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By Casey Burgess

Sam (a pseudonym) is in 11th grade and has a history of suspensions and expulsions. He was recently removed from his local high school because his stress behaviours were perceived as active acts of aggression. This was remarkable to me because, based on my work with Sam in my clinic– doing an assessment in a very individualized way that met his needs and reduced his stress–I would never be able to picture some of the behaviours I am told occur at school.

Sam is now placed in an alternative program where he completes work from booklets with an available teacher to support him. He is still refusing to do the work or attend the school. We have a school meeting coming up that I was asked to attend to help the school find ways to connect with him. This situation has gotten me thinking about the five look-fors in a Self-Reg Haven, because they are so applicable to him. I hope I can share some of this way of thinking with the group (which includes both home and school support people) when we have the school meeting. This link ( provides a description of a Self-Reg Haven, an idea that I applied to my thinking about Sam’s challenging situation.

Self-Reg Havens
The 5 Look Fors of a Self-Reg Haven: Safe, Rooted, Balanced, Capable & Trusted


The problem is that when Sam has expressed his feelings in school, even in the early stages, any showing of emotion has resulted in getting in trouble: behavioural consequences, and suspensions. He has been seen as a ‘bad’ kid, and has internalized much of this. He doesn’t feel like school is a safe place.


Because he has been suspended and expelled from several schools, he has never felt safe and rooted anywhere. He comes to each school carrying the weight of his school record (that the new school gets to know before they get to know him). He has never felt like school is family–just a place he is forced to go, where people misunderstand him and where he has been punished for maladaptive coping mechanisms.


It’s so very difficult to feel balanced in a school system where educators are all burnt out. I can honestly say that I don’t know any teachers who feel calm and alert and positive about their jobs–not one. And I know a lot of educators. This is no fault of their own. This is a sadly broken system. These teacher’s hearts are so big that they are trying to help their students through learning and development in difficult times while being bombarded with unnecessary stressors of their own.


Sam has been ‘consequenced’ so often that he feels that no one thinks he is capable. He tries so hard only to be told he isn’t trying hard enough. He is shut down. Sam has no say in decisions made about him, and has been given the impression that his school team doesn’t believe he can change. They just expel him when they can’t meet his needs.


Because Sam has never felt part of a school community, just an outsider that needs to better comply with expectations, he has never trusted nor felt trusted. He has never had his needs met (or even heard or understood). His maladaptive self-regulation strategies have only ever been seen as misbehaviours, so he has been punished when he uses them. It’s no wonder that he has difficulty with self-regulation when all attempts are punished!

What does Sam need, considering each of the above?

  • Someone to believe in him
  • Someone to understand that it’s not that he isn’t trying hard enough, he is actually trying TOO hard is. Sam isn’t lazy or unmotivated; it just seems that way because he is shut down from too much stress.
  • Someone to empathize with the stress he is under and help him to understand his own stressors, so he can reframe himself. Sam isn’t ‘bad’ or ‘incapable.’ It’s just that his nervous system is on high alert and preventing him from being his true, awesome self.
  • A community of learning, not necessarily a traditional classroom, but a group that he feels safe and supported within.
  • Relationships that are positive, not controlling: connection, trust, compassion, empathy.

I truly hope I can share some of this in a very gentle way with his family and school team when we meet.

Would you like to see the benefits of all in your care feeling safe, rooted, balanced, capable & trusted? Learn how to nurture a Self-Reg Haven with our Havens 101 Professional Learning Series available for both individuals and teams.

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