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By: Arlene Robinson

Rules, rules rules… we expect all to comply to the rules of school. This is for the best of everyone right? Sometimes the rules support, but not all of the time – particularly when the rules are not accessible in the moment.  Sometimes they do not even support the adults. 

I want to back up a bit and then I will get back to compliance. We talk of the importance of relationships and routine as they build the feeling of safety and security that is needed to complete our ‘jobs’ as educators and students. I need to know that my supervisor has my back and my staff need to know I have theirs. This is also true for parents and is most particularly true for students. So as we start each school year, we review with alarming frequency, and reinforce constantly …. the rules. And many students can follow the rules, learn in every moment of every day, absorb the learning and bring it back to build upon the next day. Many of these students are intrinsically motivated and simply love learning for the sake of learning. Others are successfully extrinsically motivated and work towards pleasing parents and/or teachers. And some want to engage in the expected manner in school, but can’t. Why?? 

Think of a successful student. They work hard, do well in school, rarely cause a moment’s grief, are helpful, have friends, and their report card reflect this. Thought of someone? Now remember that week they weren’t feeling well. Did they do as well? How about the day they had a fight with their best friend? Or the week following the loss of a pet, or when they were worried when gramma was in the hospital. And perhaps there was that one concept that stumped them—all potential, albeit limited, moments that disrupted their learning. And, following the provision of support, we dismiss the disruption as part of growing up and learning. And they follow the rules. Yes they do as they have the energy to do so, and the resiliency to recover from the experiences they have had. We can expect compliance from them—that is easy. They have the energy to engage their thinking brain. They can control themselves because their self-regulation is in order so much of the time. When they experience stress they are able to recognize it, reduce its impact, and reflectively work to restore as they build their natural resilience. 

But what about the other child? The one who seems to never comply with expectations. Why? We can take a look at their life experiences and find reasons, and you may call them excuses. But their whys matter too. 

Self-control is energy expensive. Self-regulation (listed on the education plan as a need) is in need of development. So we, as the adults, recognize the need for support when children display their maladaptive regulating strategies. What are these? Moving when they should be sitting, talking when they are to be listening, leaving when they should be staying, touching others when they should not be, not completing work… You know the list and it goes on. So the less compliant children need support, and the adults create the support. How? Maybe stickers (extrinsic), shame (intrinsic?), consequences… etc. Why is it not working? Why can’t they just…. Comply? 

Well-meaning, educated adults know that managing from an authoritative standpoint is healthier for all. Student voice is important. But we stop listening when the student doesn’t follow our expectations. We resort to a control mindset {insert authoritarian tone of voice giving directions} to manage or help. Does it? We strive for engagement in our classrooms. We resort to compliance when push comes to shove. So now what? We all have our strategies—healthy self-regulated choices and others that are actually maladaptive which we choose anyway. (Chocolates taste good and I really needed to get this done. I will ‘deal’ with the sugar fallout…). Some of our students are operating with a huge amount of stress. 

Let’s go back to our ‘normal’ child with their stresses and consider how their stresses fall into each of the five domains of Shanker Self-Reg: biological (not feeling well), social (friendship conflict), emotion (loss), prosocial (gramma) and cognitive (hard concept). 

When we look at the why for children who struggle there are often many, many stressors across and between the five domains. This may place them in a state of allostatic overload (the effects of excessive amounts of stress on the ability to transition through the arousal states) and cause them to see the world through negative bias (when perception becomes distorted due to excessive stress, which causes our limbic system to become primed to look for threats and danger everywhere). When students get caught up in this we often see a stress cycle, which plays out as even more behaviour—behaviour that is not compliant. 

The first child has balance—responses and strategies to support self—where the second one does not. And we may see the struggling child trying (really hard?) and possibly slipping into that same control strategy that adults model, but with less success.

When we step away from the adult need for the child to simply comply with adult expectations and really see, hear, feel, know the child, we can lend our calm. Stepping away from the adult expectation of simply doing what I expect, and bringing the child’s needs and desires to the equation will also reduce our stress (who likes to fail at control?) further enabling our calm to be present. As educators engaged in reflective practice, we too build our own responses and strategies to enhance our resilience so that we may stitch together the threads for and with the child. What does that look like? As Dr. Stuart Shanker supports us to consider as part of Leadership for Self-Reg Schools, it looks like Self-Reg. 

The key to this shift from an expectation of compliance is Reframing. We have so many key phrases that elicit an expectation of compliance. These may be contributing to our negative bias about the inability of the child to meet our definition of success and also our own ability to facilitate learning. When we reframe these biases, we can both shift our energy and ease the tension that compliance elicits.

The other practices of Self-Reg are also here as opportunities for all. We pause to Recognize the stressors that both the child and the adult are experiencing. We can even consider the stressors present within the environment and for other children. 

We seek opportunities to Reduce the impact of stress both for ourselves as educators and for the child. 

Reflective practice supports us to recognize when we are calm, to notice when the child is calm, and help us learn how to support the child to reach calm. It is in a state of calm that both learning and the facilitation of learning happens. 

We practice Responding to restore energy and build resilience. This is done day by day and moment by moment. Are we noticing? Do we know when our energy reserves are low and our tension is high? Is our expectation of compliance a drain on energy and a contributor to our tension?

When we move from labeling the behaviour to recognizing the needs—both personal needs and the need to develop skills—through Reframing we build the opportunity for deeper relationships within our schools and our communities. Within caring relationships, the need for compliance dissipates and the fostering of growth pervades. 

So…summing up our Reframe of compliance. I don’t think we really want children to mindlessly follow directions. What do we want? A child who can take the learning we are facilitating and apply it globally to life and further learning. Yes we have rules to smooth the path to get there. But can we move from them being top-down to collaborative and cooperative, where student voice and need (and not just our own) is of primary concern? This would be particularly true for students with more diverse needs. When we meet these needs, we will meet the needs of all. It is not about what I need you to do, it is what can we do together to elicit that calm energy needed for learning.

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