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By: Brenda Smith-Chant

This is a question I’ve heard a number of times lately.

To me this is really a call to, “Prove it, science geek. Prove that Self-Reg works.” I understand why people are asking that question. We live in the age of “evidence-based” programming and policy. But proving that something “works” is not as straightforward as people think.

First of all, we need to remember that Self-Reg is a not a program. It’s a framework. To a scientist, a framework is a model of human behaviour. A model explains the methods, processes, and factors involved in an aspect of behaviour. In our field, models are usually proposed to explain a set of observations. For example, the famous Jean Piaget developed his model of children’s cognitive development based on years of observations, careful studies on children’s thought processes, and the work of past researchers and theorists. His model (at the time) was able to explain these past studies and observations. So, it is possible to test the scientific validity of a model or framework. One crucial test of a model is “how well does it explain what we already know?”

As a model (or framework), Self-Reg provides a very effective and informative way to explain past observations, incorporating what we know about stress, the brain, learning, and human development. So, in terms of scientific rigour, this test is covered. Dr. Stuart Shanker has an excellent rationale for his Self-Reg framework, based on decades of research in biology, medicine, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, education, etc. This evidence is cited in every document and referenced in every presentation he (or TMC) is involved in. If you want the background I can get it for you.

The next test of a model (or framework) is: Does it predict what we see in new observations? To test out a theory, you must identify a component, change a factor that is considered to be important in the theory and look to see if the outcome is the one the model predicts. In developing the Self-Reg framework, Shanker and his colleagues conducted studies to explore whether the model accounted for new observations. And it did. Those findings are published and can be cited too. And, at the Self-Reg Institute we are conducting and planning to conduct more research to test out this framework. Our work to test the explanatory power of Self-Reg model can and must be done—just as Piaget’s theory was tested in over 60 years of research by thousands of researchers. Carefully controlled studies are being done and will be done on Self-Reg for decades.

Here’s the thing. We really don’t want to sit on the Self- Reg framework and test out every possible aspect of the model as researchers – telling people to “hold on until we have all the questions answered.” So, we are already advocating to bring Self-Reg to the real world, mainly because Self-Reg accounts for so many observations in a wide range of studies. However, we do need to consider the question is “does the Self-Reg framework yield effective interventions ?”

The question of the impact of Self-Reg applications is the one that we hear the most. Let me assure you that I believe any intervention done on humans should be assessed for ethical reasons. Herein lies a problem. Because Self-Reg is a framework and not a program with a curriculum or program guide with a set of specific “how-to and must do” items to adhere to faithfully, its impact will be dependent on how well the framework was understood and applied.

You can paint a bunch of walls blue, have a bike in a corner, double recess time and incorporate yoga, but unless these activities are based on a careful and clear understanding of the stress response and stressors in the environment of interest, it isn’t Self- Reg! To be sure that we are truly assessing Self-Reg and not some misunderstanding or misperception of what Self-Reg means, we need to first help front-line people understand the framework and how it applies to their specific setting and the unique people in it. Self- Reg is a new paradigm in many fields. It isn’t surprising that people need to learn it. So, one of the first research questions I am asking is,“What do people understand about the Self- Reg framework and what is the evidence that the framework is the basis of the intervention”?

I strive to approach research with a skeptical and critical perspective. So I don’t feel threatened when people criticize Self-Reg or ask if there’s any proof that it works. Those are legitimate questions that show us where we need to communicate better about Self-Reg and also direct us to the research we need to do.

But in the meantime, there is lots and lots of hard science behind Self-Reg and how it helps us understand the impact of stress on human development, behaviour and learning. We can say that with complete confidence and show people the evidence.

This article was originally published in the July 2016 edition of The MEHRIT Centre’s Self-Reg Newsletter.

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