When Not Complying Is The Self-Regulated Choice

When Not Complying Is The Self-Regulated Choice

Today was a Day 4, which means that I have a prep period at the end of the day: it’s music. Since we don’t have a separate music room at our school, our music teacher comes to our classroom with a large cart of instruments and a traveling stereo to support many singing and dancing activities. During this period, I’m usually trying to upload documentation from our day, so I often sit over at our eating table to do so. I can’t help but watch the children as I work, and my teaching partner, Paula, often does the same. It was one of our observations today that inspired this post. 

This music class is often a very loud and active one, and while the children love the regular songs and dances that they do each week, sometimes the noise and activity can feel overwhelming at the end of the day. Paula noted that there were three children today — one SK child and two JK children — that chose not to participate in all of the songs and dances. 

  • They sat back and watched. A couple of the children swayed along to the music, but did not stand up to dance.
  • One child clapped along quietly, but chose to observe from the periphery.
  • Another child decided to sit on the sofa, read a book, and write her own alphabet chart.  

As Paula noted in our discussion, all three of these children self-regulated. They knew that the music program was too much for them at this time, and instead of getting actively involved, becoming dysregulated, and ending the day on a bad note, they all chose calmer options. They still enjoyed the songs. They still liked watching the dances. But they knew that they couldn’t partake successfully at this time of the day. 

And as Paula and I celebrated the fact that all three of these young children knew what they needed, I had to wonder, would their choices from today always be seen in a positive light? None of these children complied with what was being expected. Our music teacher knew what they needed, and so supported their decisions, but is there a chance that they could have been questioned for not following the norm? I think back to many of my teaching experiences. 

  • Would I have seen these children as disrespectful or disobedient?
  • Would I have said that they can’t self-regulate because they don’t follow instructions? 

I wonder if this very scenario highlights the difference between self-regulation and self-control. How do we create classroom environments where we support self-regulation first? For I know that I could have insisted that any one of these three children join in on the music activity as the rest of the class did, but I guarantee you that they would not have ended the day as calmly as they did. They knew what they needed. Are we always ready to listen to them?

Aviva Dunsiger has been the Portal Plus Moderator for over a year now and completed the Foundations 1 Certification Program. She has taught everything from Kindergarten to Grade 6 and enjoys blogging about her teaching and learning experiences. She blogs professionally on her blog, Living Avivaloca. Aviva is excited to contribute a monthly post on The MEHRIT Centre Blog.

By | 2018-03-14T10:24:17+00:00 March 14th, 2018|


  1. Denise Thompson March 14, 2018 at 12:08 pm - Reply

    My observations as an itinerant special education teacher is that educators are becoming more willing to let our FDK students self-regulate by opting out of what they determine are stressful or over-stimulating activities. However, the challenge I face almost daily is more of a resistance by educators to allow or encourage our older students the same abilities to self-regulate by opting out or choosing an alternative activity. The tendency is to see this as work avoidance by the student while educators are concerned that they if they “allow “ students to do this they are giving up control of their classroom, setting a bad precedent for the other students and setting the student up for failure. Lots of work to be done around self-regulation and the 5 domains.

    • Aviva Dunsiger March 14, 2018 at 12:41 pm - Reply

      Thanks Denise! It’s so interesting that you say this, as it was my experience with teaching older students (up to Grade 6) that inspired our discussion in the first place. As I said to my teaching partner, I wondered if this would always be seen as self-regulation. I thought that this “opting out” might be viewed negatively in some other grades, and yet, choosing not to participate may still be the best option for kids. So how do we help reframe this behaviour? What might this mean for kids? I hope that even as these children become older, similar actions by them (and their peers) will be just as well-received.


  2. Lisa Corbett March 14, 2018 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    I’m wondering, too, how this looks for everyone (teachers & students) in grade 1. Kids used to self regulating by opting out are going to have a tough time in some classes, will be labeled non-compliant, will cause stress & be stressed. Not sure what the solution is!

    • Aviva Dunsiger March 14, 2018 at 6:13 pm - Reply

      Great questions, Lisa! I wonder if it comes down to changing our view of Self-Reg (from self-control to self-regulation) for kids of all ages. As adults, don’t we sometimes self-regulate by opting out? Why can’t this also be true for kids? When I saw what these three children did, I realized how much they know about themselves as learners. They may not always be able to express it, but they know it. I think this is something to celebrate. I’m not sure that I always thought that way, but I do now. I wonder, as educators of various grades, what’s stopping us from supporting an opt-out strategy as one Self-Reg strategy to use?


