Lessons from the Early Years: Self-Regulation as a Basic Need

Self-Regulation appears in the Things to Consider column under each one our Conditions for Learning.  This reflects the notion that we recognize the importance of supporting our learners in the development of self-regulation.  It also appears in the Learning Skills section of our Provincial Report Card, so we understand that self-regulation is a factor that contributes to learning not just in the early years, where much has been written and where much learning has taken place around this essential condition, but throughout our lives.  We know it is centrally important to our capacity to learn…but…

What does self-regulation really mean?  And how do we create environments where it is fostered? 

Self-Regulation is defined on Edugains (Video Viewer’s Guide, pg. 3) as, “The ability to self-regulate, or to set limits for oneself, (that) allows a child to develop the emotional well-being and the habits of mind, such as persistence and curiosity, that are essential for early learning and that set the stage for lifelong learning. Self-regulation involves attention skills, working memory, and cognitive flexibility – qualities that provide the underpinning for essential skills needs throughout life, such as planning and problem-solving skills.”  In Think, Feel, Act, Stuart Shanker describes self-regulation, “In simplest terms, self-regulation refers to how efficiently and effectively a child deals with a stressor and then recovers (Porges, 2011; Lillas & Turnbull, 2009; McEwen, 2002). To deal with a stressor, the brain triggers a sort of gas pedal, the sympathetic nervous system, to produce the energy needed; and then applies a sort of brake, the parasympathetic nervous system, in order to recover. In this way the brain regulates the amount of energy that the child expends on stress so that resources are freed up for other bodily functions, like digestion, cellular repair, maintaining a stable body temperature, or paying attention and learning”.  The complexity of these explanations led my thinking to the place where I wondered, What is self-regulation NOT?

I discovered that it is NOT:

Compliance:  Self-regulation involves a child behaving in a way that they want to behave, not because of external reinforcements.  Compliance is the notion of supressing behaviour to avoid punishment or to obtain a reward.  “Self-regulation is not about compliance with external authorities –it is about establishing one’s own internal motivation for adapting to, and understanding emotional and social demands. In fact, for many children, requiring compliance undermines their own abilities to self-regulate.”  (Pascal, Every Child, p. 4)

Self-Control:  Self-control is about resisting an impulse. Shanker, in Think, Feel, Act describes this piece for us, “There is a tendency to think that “self-regulation” is just another way of talking about self-control. We have long seen self-control as a sort of muscle: as having the internal strength to resist an impulse. Self-control is clearly important for children’s ability to deal with the tasks and the temptations that they are confronted with every day (Moffitt et al., 2011; Duckworth & Seligman, 2005). But self-regulation represents a very different way of understanding why a child might be having problems with self-control, and more important, what can be done to help that child.

How do we foster environments that promote self-regulation?

Choice:  “The most effective self-regulated learning may be promoted by ensuring that children can make their own choices. Not only does choice promote self-regulation it contributes their metacognition. In other words children are developing knowledge about how to use their own thinking.”   (Adapted from S.Robson (2010).  Choice is embedded in our Conditions for Learning through the notion of choice in task; how might we recognize the greater importance of choice throughout learning?  Makes me think about inquiry as a form of play – the choice that is embedded in inquiry, the respect for the nature curiosity and wonder of learners at all ages, and the honouring of their individual choices in inquiry –  thus of how critical the ability to self-regulate is to purposeful play (which results in learning for all age groups)!

Positive Behaviour Support:  “For a long time the prevailing idea was that you can get a child to do what you want by using punishments and rewards; but the more these behaviour management techniques have been studied the more we’ve come to recognize that not only is this very draining on the adults who have to play the role of disciplinarian, but, as far as the child is concerned, they often don’t work very well and in too many cases they can actually make things worse (Pink, 2011). Self-regulation, on the other hand, represents an attempt to understand the causes of a problematic behavior and then mitigate those causes, rather than simply trying to extinguish the behavior.”  (Think, Feel, Act, pg. 2)

The Three Key Steps to Self-Regulation  (Taken Directly from Think, Feel, Act)

  1. The first step is to reduce the child’s overall stress level. This can be as simple as making sure the child is well-slept, getting nutritious foods, and lots of exercise; turning off the radio or the TV in the background if we suspect that our child is sensitive to noise; or limiting the amount of time spent on computer or video games if these seem to leave the child agitated. Just going to school can be stressful for a lot of children, and even very simple aids like a disc for their chair at school or a weighted bag for their lap or some playdough to squeeze while doing lessons can be calming.
  2. The second step is to become aware of what it feels like to be calmly focused and alert, and what it feels like to be hypo- or hyper-aroused. A large number of Canadian children lack this basic aspect of self-awareness. (how are we teaching this?)
  3. The third step is to teach children what sorts of things they need to do in order to return to being calmly focused and alert and what sorts of experiences they may need to manage or even avoid. The world our children are growing up in today is one where self-regulation is becoming ever more critical. But research is now showing that sports, playing a musical instrument, being involved in the arts, yoga, and martial arts like Tae Kwan Do, all provide enormous benefits for self-regulation (Diamond, 2011). Self-regulation is every bit as much about doing all those things that increase a child’s energy levels as learning how to deal with situations or stimuli that the child finds very draining.

