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By Jennifer Abannat, alumni of our Self-Reg in Early Childhood Development program

This is Jennifer’s third blog for TMC. You can read her first two blogs here:

Navigating the Uncharted Seas of Parenting and Caregiving: A Journey of Self-Regulation and Discovery

Hope

I have been very fortunate to be participating in The MEHRIT Centre’s Self-Reg in Early Childhood Development certificate program for the past 4 months.  Asels we concluded our last learning module this past week, we were asked to reflect on our experience and share with the members. 

One of my fellow Early Childhood Development program participants made a comment in her post that I haven’t stopped thinking about “children are the reason we are all here.”

This was my comment on her final post, “That says it all and if we can always remember this, then the next generations will not have to work so hard to heal. Generational Self-Reg experiences can be passed on to promote well-being, rather than adversity as so many generations before.”

Why I Practice Self-Reg

For me, this serves as a reminder of why I practice Self-Reg.  It’s not just this incredible certificate program in early childhood development. Nor is it solely about absorbing the wisdom from Stuart Shanker’s books throughout the years. It’s not just attending the incredible Self-Reg summer symposiums (if you haven’t attended, I highly recommend them). And it’s more than the array of parent and professional webinars, both free and paid, podcasts, and community engagement through the various social media channels offered by The MEHRIT Centre. It’s the ongoing process of learning and applying Self-Reg. It’s not just another “theory” to try.  Self-Reg provides practical solutions for the myriad of situations we encounter while working with or being around children.  

Self-Reg is a framework that supports caregivers, parents, families, educators, and anyone who is with or around children who may find themselves not understanding what they are observing or experiencing with a particular child or group of children.  I truly believe Self-Reg is a way to understand behavior that may otherwise leave us confused and unsure, for any reason.

Self-Reg and Stress

Self-Reg starts with the 5 domains of stress: biological, emotion, cognitive, social and prosocial. Stress can be present in any of these domains and often in more than one of these domains.  If there is one thing to take away that is seared in our hippocampus filing cabinet in the brain, it is that stress is most often the underlying reason for “behaviours” we may observe in a child.  

Self-Reg and Neurodivergence

This is especially true for our neurodivergent little learners.  They are wired differently. This brain difference leads to unique experiences. In our very fast paced, loud, bright, and overwhelming world, it’s no surprise that many of these children display the behaviours we observe. Understanding their distinct perspective is crucial in navigating these challenges. 

Learning Self-Reg has brought clarity to my 51 years on this planet.  I was that neurodivergent little one who grew up to be an adult who still experiences the world differently.  Only when I had my own neurodivergent children did I recognize my experiences mirrored theirs. Previously, I struggled to make sense of my feelings, facing shame and blame. My nervous system, hyper-vigilant and anxious, interpreted threats more than safety cues.

Reflecting on My Own Childhood

I didn’t realize this was the cause of some of my own challenges growing up. It wasn’t a personality flaw.  Rather, it was my nervous system responding to the stress from my surroundings and within my body.

I certainly hated the mall as a teenager when everyone else loved it.  I have never been a fan of movies at a theater. It’s just too loud.  I wore clothing based on comfort not style.  I was the only one wearing Birkenstocks in high school because they felt better on my feet.   If I was given a choice between going for a hike in nature or to Disneyland, I would pick the hike, or pretty much anything outdoors in nature.

How Self-Reg Changed my Parenting

When my youngest daughter was 11, we visited Los Angeles to drop off her older sister at a summer music camp. With some free time on our hands, I asked her what she’d like to do, and offered the suggestion of Disneyland (I didn’t want to impose myself or influence her decision). Despite the allure of Disneyland, her answer was a hard “NO”. Instead, she opted for a bakery tour across LA, showcasing her passion for baking. 

Remarkably, she had been mastering this art since she was 7, exploring the world of baking, techniques, and creative recipes. Even now, at 16, her enthusiasm remains unshaken. As her parent, I encouraged her baking journey from an early age, fostering sensory exploration, joyful messes, and endless laughter. Now, her unwavering passion for baking reflects her keen awareness of her own preferences and sensitivities. She embodies self-awareness and self-regulation, qualities every parent hopes for in their child. Witnessing her passion flourish brings us immeasurable joy. I’ve included some of her masterpieces in the images in this blog! These were all created when she was aged 11-14.

When I reflect on the parenting journey with my first two children and compare it to how I approached parenting my third child, the difference is striking. It was through raising my two eldest that I gained insights into alternative approaches.