  3. Lisa March 16, 2018 at 12:39 am - Reply

    I love this, Aviva! It’s the “soft eyes” Susan Hopkins spoke about. It would be amazing to have more awareness just like this in our schools. It’s so encouraging to see some shifts taking place. Thanks for sharing.

    • Aviva Dunsiger March 17, 2018 at 3:36 pm - Reply

      Thanks Lisa! I think that this is an important shift to make, and it’s taken me a long time to get comfortable with this kind of shift. I’m very curious to hear about some other shifts that people are noticing in education.


  4. Rachel March 17, 2018 at 5:16 am - Reply

    I’m wonder how other children are affected by seeing them self- regulate. Do other children feel that since those children are not participating, that it is an optional activity? Does this cause children that would just “rather” read to do so because they don’t “enjoy” the music class? Do other children see self- regulation as a choice of whether or not to participate?

    • Aviva Dunsiger March 17, 2018 at 3:44 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the comment, Rachel! I wonder if some of these answers come down to our view of the child. If there’s a child that would “rather read” because they “don’t enjoy music class,” I’d be curious to know what they don’t enjoy. How could music be better for them? I also wonder if these views of self-regulation might also come down to what we’ve taught children about self-regulating. Is this when we have to talk to kids about what makes them feel calm? What doesn’t? When they’re feeling dysregulated, what can they do? Opting out might not always be a choice, but is there a way that they can opt in and still self-regulate? Or do they do something that’s calming and then rejoin the group?

      The other thing to consider is that our Kindergarten Program Document doesn’t actually have subjects. Music is not evaluated as music, but instead, embedded as part of the Four Frames. I don’t actually have to comment on music for any child, and neither does the music teacher. As such, the instruction of music could totally change, and instead, be embedded within play, where the teacher facilitates this learning in small groups for children that might find it calming or as a way to communicate. She could set-up a provocation, and all children could choose to opt in or opt out. Due to the time of the day when we have music, and in consultation with the teacher, this is not what we’ve done this year, but we could do it. And if more children chose to opt out, I think that we would consider this option.

      I find it really interesting what we learn when we watch and listen carefully to kids! What do you think?

  5. Cheryl May 22, 2018 at 11:03 am - Reply

    It’s great that schools are starting to understand a child’s individual need and honor it as opposed to push them to “co-operate and comply” but I wonder how this prepares them for the real world. One can not always opt out of experiences they may find overwhelming or stressful on their nervous system, if they are taught to as children how will they cope as functional adults in the real world when work demands they attend a function that maybe sensory overwhelming, how will they be a good supportive spouse if the bright lights in the delivery room are overwhelming them and they have been taught to “sit out” ?!? I think one can be aware and sentive to a child’s stressors but sheltering them will not produce functional adults. I believe we must expose them to the stressors that overwhelm them in a limited and healthy manner and stretch the exposure over time until they no longer feel it a stress. Won’t Teaching children to opt out of those things that stress or overwhelm them create non functional adults?

    • Stephanie Pellett May 22, 2018 at 12:44 pm - Reply

      Hi Cheryl,

      Thanks for your comment. We definitely cannot always opt out of experiences we find stressful, but there are times we may find those experiences more or less overwhelming. There are times when we’re more resourced to handle the inevitable stressors of life (see the Thayer matrix, for example). In Self-Reg we know that stress is not only important, it’s crucial to learning, development and growth. We are not interested in sheltering kids, it’s really about equipping them to cope with challenges when they can’t do it on their own. Over time they learn their own coping strategies and develop more resilience.

      Thanks for your interest!

      • Aviva Dunsiger May 22, 2018 at 9:55 pm - Reply

        Thanks Cheryl and Stephanie for your comments! I agree with what Stephanie’s saying here. I also think that we need to consider the age and developmental levels of our students. Opting out might not be the best option for everyone, but could it be for some? What if, instead of preparing children for adulthood, we continue to respond to where they are at now, and how we can support them in moving forward? I keep thinking of this wonderful Tedx Talk that I saw a while ago now. Will the strategies that kids learn how, necessarily be the ones that they use later?


        Thanks for continuing this important conversation!

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