What Does It Really Mean To Restore?

What Does It Really Mean To Restore?

By: Nancy Niessen

I thought I knew what Step 5 of Shanker Self-Reg was all about. As I delved into Step 5 more deeply in the Level 2 Facilitator Program, my understanding became fuzzy before becoming clear again. Step 5 is about restoring balance in all five of our domains: biological, emotion, cognitive, social, prosocial. Think about a five-prong teeter totter, a variation on something like this, but with five seats:

When one of my adult children heard about the visual I was looking for, they astutely pointed out to me that a teeter totter is about balance. With 5-seats it wouldn’t be balanced. Perfect! Balancing all five domains so that our tension is released and energy is restored is no easy feat! If we have worked on and understand the Steps before the fifth step, and in particular Step 4: Reflect, Develop Stress Awareness, Step 5 is easier. The fourth Step is not only about developing our awareness and understanding of what stress feels like, but understanding what calm feels like. When we know what calm feels like, we can better understand which activities help us to feel that way and which ones leave us feeling recharged and in that “ahhhh” state.

For example, I love the water. I love to be in it, whether it’s diving off a dock at a lake, swimming in Georgian Bay, playing in the waves, or doing laps in the pool near my home. Swimming is typically one of my restorative activities, as well as a great way to exercise. One day I decided it was time to bump up the number of lengths I was doing and kept increasing my laps by five at a time until I’d added on 25 more laps. But it was a struggle to do so, and I found that while I was happy with my accomplishment, I was also tired. My heart rate and my respiration were elevated and I was physically drained, feeling like I needed to replenish my energy. I did that by just floating and doing what I refer to as “being an otter”, or playing in the water. That was when I came to truly understand Step 5: if we have expended so much energy on an activity that our energy is depleted instead of being refilled, then what we were doing is not restorative. That might sound fairly straightforward, but sometimes we need to experience something to truly understand it. It was the floating and playing that were restorative for me that day, not the laps.

A restorative activity is one that leaves us relaxed and in what I think of as a Zen state. We are neither fixated on goals nor on doing or being more than we are in that moment when we are engaged in a restorative activity. Stuart Shanker talks about true restoration being its own reward. The point of restoring is not about going on to do anything else. It’s not about restoring so that we can achieve something else. The reward of Step 5 is the feeling of being balanced in all the domains and of having our energy replenished. That’s all there is to it. It sounds simple, but it’s pretty profound.

My experience in the pool led me to consider my 95 year old mother. I always thought of gardening as one of her restorative activities. However, she typically pushes herself to the point of exhaustion, ignoring the signals her body is giving her that it needs to rest. So, more often than not, gardening is not a restorative activity for her. It might start out that way, but as she pushes through those brain-body signals that tell her to take a break, gardening begins to drain her energy and increases the tension she is experiencing. The positive stress of working in the garden typically turns negative as a result of stressors in many domains: biological, because she is exhausted, not to mention physical pain she might be feeling from the exertion; emotion, because she is frustrated that she can’t do more; cognitive, as she’s thinking about her plan for the garden and what she’d like to accomplish; social, because she wonders what neighbours and passersby will think if the garden isn’t up to her standard; and prosocial because she immensely dislikes having to ask for help with a garden that is increasingly difficult to maintain.

So what are my mother’s restorative activities? Through talking and observing I’ve figured out a few. One thing that works for her to replenish her energy level is to make a cup of tea and become immersed in a book that has a good story line. She reads non-fiction and more challenging content, but if we are talking about a restorative activity, then the type of book we choose to read can be important. Sometimes a light read or something humorous does the trick.

What Does It Really Mean to Restore –– Self-Reg.caAnother activity that can be restorative for her is jigsaw puzzles. I remember her doing them when I was a young adult and she’s started doing them again. One Christmas I pulled out a puzzle when she seemed restless and unsettled and, sure enough, she gravitated right to the puzzle, especially when her grandkids joined her. That activity reignited her interest in puzzles and now, especially in the cold, winter months when she is house-bound, puzzles are another restorative activity that she engages in. We’ll typically stop at the puzzle table on our way through her house to try to fit some pieces in place. It’s one of the ways we spend time together and even if few words are spoken, the social contact is restorative for her as well.

