Miller, & Witherell, 2008).
There are many different strategies that can be used to help students attain a just right engine to attend and learn in class. One source of support is occupational therapists, who promote life skills and engagement in occupational roles. The occupational therapist can work with students with poor self-regulation and with their teachers to help them understand. Contact your school board’s occupational therapist or your province’s occupational therapy association/board to get some support for self-regulation in your classroom. For the Johnnys, Sarahs and Davids in your class, your understanding of self-regulation is vital to help them be more successful in school.
1 Although there is a cognitive aspect involved in self-regulation, it is not to be confused with how developmental psychologists use the term. Many refer to it as the “self-directed process through which learners transform their mental abilities into task related academic skills” (p. 1, Zimmerman, 2001).
Pfeiffer, B., Henry, A., Miller, S., & Witherell, S. (2008). Effectiveness of Disc ‘O’ Sit cushions on attention to task in second-grade students with attention difficulties. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 62(3), 274-281.
Shanker, S. (2012). Calm, Alert, and Learning. Don Mills, ON: Pearson Canada Inc.
Shellenberger, S., & Williams, M. S. (1996). How does your engine run? The alert program for self regulation. Albuquerque, NM: Therapy Works, Inc.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Caroline Hui, erg. OT(C) has over 20 years experience in pediatrics and she works as a private clinician in the Eastern Townships, Quebec. She is currently completing her Master’s degree at McGill University.
Mélissa Coallier, erg., M.Sc. has 10 years experience as a pediatric occupational therapist and completed a Master’s degree at Sherbrooke University in 2011. She is currently working as a Clinical research coordinator at the Research Chair in Reading and Writing Learning in Young Children
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s May/June 2013 issue.