The number of high school students struggling with serious mood, behaviour or addiction problems is going through the roof, not to mention the large number of underachieving students and early school-leavers. The growing signs of these problems in younger students have prompted a vigorous response, with primary school teachers serving as the primary Self-Reg resource. Still, there are significant barriers to adopting the same approach at the secondary school level, given the size of classes and the institution; the amount of movement from class-to-class during the day; and perhaps most important, the specialization that occurs at this level of education. This may serve to enhance the quality of teaching in advanced subjects, but does so at the cost of weakening the relationship between teacher and individual student.
The combination of the physical, hormonal and neural changes occurring during adolescence, the increasing demands of preparing for post-secondary education or employment and the proliferation of stimuli and experiences that subvert ancient recovery systems are making for a “perfect storm” of chronic hyper- and hypoarousal. No matter our responses to these growing crises, we need to keep the focus on SELF-regulation: on teens themselves acquiring the competencies needed to recognize when they are over-stressed; how to identify and reduce their stressors; learn what it feels like to be calm, and more than that, how to enjoy this experience; and develop a repertoire of self-regulating practices to protect themselves from the punishing effects of chronic dysregulation.
In other words, we have to teach high school students the importance of Self-Reg and the theory behind it. This can be done in brief daily “self-regulation breaks”, augmented by science or health courses on the nature of stress and its impact on mood, attention and behavior. Instead of relegating this critical responsibility to a few Self-Reg “specialists”, every single teacher needs to learn how to read the signs of stress-behavior and acquire the skills to help their students become calmly focused and alert.
We are seeing a generation of students that urgently need help self-regulating, as much as if not more than they need to learn the basics of the subjects that we teach. In fact, the two sides of this equation are inextricably tied together. To promote the same self-regulation paradigm-revolution at the secondary school level that we are already seeing in primary schools across the country, we need to enable all of our high school teachers to learn the basics of Self-Reg. Every school needs to conduct an e-Scan on the assets, strengths and opportunities in their school for promoting self-regulation in all five domains of the Self-Reg model.
Most importantly: high school teachers need to recognize that Self-Reg is every bit as vital for their own well-being as it is for their students. For here too, both sides of the equation are inextricably tied together.
Dr. Stuart Shanker is the Founder and CEO of The MEHRIT Centre. You can read all the posts in his “Self-Reg View of” series here. You can also read his writing on Psychology Today and The Huffington Post.