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By Casey Burgess, Ph.D.

When my children hand over their report cards, they always point to the self-regulation section, roll their eyes, and say, “I KNOW, Mom. That isn’t what self-regulation is.” They sure are learning.

One time, my youngest child surprisingly earned a “needs improvement” in self-regulation, one of the six essential learning skills assessed in Ontario. What a conversation we had about that situation! She is rather feisty and animated overall, and my later discussions with the teacher confirmed that she expected compliance with sitting still in her classroom, because she thought that was a requirement for active attention to class content.

The problem was that this child does not sit still. Ever. If she does, all she is focused on is controlling her movements, so she is unable to pay attention to what is being taught or said to her. She did not need improvement in her self-regulation skills. When she was moving, she WAS self-regulating. She was moving around because she learns best when she is moving around. When asked to focus on sitting still, she often dissociates from the environment around her. It’s stressful for her, and the extra stress made it even harder for her to learn. We did work on helping her to self-advocate with her teachers, explaining what her needs are in order to learn effectively (in respectful ways) so she could work with her teacher to find a way to provide movement within her learning experiences.

The essential learning skills (below) have continued to be an area I often reframe with my own children (and sometimes, when they ask, their teachers).

One problem is that it has been more than a decade since this document was published, and recent advances in neuroscience have shown us a new way of thinking about learning and development. We have shifted in the self-regulation research away from behavioural and cognitive control frameworks towards more neurological, relationship-based developmental ways of learning and developing in the education system.

Many educators are now moving forward in how they are thinking about some of these skills because of the advances in the research. I have seen educators reframe many of these essential learning skills. When they do, and when they look at them using a developmental, relationship-based Self-Reg lens, we might see these kinds of thoughts instead (shifting away from self-control instructions towards reflective, process-based questions):

Responsibility: Use the five steps of Self-Reg (reframe, recognize, reduce, reflect, restore) to maintain red/blue brain balance and feel good! When we do, we take responsibility for our actions, and make responsible decisions naturally. Reduce stressors and use restorative practices that work for YOU in order to do work that you are proud of. We all do well WHEN WE CAN. What does it take for you to do well?

Organization: Arrange your personal space and time in a way that allows you to reduce stress, restore energy, and stay in a balanced red/blue brain learning state. What kind of environment do you feel and work best in?

Independent Work: Use the five steps of Self-Reg, including knowing when asking for help can help to reduce stress and maintain balance that makes you able to learn and grow independently. What helps you to get your work done on your own?

Collaboration: How are you feeling? How do the people around you seem to be feeling? How can you share your calm with them to help them feel better? How do you think you can connect with them to help you feel at your best?

Initiative: Use the five steps of Self-Reg whenever you feel you need them (lots of times throughout the day). That way, you can think about what works for you and make adjustments to maintain enough balance that you WANT to get started on things to learn and grow. What makes you feel like learning?

Self-Regulation: What are the things that make your brain or body feel good or not so good? Think about things that affect your senses/body, your emotions, your thoughts, your social relationships, and your sense of fairness. When do you feel your best? What things do you do to restore your own energy, so you are ready to learn?

Self-Reg vs Self-Control

I wonder what it would take to reframe these essential learning skills across each school, board, and ultimately, at the Ministry level where perhaps updated language could be helpful? Perhaps a first step is a bottom-up process where educators advocate for these reframes, as more and more educators become involved in Self-Reg work and update the ways they understand and assess each essential learning skill. In the meantime, every educator may wish to consider the red/blue brain balance of their students rather than focusing on compliance, because students who are regulated don’t tend to have difficulty with compliance. Ultimately, using a Self-Reg lens may result in well-regulated students who are more easily able to demonstrate each one of these essential learning skills.

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