My older children frequently communicated their overwhelming stress. While some professionals labeled these expressions as misbehaviours, I disagreed. It seemed unjust to assume they were intentional, bratty, or spoiled, warranting punishment to correct.

I didn’t see it that way. When I could see the stress in their eyes, the stress being held in their bodies, their posture, in their cries and their voice, I didn’t believe that they were just “acting out” or being manipulative.  That was not how I sensed things. 

So when I came across Stuart Shanker’s work, it truly was a light bulb moment as a parent.  His research and expertise validated what felt right as a mom with 3 neurodivergent kids.  Stress was overwhelming them.  

What stress?

Stress from so much around them.  The world to them was too fast, too loud, too smelly, too everything.  Crowds, unfamiliar environments and people, grocery stores, birthday parties, and school assemblies were just a few of the ordinary situations that triggered anxiety. 

This was something I could relate to.  I have many memories of experiencing the world much harsher than others. Even within my family, I wasn’t truly understood; I was simply deemed “too sensitive.” Every aspect of my experiences were brushed aside, and I was repeatedly urged to “get over it.” However, these were not mere thoughts or controllable actions. They were bodily sensations that surfaced, often perceived as threats, causing significant stress.

I didn’t know this back then, but when I began to “see my kids differently, I saw different kids.”  This goes for myself as well when I reflect on many situations as a child.  I see my experiences differently, and I see them as stress responses of a child who was experiencing a lot of sensory overwhelm most of her young life. The way I acted at times (often shutdown) was not something I had control over.  

I wanted to “be good”, but most often I would rather hide and not be seen.  I didn’t want to talk or be around most others.  This was challenging in school because if the teacher called on me to answer a question, I froze.  But this inaction was often perceived as defiant by the adult.  I wasn’t answering the question and “Why was I not listening?” the teacher would ask, in a stern voice.

When I learned how to reframe what I saw in my kids, it helped me to look through this new lens of behaviour as a stress response, and not as the behaviour of bad children (as many like to tell us). Many of my kids’ stresses were because of very sensitive nervous systems that simply could not find balance and could not modulate their environments or their own bodily experiences.

Sensory sensitivities pose numerous challenges in our daily lives, especially in overwhelming spaces like classrooms. For vulnerable children, this stress can disrupt homeostatic function, triggering a stress response often misinterpreted as misbehaviour. It’s a survival instinct, beyond individual control. Our bodies strive for balance unconsciously.

The Impact of The Self-Reg in Early Childhood Development Program 

The Self-Reg in Early Childhood Development program has enhanced my understanding of Self-Reg in and out of the classroom.  It has allowed me to be a better educator as well as a better parent through the extensive learning modules and through the collaboration and discussions with fellow program participants.  

Understanding that the behaviours we observe often stem from stress equips us to pause, wonder, and be curious. By recognizing stress signals, both internal and external, using the 5 domains of stress, we can identify its source. Addressing this stress is essential to restoring balance in individuals. Achieving homeostatic function in our brains and bodies is crucial for personal growth and in order to thrive.

Full Circle

This full circle idea of “see a child differently, see a different child” is what Self-Reg is about. By seeing a child differently, we are more capable to know the work always starts with us and our nervous system first.  We reframe what we think we are seeing, and this invites us to be curious and to dig deeper.  This is all about reducing the stressors our kids are experiencing and supporting them so they can co-regulate with us and find balance in their brain and body.

We are wired for protection.  But our brain and bodies also have an expectation for connections with others. This is what it is to be human.  It is our connection with others, nervous system to nervous system, that gives off cues of safety that help to restore balance in the body.  Our biological imperative is for survival, but the human expectation for growth and restoration is always about connection.  This is what the Polyvagal Theory has demonstrated.  

This is what Self-Reg has taught me over the years, but this Early Childhood Development program specifically filled in many areas where I had gaps in my learning and understanding.   Working with this amazing group of Early Childhood Educator Self-Reggers brought great ideas, community collaboration and added to my knowledge through learning from others’ experiences.  

It’s been a very uplifting and exciting time to fully embrace this work!   Because after all, “we are all here for the children.”  

If you get an opportunity to participate in this early childhood development program or another of the many programs or courses offered through The Mehrit Centre, I highly encourage you to sign up.  Our kids are showing us that we need to be different with them.  When we start with the questions, “Why?” and “Why now?”, we can begin to assess using all 5 domains of Self-Reg to help us identify all potential stressors for this individual.  This isn’t about a kid being a “bad kid”.  

As Stuart Shanker says, “There is no such thing as a bad kid.”  I remind myself of this every day and that every child can be successful. We just have to help support them in a way that meets their biological and neurophysiological needs.   

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