You can see that Think, Feel, Act was a key resource in my learning – remember that there are a number of videos on this site as well.  Stuart Shanker also wrote a book entitle Calm, Alert and Learning where these concepts are explored further. Edugains has a terrific set of videos that we have also used.

In my mind, self-regulation may actually be a “basic need” – recall that I was wondering about the notion of “Learner’s basic needs being met” in our Conditions for Learning under Responsive Instruction.  I have so many wonderings about our work in Self-Regulation; the Early Years session that took place in November had this as a focus and from the response of the educators present, we need to dig even more deeply into fully understanding and learning how to increasingly foster self-regulation in our schools and classrooms (principals can note that this will be the focus of our learning in March).  We might begin by seeking out evidence of how we are assessing the self-regulation learning skill on our report cards…as this self-assessment may provide evidence of potential gaps in understanding, may help us to figure out how to scaffold self-regulation throughout the grades, and may help to communicate the message that, “everything I need to learn about learning comes from the Early Years”.

Until next week…



8 responses

  1. The Second Step Program has a wide range of activities/strategies to promote self regulation from K-8 which are in complete alignment with what Stuart Shanker describes as self regulation.

    I would suggest that if self regulation is going to be the focus of our learning in March we use the Second Step Program to support our learning.


    1. Great idea Dave. Perhaps we should be asking George, Hillary and Melissa to join us as they are championing Second Step!


  2. When I was reading about the 3 key steps to self-regulation I was getting hung up on Step 1 and the pieces that we as classroom teachers can’t control (amount of sleep, attendance, parental support of education and/or the student, etc.). This observation made me reflect that sometimes as teachers we worry about these things too much and that we need to focus on the things that we can control (making sure that the times that they do spend with us, they feel safe, secure and respected).

    For my supposition some of my thinking and reading is around how we can make the effort of learning seem worthwhile for those students that may be self-sabotaging, or disinterested. These students are often the ones about whom we as teachers think, “If they just tried harder/paid more attention/etc.” they would be just fine. This had made reflect about the role that self-regulation might also play in this….so, thank – more questions! LOL!


  3. Thanks so much for reading and responding Jody! I was thinking about #1 as well. When I first started as a principal I wasn’t all that keen on breakfast programs. Throughout the course of the first few months, I began to realize that these programs were MUCH more than just providing breakfast – they were vital to many students ability to engage in learning. I noticed that some students who arrived at school and missed the breakfast program experienced challenges in the first few minutes of school. Taking them to the breakfast program, sitting with them while they ate breakfast, and talking with them about their strengths was a great way to begin the day. I quickly realized how essential this time together with food was – it allowed children to re-enter the classroom and re-engage in learning. I also sometimes think about the busy classroom environment and am recognizing that the physical environment also plays a key role in the development of self-regulation – thinking about bringing the natural environment into the classroom, ensuring that we don’t overuse bold colours, and take care with what is on our walls (think about the many environments that we see in Think, Feel, Act, and the K-2 Connections site and how they use neutral and natural tones and materials) are all key factors that impact self-regulation for some students. More to think about!


  4. I think that this is such a key piece and as one of the areas that we assess on the report card it is important that all stakeholders have a clear understanding of what self-regulation is. I know that as we embark on second semester we need to be clear with our students about the learning skills and what success looks like in each of the learning skills and specifically “self-regulation”. We know that if students are not able to self-regulate they will struggle in the years to come. It is so important that we lay a foundation in the early years to support students in subsequent years !
    In terms of our environments – we need to create a blank canvas for our students. The environments that we see are natural environments but it is through our students that we co-create the environment with our students – they bring the colour to their world.


  5. Excellent points Heidi! The work that your elementary school engaged in around “the blank canvas” that was co-constructed and co-negotiated with students was inspiring. Thanks for reminding me of this piece…got me thinking and I truly appreciate that.


  6. thanks Nicki


  7. I have been thinking about the notion of students being aware of what it feels like to be calmly focused and alert, and what it feels like to be hypo- or hyper-aroused. As educators we need to explicitly teach this concept to your students and discuss what it feels like in each of these states. One of our teachers at MMPS uses the engine theory as a tool for students to self asses how they are feeling that day. The teacher will ask the students (morning and afternoon) “How are your engines running? ” The students will then indicate to the teacher using a visual aid on their desk, Yellow (running to low- Hypo aroused), Green (calmly focused and alert), red (running to high- hyper aroused). Once the students are aware of their need they then have different strategies that they can use to enter into a calmly focused and alert state.

    If the class as a whole is hypo aroused a strategy that you might want to try is meditation. It may sound silly and might take you out of your comfort zone, but is worth trying with students of any age. We demonstrated it to start our staff meeting and all the participants agreed that they felt more calm and relaxed when the session ended. It only takes a couple of minutes and is worth trying something new and engaging with our students.


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