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By: Nancy Niessen

When I began formally learning about Self-Regulation I was an educator in the public school system looking for ways to better support my students. In particular, I wanted to find more ways to help students with perceived behavioural needs. I quickly realized that Self-Regulation was as important for me and my life as it was for my students. Anyone learning about Stuart Shanker’s Self-Regulation will be familiar with this phenomenon: it’s not long into the journey before we realize that the journey starts with us.

Fast forward several years and I’m now retired from teaching. My interests have shifted to include the elderly and those who interact with and care for them. Self-Reg is equally important for the elderly and their caregivers as it is for educators and students.

Let me start by sharing that my life includes my 94 year old mother who still lives in her own house. She is able to do so because of the support that my partner and I provide for her. I am the person who gets my mother to her medical appointments. My partner and/or I take her grocery shopping each week and make sure that her garbage and recycling get put out on Sunday evenings.

Odd jobs are typically done by my partner. I’m the one to help her with Christmas and birthday shopping. One of us gets her to the bookstore when she is out of things to read. Mom, or “Gram” as she is most often referred to, participates in the give and take by baking cookies for us and the grandkids, cutting articles out of the paper that she thinks will be of interest to us, saving magazines for us to read, giving us plants from her garden and providing gardening advice.

What I have noticed about my interactions with my mother is that my own Self-Regulation is a significant factor in determining how our encounters will go. The terms “limbic resonance” and “coregulation” come to mind. Shanker’s expression, “Calm begets calm,” plays out time and time again for me. If I am well-rested, clear-headed and in a relaxed state, my interactions with my mother typically go well overall. If I am head-full, tired, rushed and/or have any other myriad of stressors in play, I tend to be less patient with my mother.

She has an abundance of her own stressors, including hearing loss, visions issues, increasing social isolation, concern about living alone and how long she can continue doing so, being a burden to me, etc. so it is of paramount importance that I be at my best. I am the co-regulator. Unless I’m not…

When I find myself in a state of Low Energy/High Tension, and interaction with my mother has been less than ideal, it’s important to reflect on what happened—with her and with me. I need to remember compassion for both of us, and after some time to restore and recharge my energy I can try again. Doing a check-in about where I am on the Thayer Matrix before seeing my mother can be helpful so that I’m aware of potential traps I might fall into. Sometimes, it is in the reflection afterwards that I see how my place on the Matrix impacted our connection.
Much of what we might think of as coming from TMC and self-reg.ca is focussed on education and the educator/student relationship or the parent/child relationship.

However, I’m finding so many parallels and connections to confirm that Self-Reg is ageless. Self-Reg applies to all of us and to all of our relationships, whatever our age. Reframing allows us to look at our own behaviour and that of our elderly parents with “soft eyes”. It allows us to look at options for what is happening vs being stuck in blame mode, frustration, anger or whatever mode it is that we find ourselves in. The science of self-regulation allows us to more knowledgeably navigate challenging situations and changing relationships with compassion—for both ourselves and for our elderly relatives and/or clients. Self-regulation is truly for everyone and, as Dr. Shanker suggests, it’s never too late to learn.


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.

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