How do I restore and become balanced in all five domains other than through swimming? How do I get to that “ahhhh” feeling? This is one of the tricky parts about Step 5. What restores me right now might not be what restores me another day. Our needs are fluid and changing, and that’s the beauty of Self-Reg – it takes our changing needs into account and allows for changes and choices. Some of the things I do are small, simple and immediate like Tactical Breathing, sitting quietly watching birds and nature, being outside, having bare feet, cooking, watering the garden or the plants inside, arranging a bouquet of flowers, or strumming my ukelele. Some things require a little more time, effort, and planning, like going to a movie or to my favourite beach and putting my feet in the sand. It’s important to have a variety of activities that we find restorative because we are all different, and because we need different ways of restoring at different times. What works for me might not work for you. And what works for me now might not work for me later.

What’s on your menu of restorative activities?

Nancy Niessen is a retired elementary teacher whose career spanned over three decades. Most of her time was spent in the Early Years and Special Education. During her teaching career, she also instructed ETFO’s Kindergarten Specialist AQ and was part of her local Reggio Study Group. Nancy is proud to be a Cohort 1 graduate of TMC’s Foundations Program and is delighted to be enrolled in Level 2 which allows her to delve even deeper into Self-Reg learning.

By | 2018-10-16T11:28:47+00:00 October 23rd, 2018|


  1. Lisa Cranston October 23, 2018 at 10:45 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing this blog Nancy. Step 5 was a tricky one for me – I thought I got it, and then I was confused and wasn’t sure if I understood the difference between steps 4 & 5. I especially appreciate your point that restoring is something we do for it’s own sake, not so that we can get to something else. It is the end, not a means to an end.
    For me, running was restorative. Then I started running with a heart monitor and running went from being restorative to being stressful. Instead of enjoying the fresh air and being out in nature, I was watching the numbers on the monitor. This year, I ditched the monitor and now I enjoy running again. I see the birds, watch the changing fall colours and feel relaxed and restored. Plus, at the half marathon this past weekend, I went from my worst time ever last year to my second best time!

  2. Jane Wilson October 26, 2018 at 2:01 pm - Reply

    I loved reading your blog on Step 5, Restore. Being mindful vs mindless about restoring is a key for me. I have thrown around the word lightly before, for example, “Ahh, the weekend is here time to restore…” and then proceeding to invite people over, then madly cleaning the house and racking my brain to come up with creative appetizers. Then stressing my husband by expecting him to kick in to help with buying groceries on his way home from work, refresh the flowers in the vase, and help get ready for company. On top of that, add in eating high calorie food and drinking socially (depending on the occasion after they arrive). Staying up late is often the case, as well. So much for restoring balance after a long week. Thank goodness for Sunday..oh yeah, forgot, I brought bags of homework to do and I have a new book to read called Grounded so that I can prepare for a meeting with a teacher who has children exhibiting explosive behavior in their class. I am looking forward to that but it is still energy expended in anticipation of next week’s meeting. So, maybe next weekend and through the week I will do a better job being mindful of Step 5. Thank you again for the clear reminder of what Restore is!

  3. Brian McDonnell February 4, 2019 at 10:08 pm - Reply

    Hi Nancy,
    I really enjoyed reading your post. What struck me most is your analysis of Step 4 and the idea that we need to understand what being calm feels like. As I reflect on my own processes of self-care I now think that I may not truly understand what it feels like to be calm. I am currently entering one of the busiest segments of my calendar year as an educator. I am coaching the basketball team, head of my department, member of the leadership and teacher advisory councils. This is in addition to my most important roles as a husband and a father. I prioritize my health by taking advantage of the exercise facility at my school, but after I read your article I feel like this activity is something that helps propel me through my day and does not necessarily nourish or sustain me. I may often be engaging in exercises that are energy depleting and are not allowing me to fully restore my energy so I can achieve something else.

    I often look at my calendar and relish an upcoming weekend that does not have many pre-planned activities or events. However upon deeper reflection I take this time to watch some of my favourite sporting events or movies while strolling through various social media platforms which can really be categorized as “mindless” Is this a restorative activity? Am I calm during this time frame? I believe I am taking this time to think about what lies ahead of me and the tasks that I need to accomplish both personally and professionally.

    I have decided to set a new goal that will help me with Step 5 by starting a Gratitude Journal. I am hoping that this will allow me to become more mindful and acknowledge the things both big and small that have a positive impact on my everyday life.I am also going to incorporate some meditation into this routine that will allow for more meaningful reflections. I often find myself getting overwhelmed with the many tasks that are required of me as an educator, parent, and coach. I would like to be able to take the steps to enjoy the moments that brighten my day and give me joy. I find the idea of mindfulness a fascinating one as I am someone who truly desires this but I am in need of some serious practice.

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